First, full disclosure: My father was a proud Teamster, member of Local 384 in East Norriton, Pennsylvania, rising from truck driver to shop steward to business agent. I remember hearing that he could have been elected president of the Local if he ran against his ticket in the next election, but he wouldn't do that. This was in the 1970s. My mother was a Steelworker, working for Superior Tube in Collegeville, Pennsylvania for 22 years. She broke a glass ceiling there, being the first woman to hold a quality control job on the shop floor. Finally, while my undergraduate major at Penn State was officially Liberal Arts, my concentration area was Labor Studies, which was (and still is, I believe) taught from the union point of view. Alas, I could never get a job in that area, since when I graduated it was still legal to discriminate against women. I have also never been a member of a union myself.
All this is to say that I am steeped in union history, in the benefits the unions brought to this nation. I firmly believe that unions can be a good thing, a strong counterbalance to the forces that drive companies to wring every last dollar out of every single transaction, whether with their customer or their employee. But that's not the whole story, so let's run through it.
The Good: Without unions, we would still be working 12 hour days, seven days a week, with no paid holidays, no paid vacations, no pay raises. The youngest of children would be toiling away in unsafe factories alongside their parents. The power of unions changed all of these. And in that, unions -- along with a reasonable system of regulations -- can be that brake we need on unfettered capitalism.
While union power has waned considerably in the last decades, particularly with the rush to offshore manufacturing, this "check" is still needed to ensure that workers are treated fairly, that the benefits of their labor do not simply go to the few, that they are shared in the form of decent pay, decent benefits, and so on.
The Bad: Union leaders negotiate hard, and they should. They are the representatives of all their members, and sometimes also of non-members who work in the organization, so they should bargain for all they can get for their workers. But union leaders also need to understand business more -- the financials, the trends, how to evaluate the viability of a business or state/city/municipality they work for.
Too often, unions continue to ask for things that really are impossible. In Philadelphia right now, the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has expired. The union has stopped asking for pay raises, agreeing that a pay freeze might be reasonable, but are not budging on some work rules, including adding all of 56 minutes to the work day, as well as on paying into their health insurance plan (Philadelphia teachers currently pay nothing towards it). I agree that it is awful to ask teachers to take a pay cut, as the superintendent has demanded, but the union has to wake up to the fact that there is a serious budget deficit that is not going to be filled by the city or the state, no matter how much they protest. It's a fact of life they have to deal with. They need to stop being obstinate and finally face reality, and then figure out a way to help close that budget deficit. I'm not picking on the teachers in Philadelphia; they do yeoman's work in unbelievably poor conditions. But all unions have to realize there are bargaining tactics and then there is the hard truth. If there simply is no money to be had, well, then there is no money to be had.
But I also want to point out that far too many companies demand all sorts of concessions from their workers while giving their executives raises. That also has to stop. Especially if you are asking for wage give-backs; these should start at the highest levels and only reach the lowest levels if it is absolutely necessary to keep the organization operating. After all, if the company shuts down, no one will be making anything.
The Ugly: Not all unions turn ugly, but the various building trades unions have been fairly notorious for decades, at least here in the Philadelphia area. There was a very famous 1972 incident in which a lot of property was destroyed at a building site, and the owner of the business was physically attacked. Much more recently, the Philadelphia area Building Trades Council was up to their old tricks of physical intimidation. This sort of reaction to the use of non-union labor has to stop.
The bottom line is that unions really are needed; they are a necessary counter to unconstrained capitalism. We should not be trying to eliminate unions. Let's face the fact that workers have a right to organize, and management has a right to negotiate with them. As business managers, whether in the private or public sector, we also have to stand up to the fact that we agreed to their contracts, so we can't then complain about them, or rail against those "greedy unions." But union members and their leadership also have to come to the table with reasonable requests, particularly in trying economic times. Negotiating to a win-win is much more reasonable than assuming it is a zero sum game that must be won at all costs. And physical intimidation and assaults are never a rational negotiating tactic or response to something you don't agree with.