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Economic Recovery and Helping the Working Poor: Is Unionization the Answer?

Andrew Rosenthal’s recent blog post discussing the decline in the jobless rate from 9.1 pecent last summer to 8.3 percent in February suggests that a “new labor movement” could improve the lives of the working poor in the service industry. Rosenthal begins his post by explaining that the numbers are cause for modest celebration because as everyone knows, all jobs are not created equal: there are good jobs, and there are bad jobs. Many of the new jobs created fall into low-paying categories, and individuals are still having a difficult time obtaining better paid, more secure positions. While Rosenthal grants there is no easy solution to this problem, he suggests that unionization might enable workers in places like Walmart to improve their own lot through collective bargaining, just as Detroit factory workers did generations ago. “A job at Walmart with a pension upon retirement doesn’t sound too bad,” he writes. Are pay and retirement benefits truly the criteria for judging what a good job is? What about jobs that give employees the opportunity to learn economically viable skills that can better withstand the forces of international competition? How about a job that speaks to the dignity of the person by maximizing his or her strengths and talents? Setting aside an inquiry into the serious obstacles to union organization in a corporation like Target or Walmart, and the job loss that might result if smaller companies choose to shut down entirely rather than contend with unionized workers, I also have to wonder if Mr. Rosenthal has ever had a low-paying job in the service industry. The suggestion that better pay and retirement benefits might somehow make unskilled work more satisfying to those who have the desire and capacity—even if they don’t have the opportunity in a weak economy to obtain skilled work—is doubtful. Extra pay might make the job more palatable—it will certainly keep food on the table for a family—but it won’t take away the worker’s dissatisfaction if the job is boring and doesn’t come close to developing the worker’s abilities or broadening his or her opportunities for advancement. The working poor deserve better opportunities than “secured” work in unskilled positions; more money and benefits are only part of the solution.