Unions and Corporations


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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87 Responses

  1. Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

    How about we get to the point where the GOP politicos can bitchslap corporations with as little trouble as Democratic politicos bitchslap unions, then we can worry about the “power” that unions hold?Report

  2. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    It probably also requires something like single-payer health insurance because right now we’re all slaves to our employer-provided healthcare.

    I’m not. I quit my job some time back and purchased insurance on the individual market. My premium is under $100 a month. I’m only 30, and I get that it’s more for older people or people with pre-existing conditions, but it could go up severalfold and still be a fairly small percentage of my total living expenses. Of course, if I were older, I’d have more money saved up.

    The idea that health insurance is the main reason people can’t quit their jobs strikes me as silly. The biggest problem with not having a job is that you don’t have an income, not that you don’t get a health insurance subsidy worth a fraction of that income you aren’t getting.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      Unless you’d been sick, or had been older but didn’t have money saved up.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        If I didn’t have any money saved up, then I wouldn’t be able to pay any of my other living expenses, either.

        My point is that for all but the very ill, health insurance premiums are a tiny to smallish fraction of total living expenses. The idea that health insurance is a unique obstacle to entrepreneurialism seems to me to be on very shaky ground. Do you also think that we need single-payer housing and single-payer food?Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Or had kids, or a wife who was dependent on it. That Brandon doesn’t “get it” doesn’t change reality. It’s nice, though, that he was able to find cheap insurance. I do wonder what his deductibles/copays are, and how he affords $100 + many times that (since his $100 is a fraction of his monthly expenses) without a job.Report

    • Avatar DarrenG in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      At $100/month, I have to seriously wonder about the level of coverage you’re receiving.

      Before making sweeping conclusions like your final paragraph, you might check into the cost of an individual policy for a married couple with one or more kids that’s as comprehensive as a typical employer-sponsored plan.

      As a professional in my 40s with a wife and kid, the presence or absence of employer-provided health insurance is a *huge* factor in my choice of employer, and pretty much eliminates self-employment as an option.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to DarrenG says:

        The coverage is adequate for my needs. There’s a $3500 deductible and $5000 out-of-pocket limit, which is fine because I want insurance, not a middleman for routine expenses. And the premium is actually offset by the tax savings for the HSA the plan qualifies me for, so I’m basically getting the insurance for free.

        Have you actually researched the cost of obtaining health insurance on the individual market? What would it cost you, as a percentage of the total of your other living expenses?Report

        • Avatar DarrenG in reply to Brandon Berg says:

          Looking it up online, a plan roughly equivalent to my current employer-sponsored plan, to which I contribute around $200/month, would cost just under $1,700/month.

          A $1500/month surcharge to work at a startup or go self-employed is a significant disincentive. It does appear that I could cut that surcharge roughly in half if I’m willing to go your route of a high-deductible-plus-HSA plan and jump through all the extra bureaucratic hoops and record-keeping that entails, but either way I would take a significant hit to net income without employer-provided health insurance.Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to DarrenG says:

            That’s about what I expected. Maybe a bit more. I don’t really see that it invalidates anything I’ve said in this thread.

            First off, you seem to be assuming that if you were self-employed, you’d be making what you make now, only without the health insurance. I don’t see any reason to expect that particular outcome. It’s not like your employer gives you an insurance subsidy as a gift because you’re such a swell guy. As part of your total compensation package, it comes out of your cash income.

            Assuming that you’d be just as productive on your own, you should expect to make as cash what your current employer is paying for your health insurance. Of course, in reality you might be significantly more or less productive, and you probably don’t know for sure what you’d actually be making. I mean, unless the nature of the market for whatever you do is such that you can accurately predict what your income would be if you were self-employed.

            Really, though, I would think that the uncertainty about how much you’d be making if you were self-employed should be a bigger factor than the health insurance costs.Report

            • Avatar DarrenG in reply to Brandon Berg says:

              You really think income is directly proportional, or even strongly tied, to productivity?

              In my field, going self-employed or working at a startup would entail a significant income cut initially in favor of the potential for much larger gains in the future.

              Without arguing my anecdotal situation further, your previous assertion that health insurance is not a significant factor in people’s employment decisions is just plain incorrect. The cost differential in the individual market does provide a strong disincentive for many people, particularly those with families or chronic medical conditions (even non-serious, treatable ones).Report

            • Avatar BSK in reply to Brandon Berg says:

              But this isn’t an option for all fields of work. I’m a teacher. I can’t start my own school. I suppose I could go the “mercenary” route and negotiate year-to-year with my current or new schools, eschewing the traditional contracts they use but, I have yet to find a school that function in this way (and I’ve only worked in privates, so there is no union to speak of). My last two schools have actually required that I have insurance, one way or another. In part because they have a strong incentive for me to be healthy (if I get sick, they still have to pay me and pay a sub) and because they offer the money they would put towards my insurance as salary if I don’t use it, but they don’t want people forgoing insurance for a salary bump (because of the aforementioned problem). So, not everyone has the options you suggest, not without making major other changes to their lives/careers, all of which are likely detrimental, at least short term, to income.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to BSK says:

                If self-employment isn’t an option for you, then my comment wasn’t about you. I was specifically responding to the claim that the cost of health insurance is a particularly insurmountable barrier to entrepreneurialism.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                … the cost of not having health insurance IS much more of a barrier than the actual cost of health insurance.
                I claim that many people do not qualify for private health insurance (including people with a history of visiting psychologists).

                But any barrier to entrepreneurs is tough, when you’re starting up. $1500 a month may not seem like much, but… many startups don’t make a profit for years…Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to BSK says:

                “I’m a teacher. I can’t start my own school.”

                Could you provide private tutoring services, or hire yourself as a consultant to homeschoolers who lack subject-matter expertise?Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to Brandon Berg says:

          Brandon, for any woman who has had a c-section, the cost is infinite. Preexisting conditions are a reason for termination of contract.Report

    • I’m only 30, and I get that it’s more for older people or people with pre-existing conditions, but it could go up severalfold and still be a fairly small percentage of my total living expenses.

      It might be impossible for someone who’s older and with certain pre-existing conditions to get insurance at any price.Report

      • In the state of Washington, at least, I don’t think insurers are even allowed to ask about pre-existing conditions if you’ve maintained uninterrupted coverage. And all states have COBRA, and most have high-risk pools for people who have been denied insurance on the individual market.

        And really, how many people meet all of the following criteria?

        1. Can’t obtain health insurance on the individual market.
        2. Are healthy enough to start a business.
        3. Want to start a business.
        4. Are ineligible for COBRA coverage due to employer size.
        5. Live in states which do not have high-risk pools and which permit insurers to ask about pre-existing conditions for people with continuous coverage.

        I can see how people who already think that single-payer health care is a great idea might regard this as a killer argument in its favor. But there are solutions to this problem that don’t involve socializing the entire health insurance industry.Report

        • In the state of Washington, at least, I don’t think insurers are even allowed to ask about pre-existing conditions if you’ve maintained uninterrupted coverage.

          Are you sure that applies to individual coverage? PECs never matter with group plans so long as you have uninterrupted coverage, but I’ve never heard of that with individual plans. I can actually think of scenarios where it would be unfair to insurance companies for this to be the case (get low-grade coverage until you need expensive medication, then change carriers with a more comprehensive plan).Report

          • I did some more research, and it turns out that Washington’s in the minority on this. All but a handful of states do allow insurers to ask about pre-existing conditions, even for those who’ve maintained continuous coverage.Report

            • Avatar A Teacher in reply to Brandon Berg says:

              In Michigan they can ask you, but they cannot deny you based on it. However they can charge you more if you have PEC’s, which as a totally unemotional math teacher I can understand given that PEC’s are known quantities that are ~going~ to cost money and cost it ~now~.

              Anyone can get diabetes. Let’s say that it’s 30%. So that means you have to charge people who don’t have it around a third of the cost of treating it to ensure that you have enough money in the pot for when one of them ~does~ get it eventually. But with a PEC you’ve got a 100% chance that that person has that condition and so you need to be sure that there’s money to treat it.

              The only way around that is to have a system, insurance or otherwise, where everyone pays the same ammount regardless of health risks, life’s history, and family medical, lifestlye, etc.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to A Teacher says:

                since when does a c-section 20 years ago cost you money now? Since when does a miscarriage 20 years ago cost you money now? Since when does a history of Major Depression cost you money now?Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kim says:

                It doesn’t cost the money now, but it increases the likelihood – if only by correlation – that it will cost them money in the future. Not unlike how a bad credit history doesn’t cost auto insurers any money if you’re paying up front, but it correlates with the likelihood that you will get into an accident or otherwise make a claim, which is why insurance companies charge people with bad credit more. I’m not defending the practice on fairness (to the consumer) grounds, and in fact I think the practice should be banned or at least made a lot more transparent when it comes to credit/auto, but it sort of makes sense in its own way.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Will Truman says:

                yeah. it makes them money (corporations are clever like that, also immoral). just like having a red car in your past means that you pay more on auto insurance.Report

              • Avatar A Teacher in reply to Kim says:

                While I won’t comment on the morality of it, I can say that at the end of the day it’s the job of corporations, profit or non profit, to not go broke. At the very least, a non profit health insurer such as Michigan BC/BS has to be sure that when they assign someone a premium that those premiums total out to what they’re going to spend that year on people’s care.

                So they do a LOT of stastitics. They look at a LOT of factors. They try to figure out how much they’re going to spend, and on whom, and then spread it around as best they can.

                The thing is if they don’t try to charge some people more, such as asking smokers to pay a higher premium do to an increased risk of cancer, then those who do live healthy lives a) pay more than they otherwise would to be sure there’s enough money in the pot and b) complain about having to pay for other people’s bad life choices.

                Which itself isn’t totally fair. Few women have the kind of control over a vaginal birth vs Cesarean. It’s kinda up to the baby what’s happening there, having been there when the choice was made with my son. So you can’t ~blame~ them for it, and it seems horrible penalize them with higher rates since men don’t usually need to get any kind of such procedure done. But this opens a totally different debate:

                What factors are we allowed to morally consider? Or are there none and everyone, regardless of lifestyle, history, family, and personal choices, should simply pay the same flat premium as everyone else? Because at the end of the day, the $ in has to at least match the $ out….Report

        • Avatar BSK in reply to Brandon Berg says:

          Again, you ignore people who work in industries that prevent or severely limit the opportunity to start their own business. There is also a limit to how many “small businesses” a society or community can support. If every construction worker decided to open his own construction business, the market would become over-saturated and would not be able to support all of them. You could call that the “free market at work” but, regardless of what you call it, it demonstrates the limitations on people to take the route you have.Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to Brandon Berg says:

          Brandon, I like single payer. I want a better solution. But having a c-section 20 years ago is a preexisting condition. And COBRA costs 1000 at LEAST.
          It was my udnerstanding that all states allow companies to ask about pre-existing conditions if you’re not getting group insurance. I don’t live in washington.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kim says:

            And COBRA costs 1000 at LEAST.

            The cost of COBRA depends almost entirely on how much you and your employer were paying before (there can only be a marginal administrative upcharge on top of that). Outside of that, it’s not really a set amount. My personal coverage on COBRA last time around was about $350/mo. My wife’s was closer to $600 from her job. Obviously, it easily enters four digits when a couple and kids are involved. And I would imagine in some parts of the country it may be that way for only one person if it’s a place where health insurance is expensive. My COBRA insurance was out of a southern state (I wasn’t living in said southern state, but my employer was based out of it) and my wife’s was in the Pacific Northwest (where we were living). So it’s going to vary.

            The second big problem with using COBRA when starting your own business is, the first being that comprehensive insurance is expensive to begin with, is the general lack of flexibility. You’re limited to whatever options your previous employer provided. So in addition to comprehensive insurance being expensive, you can’t easily change to catastrophic insurance unless you live in a place apparently like Washington where they can’t ask about PEC’s (and you’ve had continuous coverage).Report

    • I think on the whole people who keep their jobs for the health insurance have children or spouses in mind—or are sick or with a preexisting condition.

      Maybe you’re just way smarter than everyone else though.Report

    • Avatar RTod in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      On vacation these past two weeks and have been checking in sporadilly, but I couldn’t this slip by.

      Almost all group insurance programs I am aware of are somewhere between $500-700 per month if you include the employer paid portion. I’m not sure the conditions surrounding your coverage, but suspect it is not actually this cheap – unless you are in something like a catostrophic tporary policy, which is common for young people between jobs but does not require renewability.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      The biggest problem with not having a job is that you don’t have an income, not that you don’t get a health insurance subsidy worth a fraction of that income you aren’t getting.

      I read the comment, but this (quoted above) seems to be the extent of your argument.

      Is it really this thin? This entirely reverses the traditional horse/cart ordering of things. If people find themselves in such dire straits that an income of any kind is more important than health insurance, the system has already failed not only them but everyone who is an observer of that situation.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Brandon Berg says:


      Person A quits his job to start a small business. Except he don’t, because he can’t get private health insurance, so he would die from lack of cheap insulin/HIV drugs/etc.

      Person B wants to be a writer! Except she hears about all the writers’ inability to stave off medical expenses, thus causing the deaths of either themselves or their loved ones. (we’re talking good, published writers here, the kind who write books.)Report

      • Avatar NoPublic in reply to Kim says:

        Lots of writers (even professional ones) have other jobs.
        Very very few make it to the level where writing is all they do for a living.
        Go to a writer’s workshop sometime. Very often the first words you hear are “Don’t quit your day job”.
        See also musicians.Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to NoPublic says:

          … yes, because the ones that don’t have day jobs die. or their wives do, and then they stop writing. I’m referencing particular people here, some of which are quite recently dead. (not that that statement is intended to imply that you’ve been oblivious, because you haven’t.).

          I would like to make the point that if writers could write for a living, without fear of healthcare problems, we’d get more books and ideas. Which, imho, would be a good thing.Report

          • Avatar A Teacher in reply to Kim says:

            I would love to be a full time writer. I do not pursue that because of health care concerns. I do it because I fear an inability to support my family’s other needs such as food and shelter.

            Healthcare is actually low on my list of reasons I don’t try to write full time.

            However, in the name of full disclosure, one of my (until recently) points of solace with nutty crazy hours during the 10 months I work (because really I work most of June and the last week of August) has been that I have kick-ass health insurance and that itself is “worth” the significant less money I make in salary than my younger sister who has less post HS education by several years yet tops me in salary by 30%.Report

  3. Avatar Brett says:

    I wonder if you could have widespread unions that also functioned kind of like temp agencies today. You would belong to a union-agency that found you work, helped manage your benefits, ensured your pay, negotiated with potential employers, and helped you deal with abuses when they happen. If a significant chunk of the work force belonged to them, they’d have much more leverage to negotiate wage rates and benefits.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Brett says:

      I’ve actually been thinking a lot along these lines and have been mulling over a post on the subject. I actually wonder if we’re headed for a future where everyone more-or-less works for an employment agency. Of course, without the leverage you refer to, the agencies are ultimately agents for the employer because they need the employer a lot more than the employer needs them.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Trumwill says:

        Of course, without the leverage you refer to, the agencies are ultimately agents for the employer because they need the employer a lot more than the employer needs them.

        The leverage could be provided by the unions training and upgrading their workers so that workers remain skilled and outcomepete their competitors. This also has the added benefit of adding flexibility to the workerReport

        • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Murali says:

          The thing is… if the unions don’t train them, then they will go into debt training themselves at no cost to the union. Or they won’t, and the union could benefit from the shortage.Report

      • Avatar DarrenG in reply to Trumwill says:

        The main barrier to this is the same problem often encountered with outsourcing and offshoring — the destruction of institutional memory and specific domain expertise.

        There are still large numbers of positions where labor isn’t completely fungible with very large transition costs in changing out workers.Report

    • Avatar DarrenG in reply to Brett says:

      Sounds like you’re advocating for something more like the medieval trade guild system.

      Trade guilds, or their more informal equivalents, have persisted and worked moderately well in certain industries. The non-chain restaurant industry largely functions this way, for example.

      There are good reasons trade guilds mostly died with the industrial revolution, though.Report

    • Avatar Will H. in reply to Brett says:

      Actually, this is precisely the type of union that I belong to.
      There are several of them.
      They are known as “referral locals.” With this type, you receive a referral from a business agent. Last year, I worked for Proctor & Gamble, Ford, Bayer, and WE Energies.
      The other type, where you go to apply for a job at a company, is known as a “solicitation local.”
      Some unions have both referral locals and solicitation locals.
      The same local might operate by referral for some things and solicitation for others.
      My union is heavy into maintaining certifications, and the referrals are quite often by requesting specific certs. Some other unions, not so much.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    because in the system we have there is no reason not to support unions

    Certainly misogyny and racism are reasons to not support unions!Report

  5. Avatar b-psycho says:

    A hope of mine as an intermediate step was that the kind of insurance or pension benefits that unions fought for would be converted to something that the unions themselves could run, via converting the benefit from the employer to enough money to establish programs outside of any specific company. Not quite sure how to pursue that nowadays though, tbh.Report

    • Avatar Will H. in reply to b-psycho says:

      My union runs the pension directly. Part of it goes to national, and part of it goes back to the local.
      The insurance (ie, health & welfare) is administered through a separate entity. For my local, it’s administered through the National Employee Benefits Association in Jacksonville.
      How much is paid in is according to the contract of the presiding jurisdiction. Right now, I’m working through one of the Indiana locals. The H&W portion of the benefits package is $7/hr; $7.18/hr toward the pension. Earlier this year, I was working for one of the Illinois locals. There, it was $4.40/hr in H&W and $8.36/hr toward the pension.
      As for the employer, they simply pay it out and wash their hands of it.Report

  6. Avatar Renee says:

    In this post you advocate single payer as the remedy to our employer-provided healthcare slavery (even though, as you know, the employer-healthcare link is a government induced distortion in the market in the first place.)
    I’m interested because I find it hard to dispute the argument in your earlier post that, programs for the poor are poor programs and I do support basic welfare. Following the various links to your thoughts on healthcare I see that you support universal healthcare where the government pays the bills and you desire a system that makes use of a pricing mechanism and that is largely deregulated. But I can’t see how you can have a valid pricing system when someone else is picking up the bill. Or a centralized payment system that isn’t highly regulated. What are your thoughts on how to go single-payer and get the deregulated, price driven system you want?Report

  7. Avatar Kolohe says:

    I suppose the point of the graphic is not that the EPA has regulated jobs out of existence? 🙂Report

  8. Avatar Stillwater says:

    EDK back on the union train! Good news. Unions aren’t perfections of market efficiency, to be sure. But that isn’t a mark against em. At least if you’re actually keeping score.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Stillwater says:

      Presumably, only individuals are “perfections of market efficiency.” Unions, like any collective (including corporations), will reflect market inefficiencies more than they will create them.Report

      • Avatar Scott in reply to Chris says:

        Exactly, when corporations get together to fix prices that is bad but when people collude to set wages it is good thing. Let ‘s also not forget how unions skew the market when they prevent corps like Boeing from relocating to SC to take advantage of a cheaper labor market to increase efficiencies.Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to Scott says:

          … beggar thy neighbor strategies are not to be confused with actually cheaper markets. When you (voluntarily!) pay for something, you’ve got the right to be pissed that they’re stealing your job too.Report

          • Avatar Scott in reply to Kim says:


            No, without union wage extortion in SC, labor is cheaper regardless of any incentives a state gov’t may offer.Report

            • Avatar Kim in reply to Scott says:

              … because they’re using slave labor? Are you really trying to say that debtors prisons are a good idea?

              … or can we just say that some incentives that a state might offer could overcome “union wage increases”?Report

              • Avatar Scott in reply to Kim says:


                Boeing can escape union wage extortion by moving some of its operations to SC which frees up capital for other uses. I’m not sure where you get the debtors prison talk. Why should states subsidize union wage extortion by offering incentives to make up for it?Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Scott says:

                … debtors prisons are being demoed in the south as we speak. coming soon to a plot of land near you!Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Scott says:

                As we all know, if unions ask for higher wages under the threat of striking, it’s extortion.

                But, if corporations ask for tax breaks under the threat of moving their business, that’s just capitalism.Report

              • Avatar Will H. in reply to Scott says:

                The solution is simple.
                Make the shop in SC a union shop.
                Scale would then be according to the contract in place in So. Carolina; still much lower than in Washington.
                Bring in the Steelworkers or the SEIU or someone to organize the shop. Then they could simply pay prevailing wage.Report

  9. The post from E.D. was pretty broad and generic (I suspect on purpose to generate another rowdy League discussion) so I’ll just throw in my two cents:

    The biggest problem I have had with unions is that the ones that are catering to low and unskilled workers do nothing to push those workers farther up the food chain. What I have advocated previously is for those unions to form partnerships with trade unions to help move workers OR to create skills training programs to make those low and unskilled workers more valuable within their own industry.Report

  10. Avatar Scott says:


    I agree. E.D. talks about unions reforming themselves but I’ve never seen one do it voluntarily.Report

  11. Avatar Scott says:

    Here is another example of union honesty and how they cheat us.

    Union leader draws lucrative pension perk based on false information – chicagotribune.com

    • Avatar Robert Levine in reply to Scott says:

      “Here is another example of union honesty and how they cheat us.”

      I always wonder what the point of such anecdotes is. Unions are human enterprises, and as such are flawed. Are unions more morally flawed than large corporations, or universities, or the Catholic Church?

      Union finances are far more closely monitored by the government than are the finances of those entities, by the way. I’m president of a very small union (under $150K annual gross revenue), and the DOL came in a couple of years ago and spent several weeks combing through every receipt and every disbursement for the preceding 2 years or so, as part of a routine compliance audit. I don’t see the IRS doing that with churches or small businesses.Report