Cartoon: What Have Unions Ever Done?

The beautiful backgrounds for this comic were drawn by the amazing Adrian Wallace! Thanks, Adrian!

Transcript of cartoon:

An elderly woman in a striped skirt, walking a dog, is being spoken to by a friendly young man, who is holding out a petition on a clipboard and wearing an anti-union t-shirt. The dog sniffs at the young man’s leg in a friendly way.

MAN: Ma’am, you should sing our anti-union petition… What have unions ever done for you?

CAPTION: Outlawing child labor.
The panel shows a young girl in a striped shirt playing on a old-fashioned scooter.

CAPTION: The 8 hour workday.
The panel shows a young woman at work, delivering packages, and whistling. She’s wearing a striped shirt.

CAPTION: Health plans and sick leave.
The panel shows the same young woman, now with a broken arm in a cast. A friend is signing the cast.

CAPTION: Maternity Leave.
The same woman in the striped shirt, now a little older, pushing a baby in a stroller.

CAPTION: Weekends
The same woman in the striped shirt, now older still, at a carnival, being pulled along by her happy daughter, who now looks about 10.

CAPTION: Vacations
The same woman and daughter at the beach, the woman now wearing a striped swimsuit, and looking older still, as she walks along the beach with a metal detector. In the background, her daughter, now a teen or young woman, is talking on a cell phone.

CAPTION: Social Security and Medicare
The same woman, now elderly and dressed as she was in the first panel. She has the dog with her, and is pulling envelopes out of her mailbox.

This panel shows the woman and the young man with the anti-union petition again. The woman has walked past the young man, her nose in the air in a “I refuse to even dignify that with an answer” attitude. The dog has the same attitude. The young man watches them leave, not understanding.

MAN: Ma’am?

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18 Responses to Cartoon: What Have Unions Ever Done?

  1. 1
    Kai Jones says:

    The thing I value most about my union job is that I can’t be fired except for cause or lack of work (and that’s technically a layoff, and I have recall rights). I can’t be fired because my boss’s new girlfriend or granddaughter needs a job, or because I don’t go to the office picnic (which is unpaid time on my weekend), or because I have a CHL.

  2. 2
    Ben David says:

    A lot of these were the result of legislation, and only marginally related to union activity.

  3. 3
    Sebastian H says:

    I’m pretty mixed on how unions actually function in modern society to be honest, but it is silly to dismiss their gains as “a lot of these were the result of legislation”. They were the result of legislation due to public pressure facilitated by unions.

    I tend to think that unions function best when they are advocating as a worker counter-weight to corporate power to help ensure that the worker gets some of the profits of the labor. They function worst in the public sector where they often act as yet another group trying to get more money out of the government (see especially police unions, fire-fighters unions, and prison guard unions). It isn’t that such workers don’t need protections, it is that union activity focuses in other areas. Or in the case of police unions focuses on protections that hurt their main mission.

  4. 4
    Copyleft says:

    With the decline of unions and the regulatory capture of government by corporate lobbyists, what is today’s counterbalance to corporate power?

  5. 5
    Chris says:

    The pure and noble hearts of CEOs?

  6. 6
    Ruchama says:

    My faculty union just got our university to back down from a plan that would have had us paying a whole lot more for health insurance, so I’m definitely grateful for that.

  7. 7
    Ben David says:


    They were the result of legislation due to public pressure facilitated by unions.

    Actually many of them simply duplicated laws enacted in England – which led America into industrialization, and thus encountered these problems earlier.

    The English child-labor laws were set in motion by inquiries conducted by progressive-minded peers and aristocrats in the early 19th century (when there was not even universal suffrage for working-class British *men*). Then they were then taken up by well-heeled American progressives.

    Similar story to the women’s suffrage movement. Not a mass movement at all.

  8. 8
    dragon_snap says:

    Hi Amp,

    I just wanted to say — aside from my appreciation for the ‘message’ of this cartoon — that I really really like the art/visual storeytelling in it. I love the way the woman is in a similar pose — but doing a wide variety of activities — in each of the panels, and how each of her outfits incorporates a major item of clothing with the same wide stripe pattern. Both of those things help maintain a strong sense of continuity as we see the main character throughout different stages of her life.

    And I think that additionally, they help show an integration between work, leisure, and unpaid social labour (in this case parenting) — that is, people have many things going on in their lives, but they never stop being a specific person, or a person in general. Given how dehumanising unregulated capticalism is, I think this is an important message about the value of unions/the concessions they won as well.

    Thanks for drawing such a visually fascinating and rich cartoon!

  9. 9
    delurker says:

    Who cares what unions did way back when? If you think unions were responsible for those things, then that applies to everyone else. That position is as sensible as voting for Trump because of what the Dems did in wwII. Though as you alluded to in your other cartoon, a self-righteous disdain for discussing a position based on a certainty that you’re right IS fairly common these days, so maybe it’s pretty accurate anyway….

    If you wanted to consistently claim benefits from old history, you’d have to walk around blaming Hilary for everything Democrats did. Or more to the point you’d have to disavow things like unions and minimum wage, based on their initial racist underpinnings. Otherwise you’re just cherry picking.

    And even if you concede that unions did those things first, there is no “but for unions…” here. All of those things would probably have been done anyway in the intervening 70 years. Maybe the results would be worse, or maybe they’d be better. Maybe you can thank unions for your employer-sponsored health care… or maybe you can blame them for the fact that unions’ unwillingness to accept tradeoffs makes it difficult or impossible to develop competing systems. Maybe you can thank them for a 5 day work week; maybe you can blame them for having too much monopoly, and perhaps we’d be working four 10-hour days instead. And so on.

    What you should talk about is what unions do NOW. Or at least what they have done more recently. If you want to imply that we would have child laborers without vacation or health care, in 2016, then you sure as heck own Detroit. (I guess that woman doesn’t live there.)

    So for example, if that woman is NOT in a union, then she might be surprised to find that her unions are supporting higher minimum wages for the whole area. Great! Clearly that means that the unions have a different view of supply and demand, and believe that there is no employment cost to higher mandatory wages…. Except, oops. Turns out that in some of those situations, unions negotiate for LOWER rates than the standard minimum, which suggests that someone in the union leadership has an MBA instead of a degree in social justice activism. Unsurprisingly, they want the benefit of a monopoly, and of better bargaining power, and they want other folks to be handicapped in competition by a larger minimum wage.

  10. 10
    Ampersand says:

    Dragon Snap,

    Thanks so much! I really appreciate that. I was really pleased with finding a way to use the same pose in every panel. :-p

  11. 11
    Ampersand says:

    Delurker: I tend to see it as about structural issues. It’s not a coincidence that labor rights gains tend to happen more in times and countries with strong labor movements. Without a strong labor movement, fewer benefits (in wages, in rights, and in other forms of pay) will wind up with labor.

    So it’s pretty irrelevant to today’s election that the Democrats were (say) pro-slavery at one time, because the structures that once made the Democrats pro-slavery won’t make Clinton pro-slavery in 2016. But the relationship between union power and gains for labor remains basically true today. Wages are flat, to a great extent, because unions are relatively weak.

    (The story you linked to is interesting, but a handful of hotel unions in California is an edge case, not representative of unions as a whole).

    As far as economic evidence shows, there either is no unemployment increase associated with the minimum wage, or whatever effect exists is too small to be reliably measured.

  12. 12
    Jake Squid says:

    All of those things would probably have been done anyway in the intervening 70 years.

    That’s pretty much the dictionary definition of “unsupported assertion.” Is there any evidence for this position? There may very well be and I’m just not aware of it, but…

    What you should talk about is what unions do NOW.

    Okay. $15/hr minimum wage (as you disparagingly mention).
    Fighting Uber’s exploitation of its workers.
    Organizing health care workers.

    And those are just three things off the top of the head of somebody who hasn’t paid much attention to the doings of unions.

  13. 13
    Ruchama says:

    It’s just anecdata, but I can definitely see a difference in how employees are treated between my old job (teaching at a public university without a faculty union) and my new job (teaching at a public university with a faculty union.)

  14. 14
    Jake Squid says:

    Oh! How could I forget organizing grad students/teaching assistants? That’s a fourth thing and it was just below the top of my head.

  15. 15
    Ruchama says:

    The union is a big part of the reason that this university hires full-time teaching faculty, and just uses adjuncts for their actual purpose of filling in the gaps in the schedule. And, for the first time since getting my doctorate, I am earning more than the median national income.

  16. 16
    Charles S says:

    The place I worked for (and which had no unions) was merged into a teaching hospital (multiple strong unions). My position isn’t union, but my vacation days jumped instantly from 10 to 22. I credit that to the nurses union (it might be due to the state employees union, but I think the nurses union holds more power and has a greater need for time off).

    Historically, the creation of the minimum wage and the prevailing wage laws in the US didn’t stop the Great Migration, and black people migrating to the North benefited from both laws (and directly from unions! The industrial unions in the CIO were integrated and actively working for civil rights in the 30s, even as the trade unions in the AFL remained whites-only). It took decades to fully open the trade unions to black people, but black people are now better represented in unions than white people are.

  17. 17
    Chris says:

    All of those things would probably have been done anyway in the intervening 70 years.

    This is satire, right?

  18. 18
    Jake Squid says:

    This is satire, right?

    Nope. Satire is dead. Funeral is Tuesday at 11 AM.