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Why I support unions and the #BARTstrike

The BART strike is over: at the time of writing, they're expecting Bay Area Rapid Transit trains to start rolling at 4am, with a full service up and running by sometime in the afternoon. That's great news: the roads have been gridlocked here, and it's felt like the Bay Area has been brought to a standstill.

Nonetheless, I fully supported it.

The base salary for a train operator is $56,000 - a lot in most areas, but when a one-bedroom apartment runs for almost $2,000 a month, it's a salary that doesn't stretch very far. Particularly not if you have a family. And given that BART was running on a budget surplus, and worker wages were frozen for five years, it seems very reasonable to ask for more.

A second issue was safety: workers were asking for better lighting, and better protection against attacks. This request is all the more poignant given that two workers were killed on Friday.

I'm pleased that the union and BART management have reached a deal, not least because it was inconvenient to me: BART is by far the best way to travel around the area. What I'm less pleased about is the amount of anti-union propaganda I've seen from all over Silicon Valley. From tasteless jokes to threatening to replace them all with robots, it's not been pretty.

The purpose of unions is to allow workers to collectively organize and deal in a way that they could not as individuals. A company must negotiate for its best interests, by attempting to get the best value out of workers. It makes sense that the workers should have their own ability to negotiate with similar weight. Without this ability, wages, benefits and working conditions will tend to favor the companies rather than individuals. Here in the US, the labor movement was responsible for establishing the 40-hour workweek and the concept of having the weekend off, which were only ratified in 1940.

Unions have also been responsible for establishing the minimum wage, the concept of sick days, holiday pay, maternal leave, child labor laws and laws eradicating sweatshops in the United States. None of these are at all bad things, and while unions are not always a positive thing - just as company management is not always a positive thing - I'd argue that they're an important part of the fabric of working life. I have been proud to be a member of unions in the past, and if there was an appropriate tech industry union, I'd be proud to be a member of one now.

As Politico points out, a Harvard / University of Washington study showed that between a fifth and a third of the dramatic increase in income inequality in the united states (40%!) is related to the decline in union membership. While it's not the single cause, it's certainly hard to ignore, and points to a larger issue related to the evolution of workers' rights (and the perception of workers) in American society.

In January, Time noted that:

First, the fact is that when unions are stronger the economy as a whole does better. Unions restore demand to an economy by raising wages for their members and putting more purchasing power to work, enabling more hiring. [...] Second, unions lift wages for non-union members too by creating a higher prevailing wage. Even if you aren’t a member your pay is influenced by the strength or weakness of organized labor. The presence of unions sets off a wage race to the top. Their absence sets off a race to the bottom.

A victory for unionized workers, then, is a victory for all of us. Why on earth should a progressive industry like technology be against better conditions and pay for workers? I agree with Michel Hiltzik in the LA Times:

Blaming the workers for the impasse is a peculiarly one-sided interpretation of what's happening. Sure, you could say that 2,400 non-automated, human employees stand in the way of Silicon Valley's determination to "build something." But it's equally true to say that BART's nine board members and its general manager are the real obstacles to a settlement. Maybe Silicon Valley should figure out a way to automate them.

We're supposed to be making things better. As an industry, we may need to rethink what that means.