How Unions Work for the Economy

16 November 2022
Debater: Steven Greenhouse

A few weeks ago, a producer from Open to Debate formerly known as Intelligence Squared U.S., a media company that organizes debates, called me and asked me to explain a few things about labor unions and to discuss whether they help or hurt the economy. I was happy to oblige, talking to her for twenty minutes or so, and I was very surprised the next day when she invited me to participate in a debate in which the question would be “Do Unions Work for the Economy?” I was to argue, yes, they do work for the economy.


I hadn’t been in a formal debate since sixth grade, when I got my butt kicked. Back then, I argued “yes” in a debate in which the question was “Are Comic Books Bad for Kids?” After that debate ended, my comics-loving classmates gave me and my argument an overwhelming thumbs down.


During the week before the Intelligence Squared debate was to take place (at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village), I plunged into research to make the case that unions work for the economy and to respond to my opponent’s expected arguments that unions are bad for the economy.


My opponent for the evening was Allison Schrager, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and—unlike my earlier debate—it was an enjoyable experience to engage with her in such a thoughtful, good-spirited discussion. For those of you who are wondering—and of course not at all to boast—I will note that, according to the metrics Intelligence Squared used that evening, I won the debate.


Below in written, non-debate form, I seek to explain, in some detail, how unions work for the economy—while also seeking to rebut arguments that unions do not work for the economy.


For a moment, I should first discuss what we mean when we say “the economy.” When some people discuss the economy, they typically focus on things like maximizing corporate profits or boosting the Dow Jones Industrial Average. But the economy is about far more than that. The economy isn’t so much about corporations as it is about people—about delivering goods and services, not to mention income and wealth, to make people’s lives better.


Unions, by and large, help make people’s lives better. If unions are about anything, they’re about creating broadly shared prosperity, about lifting pay for workers and reducing gaps between rich and poor, about making sure that jobs are safe, and about assuring that people have health coverage and enough for retirement and also have work-life balance that gives them time to be with their families. In these ways, unions very much work for the economy.