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Labor Day News of the WEIRD




Why are so many Americans wary of labor unions? Unions are, after all, good for everyone who works for a living. In occupations with a high rate of unionization all the workers get paid more, even employees who aren’t in a union. As rates of unionization have fallen, so has compensation. One might expect unions to be all the rage with anyone who ever put in a hard day’s work. But this is not always the case, particularly in the United States.

Americans have WEIRD attitudes towards unions – as in, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. The Canadian behavioralists who coined this acronym were interested in how sweeping generalizations about human psychology and economic behavior might be incorrect if they were based on only one kind of (WEIRD) people, and reviewed a number of cross-cultural studies to make their point. To scholars at the University of British Columbia, Americans often appeared to be the most exceptional; “outliers among outliers.”

What does this WEIRD-ness have to do with attitudes towards organized labor? Among many of their findings, the researchers noted that in experiments based on game-playing, Americans are eager to punish a luckier player if they think the other person has gotten an unearned reward, even if the punishment comes at a cost to themselves. WEIRD minds are also more individualistic and more likely to focus narrowly and analytically on one small problem while having difficulty seeing objects in a larger context.

These findings offer one explanation for the American tendency to attack union members on the grounds that they are getting something other people don’t have — say, higher wages or better health insurance — even if reducing this compensation is likely to hurt all workers over time. How could we not see this? Americans are looking for details, not the big picture, focusing on small analytic tasks instead of taking a more holistic view. We are also thinking about the problem individualistically, focused more on how to punish particular people than on identifying with them as part of a community.

Certainly there are many explanations for the demise of organized labor in the United States. There are the concerted efforts of conservatives to dismantle unions, for one thing, and the various missteps of labor itself for another. But the American mind-set and the peculiarities of our culture must be accounted for as well. Take the recent labor dispute involving Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers: The New York Times printed this quote from a passenger:

“Given the economy, I think the unionized people should be breaking even, not necessarily getting ahead…. There are a lot of workers out there who don’t even have a union or a pension or health care benefits.”

This opinion hardly seems unusual, and reveals a curious impulse to take away from union members rather than assert the rights of others to the same wages and benefits. Could this be an example of the WEIRDness identified by scholars? A willingness to punish? Check. At one’s own expense? Check. Without seeing the big picture? Check.

This type of myopic focus, sadly, seems to be more the norm than the exception. (Although in Los Angeles many newer working-class immigrants are also decidedly not WEIRD and comprise a noted exception to prevailing anti-union attitudes.) Many Americans plow forward with a studied disdain for labor unions, blithely undercutting our own opportunities in life, not to mention our children’s, but happy in the thought that we are ensuring that no one is doing better than we are in one little way at one particular point in time.

Weird, indeed.

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