Freedom Foundation

Unions and The Participation Trophy Paradox

A friend of mine this week posted a meme on Facebook that observed, “I’m so old I remember when you had to actually win something to get a trophy.”

I couldn’t agree more enthusiastically with his point. I just find it ironic he should be the one making it, given that nowadays my friend is a proud and outspoken defender of an institution that embodies all the principles he claims to loathe.

He belongs to a labor union.

Mike (not his real name) and I go back to the sixth grade, when we both earned actual trophies as members of a pee-wee football juggernaut that went undefeated on its way to a county championship. Later, we were reunited on several high school football and basketball teams that, to put it kindly, generated more sympathy than hardware for anyone’s mantel.

These days my exchanges with Mike tend to focus more on our shared past than the different perspectives on organized labor that define our present. Consequently, I don’t think I’ll confront him directly about his meme.

Still, the paradox is striking. Mike bemoans a culture that no longer rewards individual excellence and openly discourages the sacrifice and hard work necessary for success by making no distinction between winning and losing.

But isn’t that precisely what unions like his exist to do?

Exceptional workers earn no more for their labors than their mediocre peers. Meanwhile, the lazy and incompetent are shielded from consequence by union leaders for whom productivity is completely irrelevant so long as the worker continues to receive a paycheck from which dues can be extracted.

Everyone gets a trophy.

In the real world — where at least 85 percent of American workers aren’t represented by a union that can either bully or corrupt its way to higher wages on their behalf — results still matter, and youngsters are done no service by politically correct edicts that bring the top down rather than the bottom up.

Mike’s seemingly conflicting views perfectly illustrate the Faustian Bargain with which all unionized workers must come to terms. From the outside, it’s easy enough to warn someone else about the cracks in the foundation of their dwelling, but it’s far harder for someone already comfortably ensconced on the inside to see the rot eroding his own castle.