On Trades Unions

We recently saw a huge debate about the role of public sector unions in Wisconsin.  In my view, the good guys won in the end, with a trouncing of the leftist public sector unions, a state supreme court election, and federal court decisions that indicate that the victory is likely to remain in place.   Even the leftists’ recall effort was thwarted, thankfully.

So now the Obama regime has attempted to tilt the scale towards the unions again, this time for private-sector unions.  First we have the radical National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) attempting to tell a major corporation where it may (or may not) produce its products.  In this case, Boeing has a clear case for overreach on the part of the NLRB.  But in a move largely ignored by the leftist press, the NLRB has also proposed wide-reaching changes in labor laws that would clearly favor unions over employers.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I have a very personal bias in labor matters.  First, I have been a member of three different unions, in widely different industries.  In each case, they have actually done me harm—and also did harm to many of my colleagues.  I’m also opposed to labor unions (both public and private sector) for political and philosophical reasons.   But most of all, I’m opposed to unions because of their bullying and coercion.  When I was “invited” to become a member of the Steelworkers, it was difficult not to notice that the union steward was accompanied by the biggest and toughest guy in the plant.

My philosophical objection is based on the principle of self-reliance.   I have also been an independent consultant for more than 10 years.  I negotiated my own prices, and negotiated other conditions myself—and my clients were some of the largest multi-national corporations in the world.  I believe that I gave them good value for their money—and they must have thought so too, because my services were in continual demand.  Union members, on the other hand, have so little faith in their own value that they resort to mob action to get their way.

I do think there’s a difference between public and private sector unions.  An hundred years ago, you could make the case for a private-sector union and the advances they made for workers in the steel mills, coal mills, and heavy industry in the United States and elsewhere.  But today, their harmful effects are obvious: overpriced labor has closed most of the steel mills, much of the heavy industry, and is close to destroying the domestic automobile industry.   Public sector unions, on the other hand are an unmitigated ill.  A recent article by James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation in the New York Times noted that “The founders of the labor movement viewed unions as a vehicle to get workers more of the profits they help create.  Government workers, however, don’t generate profits.  They merely negotiate for more tax money.  When government unions strike, they strike against taxpayers.  F.D.R. considered this ‘unthinkable and intolerable.’”

It is also interesting how many of the unions today (mostly on the private-sector side) act in contravention of the wishes of their membership.  Take, for example, this story of an Ohio Education Association member whose husband was running for political office—as a Republican, and the union ran attack ads against him.  As she put it, “in effect, [they] are using my union dues to attack my husband!  This is a new low, even for the OEA.”

Public-sector unions have one feature that makes them far worse than their private-sector counterparts: they end up taking enforced dues from government workers, and then using the dues directly for campaigns—essentially using the union as a money-laundering enterprise.  In short, taxpayer money goes more-or-less directly to subsidize Democrat campaigns.  (Yes, these are generally Democrat political campaigns, although not invariably.)

And, of course, we cannot ignore how the unions destroy jobs.  A 2009 Heritage Foundation study, “What Unions Do: How Labor Unions Affect Jobs and the Economy”, also by James Sherk, noted that a pattern holds true in many industries:  “Between new companies starting up and existing companies expanding, non-union jobs grow by roughly 3 percent each year, while 3 percent of union jobs disappear.[26] In the long term,  unionized jobs disappear and unions need to replenish their membership by organizing new firms. Union jobs have disappeared especially quickly in industries where unions win the highest relative wages.[27]  Widespread unionization reduces employment opportunities.”

In my opinion, with the many union missteps we’ve seen in recent months, conservatives have an excellent opportunity to make fundamental changes to labor and campaign laws.  And it is clearly time to rethink what the relationship between government, labor, and businesses ought to be.

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