Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day, Unions, and the Role of Government

In a free society, people obviously should be free to join unions and companies should be free to negotiate with unions. But that also means that companies should be free to resist union demands and hire non-union workers. There is no right or wrong in these battles, just as there is no right or wrong when McDonald's decides to sell french fries for a particular price. The market will reward good decisions and penalize bad choices. The only appropriate role for policy in this area is to enforce contracts and protect public safety. The government should not attempt to tip the scales either in favor of unions or in favor of employers. Our friends on the left, however, want the rules rigged in favor of unions, in part because of a reflexive desire for coerced equality. E.J. Dionne waxes nostalgic in the Washington Post for the good ol' days, when unions held significant power in the American economy.

Only 12.3 percent of American wage and salary workers belong to unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from a peak of about one-third of the work force in 1955. A movement historically associated with the brawny workers in auto, steel, rubber, construction, rail and the ports now represents more employees in the public sector (7.9 million) than in the private sector (7.4 million). Even worse than the falling membership numbers is the extent to which the ethos animating organized labor is increasingly foreign to American culture. The union movement has always been attached to a set of values -- solidarity being the most important, the sense that each should look out for the interests of all. This promoted other commitments: to mutual assistance, to a rough-and-ready sense of equality, to a disdain for elitism, to a belief that democracy and individual rights did not stop at the plant gate or the office reception room. You might accuse me of being a union romantic, and in some ways I am, having grown up in a union town, loved the great union songs, and imbibed such novels about labor's struggles as John Steinbeck's fine and underrated "In Dubious Battle."
There would be nothing wrong with Dionne's love letter to big labor - but only if he also agreed that the government should not take sides. Unfortunately (and predictably), that's not the case. Like other statists, he wants a thumb on the scales to help unions. He thinks he is being pro-worker, but his mistake is failing to understand that above-market wages (at least in the private sector) are not sustainable in the long run. Workers ultimately get paid on the basis of what they produce and if it costs $25 per hour to employ a worker and that worker produces $23 per hour of output, that ultimately is a recipe for unemployment. A good example is the American auto industry, which has declined in part because of a compensation system that is not matched by productivity. This does not necessarily mean that wages are too high. It could mean that productivity is too low. Some of that, to be sure, is the fault of government policies such as a corporate tax system that penalizes investment (thus making it more difficult for workers to boost productivity). But unions also have used their government-granted power to insist on absurd workforce practices. The picture below, taken from Mark Perry's excellent blog, compares union contracts in 1941 and 2007. With all the bureaucracy that is buried in those pages, is it a surprise that American auto workers don't produce as many cars per hours as their main foreign competitors?

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