Labor unions are arguably the prototype for the progressive method of dividing up a society so that it can be centrally managed by powerful insiders. This argument is particularly strong around Labor Day, when the unions pat themselves on the back as the voice of labor. Unions represent about one-tenth of workers (and never more than two-sevenths), and they presume to declare themselves the face of workers.
Look at any legislative commission in Rhode Island, and you’ll see the pattern. Somebody from the legion of union lobbyists takes a seat to speak for workers; somebody from a think-tank-cum-progressive-activist-group speaks for the poor; a chamber of commerce sends somebody who ostensibly represents “the business community”; and maybe, sometimes, the legislature will pick an acquaintance of a legislator to speak on behalf of small businesses.
At this point in our economy’s history, about all a union can do is act as a special interest to limit competition from non-union workers and other things on which the society would like to expend its resources. That is, the main occupation of organized labor (other than pushing far-left social causes and electing Democrats) is to take work away from non-organized labor by political force. And the same is true of those other “voices” around the commission table. Those who speak for the poor will push policies that benefit their preferred segment of the poor and the policies that they want; those who speak for businesses will advocate for protecting and advancing their own business interests.
The truth about workers that progressives skip over in their characteristically dehumanizing way is that their work is valuable. That’s why anybody’s willing to pay for it in the first place. The more valuable their work is — the healthier the economy — the more leverage they have. Kevin Williamson points out that Ford implemented the five-day workweek a decade before its workers’ union was even formed, let alone a contract negotiated. An economy that can bear the extra expense of unions’ demands (let alone the extravagance of massive political organizations to do the organizing on behalf of the workers) is an economy that’s already headed in workers’ direction. Maybe unions sped up the process a century ago, or maybe they didn’t.
Be that as it may, the case for them is getting more and more difficult to make, due to technology and its partner, prosperity. For one thing, workers’ access to information and communication technology is without precedent in history. With just a little bit of expense and savvy, they can access information about everything from the financial health of their companies to comparable salaries around their region to workplace hazards to job openings and communicate with each other instantly around the planet.
Although it isn’t as flashy to talk about, technology has also improved productivity for mundane tasks, too. With just a few thousand dollars invested in tools — which can be done in a cumulative way, as they work — a few tradesmen could build a house from bottom to top without ever stepping foot in a shop or requiring more than their tools and regular work vans. Cutting tools are precise and efficient. Fastening tools, like nail guns and power screwdrivers, are so easy to use that, with a little bit of planning, a single carpenter could accomplish all of the construction by himself.
All a union can do is manipulate the government and, therefore, the local economy in such a way as to prevent that carpenter from competing with others who don’t want to work the same hours or take the same risks. Taking away that competition and driving up the cost of a construction project doesn’t create money out of the air or take it away from the fat cats, ultimately. Rather, it takes away resources from some other worker, offering some other service that won’t be purchased, or it takes away resources from research and innovation that could make workers more productive and life better for everyone.
Labor unions and their insider peers don’t want the world to get all innovativey and difficult to manage. They’ve got their leverage and their agreements. Organized jobs are their jobs, not their members’ jobs. They’re heavily invested in the past. As I put it in “RI’s Economic Development Shuffle:”
We all know Rhode Island should grow at a faster pace,
But we paid our dues, man, and we don’t want to have to race.
The good news is, there’s a central planning bus.
So we’ll call all our old schemes new,
And tilt the board more for just us few,
And pray the state will outlive us.
Unions want Labor to be a manageable classification. They don’t want labor to be something that human beings do. That’s because they want labor organization to be a critical piece of the puzzle that people who labor cannot live without.
To be sure, some workers are still subjected to terrible conditions, and some bosses still take advantage of those who don’t know any better or who, for some reason, have no options. (The flip side, of course, is that there are plenty of workers who do their best to take advantage of their employers.) The way to cure these ills, however, is to see each other as individual human beings, not as Labor and Management, each of whom needs a third-party advocate to work through government to plan out our interactions.