Where Have All The Unions Gone?

Where Have All The Unions Gone?

Unions are losing members and public sympathy, and instead of polishing off our ballads, we should ask why that’s happening.
Rachel Lu
By

Unions are going into decline, and liberals have begun working on their ballads. Ah, the mighty union! It once protected the little man and preserved the American dream. Then the big, bad Republicans came along and tore asunder the fabric of American life, all for the sake of their insatiable greed. Sing a sad, sad song for the dying unions; we shall not see their like again.

Pass the tissue! Just give me a moment to compose myself… okay, I’m better now. Am I the only one who finds it hard these days to get through an issue of The New Republic without getting emotional? I might as well be watching Lifetime television.

Why Liberals Love Unions (The Noble Reason)

Mockery aside, I’m not really so callous to the plight of the working man. But I know how much liberals love a conservative villain, and I hate to disappoint. Between Paul Krugman’s recent piece on how people aren’t androids, and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s New Republic lament about right-to-work legislation, I’m feeling positively grinchy. Evidently, we conservative writers are a wildly dehumanizing lot, interested in nothing but our pocketbooks, and happy to reduce flesh-and-blood people to nothing more than “assets” or “capital” or “fleshy service-providers.” (I made the last one up all by myself. See how inhumane I can be? I’ll sit back now and wait for the Charles Koch Institute to offer me a job.)

Evidently, we conservative writers are a wildly dehumanizing lot, interested in nothing but our pocketbooks, and happy to reduce flesh-and-blood people to nothing more than ‘assets’ or ‘capital’ or ‘fleshy service-providers.’

Sometimes, admittedly, conservatives do pretend to care about human-ish things like marriage and family. But Bruenig, in what she obviously regards as a clever move, tries to turn this conservative rhetoric against us by suggesting that we can’t really care about the collapse of the family. It’s surely all an act. How can she tell? By considering conservative hostility to unions.

That might seem like a bit of a non-sequitur, but the logic is actually pretty (read: much too) simple. Marriage declines when women are unwilling to marry the available men. Women generally don’t want to marry (or stay married to) men with no job or earning power. But low-skill workers are having trouble nowadays finding reliable jobs that can support a family. What secures steady working-class jobs? Unions. QED.

If conservatives truly cared about marriage, therefore, they would commence energetic efforts to save the declining unions.

This argument is an amusing combination of so-obvious and so-wrong. It’s true (as sociologist Brad Wilcox has recently explained here at The Federalist) that lower-income Americans need more stability and better job prospects. It’s entirely reasonable to draw connections between this lack of steady employment and the decline of marriage. (Although we should also be clear that the economy is not the only culprit in the collapse of the family. Our oversexualized libertine culture isn’t exactly helping to shore up the problem.)

Does it follow, though, that unions are a reliable remedy to these problems? Clearly not. In typical liberal fashion, Bruenig mostly just assumes that institutions can be expected to do what she wants them to do, instead of attending to the reality of what unions have become.

Why Liberals Love Unions (The Not-So-Noble Reason)

I care about the cultural and economic decline of lower-income America. I want everyone to have genuine, realizable opportunities to pursue a good life. But I still snicker at Union Ballads, especially when I get to the part where the Republicans are blamed for the decline of organized labor in America. This is just pure silliness.

Unions promise to deliver the votes Democratic candidates need to get elected, and in exchange, Democrats divert rivers of taxpayer money in their direction.

Yes, Republicans hate unions. That’s because unions have for decades been a major tool for the Democratic Party to use taxpayer money to buy themselves votes. Sometimes this happens through a trading of favors: unions promise to deliver the votes Democratic candidates need to get elected, and in exchange, Democrats divert rivers of taxpayer money in their direction. It’s shady and not really in the spirit of by-the-people-and-for-the-people democratic rule. But that’s actually the least offensive form of cooperation between Democrats and unions. Don’t even start on the amount of money that ends up flowing right back into Democratic campaign coffers.

An opposing political party that didn’t point out the flaws in this arrangement would hardly be worthy of the name. At this point, crying about the Republicans’ anti-union stance is fairly childish. If it offends you, start looking into government options other than democracy. (And before anyone attributes this little rant to my elitist anti-worker hostilities, I’ll just note in passing that I’ve made very similar speeches to fellow academics, whose intense politicization may well spell the demise of the universities, for similar reasons. If you want to build an enduring institution, it may not be wise to throw yourself so deeply into partisan politics that half of America can’t wait to sign your death certificate.)

That the Republicans want to destroy unions is thoroughly uninteresting. In the normal give-and-take of a democratic system, making the anti-union case is effectively their job. But that’s been true for a long time. The far more interesting point is that, in recent years, Americans have started listening to the anti-union case. Unions are losing public sympathy, and instead of polishing off our ballads, we should ask why that’s happening.

Unions are broken in a myriad of ways, but the problems can helpfully be separated into two categories. First, unions are riddled with corruption, which is a predictable result of their lack accountability to any external party or goal. Second, unions have simply become obsolete. It’s in their nature to be anti-adaptation, and inflexible institutions can only survive for so long. They’re dinosaurs, which have been kept on life support for far too long already.

Coercion, Not ‘Organization,’ Is the Problem

Union apologists of course love to stress the upsides of the union model. Unions work with communities in a grassroots way. They encourage workers to band together and provide mutual support and care. They help the less powerful to voice their needs and concerns to the rich and well-connected.

Unions want to ‘organize’ in something like the same sense that the Romans ‘organized’ the ancient world.

Is anyone opposed to workers being “organized” in that sense? Conservatives love grassroots institutions that bring people together. I often hear liberals casually suggest that right-to-work laws have “banned” or “outlawed” organized labor, which is of course wildly untrue. Right-to-work laws don’t “ban” worker organizations, nor do they impinge on anyone’s freedom of association. By all means, let’s organize! Form communities! Provide mutual support!

Unions want to “organize” in something like the same sense that the Romans “organized” the ancient world. (Actually, that’s not a very good analogy; the Romans were guided by a great deal more vision and purpose.) Unions control and coerce. Quite often this is done to the benefit of the powerful (union bosses, politicians) and the detriment of the ordinary worker (or the even-more-unfortunate unemployed man). Public-sector unions are even more obviously exploitative. In what sense is it “helping the little man” when well-connected public-sector employees “negotiate” with Democratic politicians for my children to pay them six-figure pensions until the day they die? That looks to me like the epitome of the big man getting his pound of flesh while the little man gets screwed.

Right-to-work laws are not anti-organization, but rather anti-coercion. I appreciate that this is genuinely corrosive to the existing order, and that the loss of union influence can affect innocent people negatively. That, unfortunately, is one of the realities of a changing and evolving labor market: in the transitional period it leaves some people high and dry, and the people who are most immediately injured tend to be the poorest, the most unskilled, and the least-connected. In the long run, though, the demise of coercive and corrupt institutions should free us up to explore other forms of worker organization, which might genuinely empower workers while also making them responsible for some goal other than the material enrichment of their own members.

We need to experiment with forms of organization that are more effective at bolstering both workers themselves and the economy as a whole.

A fundamental problem with unions is that they are not accountable to anyone except their own members. Where the worker guilds of medieval times tended to the good of the profession as well as to its contemporary practitioners, today’s unions fight only for themselves. It’s always dangerous to empower people to take without laying requisite obligations on their shoulders, and modern unions are a good cautionary tale in this regard. At this point, they’ve gone far past the point of “responsible stewardship” of their power.

But however much we hate unions, conservatives should still stress that we’re not in any sense anti-organization. It’s good and natural for people with shared professional interests to organize themselves, voice their collective concerns, and support one another. In opposing unions, we’re really not trying to reduce flesh-and-blood humans to individual “worker units” with advertised “skill sets.” We just need to experiment with forms of organization that are more effective at bolstering both workers themselves and the economy as a whole.

The World Moves On

Even apart from their corruption, unions are a bit like technology: they have a built-in tendency towards obsolescence. It’s not just because humans are fallen and tend to abuse their power. It’s because unions are by their nature anti-adaptation. They’re supposed to protect ordinary workers from the vicissitudes of economic change, shifting administrative staff, influxes of new immigrants, and so forth. Modern economies being what they are, rank-and-file workers sometimes need “stabilizing” influences in their lives, and unions are meant to provide that. To some extent, they have done so. But non-adaptable organizations don’t last forever. At some point they simply get too far out of step with the broader structures of their society, and they have to be rejected. That’s where the unions are today.

Unions regularly stand against developments that would look positive to an outside observer.

Unions regularly stand against developments that would look positive to an outside observer. They oppose technological or other changes that would make work more efficient (and in many instances also safer, more pleasant, or more environmentally friendly) because they want to protect human jobs. That’s understandable given their limited interests, but there are obvious long-term drawbacks to empowering organizations that are intrinsically reactionary.

Another kind of example can be seen in the fight over benefits. Public-sector unions still press for archaic perks like fixed-benefit packages. The public is unsympathetic; why should they open their wallets to supply petty bureaucrats with goodies that nobody else gets? Of course the union reps have their talking points, but at some point you have to face the reality that your sense of entitlement is rooted in an archaic perspective that the rest of the world already junked. You have to adapt or die, and unions seem to favor “die.”

Those inclined to grieve should notice the silver lining: human ingenuity has a way of surviving the demise of particular organizational structures. It’s true that poor and less-connected people tend to need stabilizing influences to cushion the impact of economic and social change. Let’s be solicitous about looking for ways to meet that need. That would be a much better use of our energies than eulogizing the unions.

Rachel Lu is a contributor at The Federalist. As a Robert Novak Fellow, she is currently researching criminal justice reform. Follow her on Twitter.

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