Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Rights vs. Outcomes, or Unions and the Right to Work

Americans hate to be told what to do.

This shows up in a lot of ways, but what I have in mind is "right to work" laws. When a company is unionized, the union tries to set up a "closed shop", that is, they require workers to join the union and pay dues as part of the job. If you won't join the union, you can't have the job. A lot of people, including workers in unionized industries, really hate this. It seems to them like a violation of their rights, especially since unions engage in politicking that they may not agree with. Some American unions also have a history of ties to organized crime, and a lot of people still see them as mafia fronts. How would you have felt about being required to pay dues to the Teamsters when they were run by Jimmy Hoffa?

Many states have legalized this aversion to unions by passing "right to work" laws, which ban closed shops. Unions in "right to work" states are entirely voluntary, and as a result they are smaller, poorer, and weaker. Take a poll of Americans and you will find that a large majority support these laws; to people not engaged in the union movement, it just seems wrong that you could be forced to pay dues to an organization you don't support. And in the abstract it is hard to argue with this.

But when I look at the course of American history over the past century, I end up thinking that the union movement had a big part in creating many things we are proud of. I don't think there is anything natural about the middle class America of the 1950s and 1960s. So far as I can see, the natural outcome of unregulated capitalism is a society with sharp divisions between the wealthy few and the struggling masses. That is what we had in America before the union movement gained strength, in the Robber Baron era. And that is where we are heading now, in the post-Reagan era of union-busting and outsourcing. Our middle class society, it seems to me, was largely the creation of government regulation and strong unions.

In this case, as in others, I think we have to choose between individual freedom and social good. If we want to preserve the middle class society Americans value, we may have to limit freedom in many ways. What matters more to us: individual rights, or creating the kind of society we want?


pootrsox said...

There is a simple and rather elegant solution to the "but I don't support union political action!" complaints.

It's called Agency Shop. It is in effect in Connecticut among other states for teachers unions, at least.

Here's how it works: the local, state and national union determines the costs of each of its services: contract negotiation, contract policing, grievance processing, termination representation, etc etc etc. Those costs are added up.

Workers who wish to disassociate themselves from the actual union are *still* required to pay for the services the union renders (must render!) to/for them, such as the ones I listed. However, they may not be charged for other actions, especially political action.

I know it works; and more interesting, I have seen it bring non-members into membership once the union gives them some benefit (like defending them successfully on a grievance).

Now, what to do about a Jimmy Hoffa? Not sure. But *most* unions are not run by thugs and criminals.

Another area where traditional unions seem not to work is the area of start-ups, especially tech start-ups, at least according to folks I know who've been approached by unions in such situations and rejected them.

John said...

Very interesting.

leif said...

@pootrsox, i'm curious if the non-represented worokers get the same pricing (read: wage) as the represented workers, or if their wages are negotiable via traditional means. maybe this isn't a simple question to answer, but i'm interested to understand better how this is of benefit to the non-represented workers (except in the case where the union does them a favor such as your example in grievance defense).

tech start-ups are indeed a poor area for represented labor. typically the demands are very high, the risks are high, and it just isn't a place where represented workers 'fit'. my opinion: unions are a far more appropriate fit in utilities, manufacturing, agriculture and construction, where we saw horrible mistreatment of workers in past decades.

as john said in the main article, much of the benefits we all enjoy today were fought for, bled for, by unionized labor. those looking to abolish or chip away at this protection are unwittingly asking for a failure of the homeostasis we have grown accustomed to for decades.

leif said...

sorry for the typos. john, can you allow editing?