by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
George Leef’s latest column for Forbes considers a left-of-center proposal to grant increased protections for union organizers.
[T]he NLRA sometimes comes in for criticism from leftists, who argue that it doesn’t do enough to tilt the playing field in favor of unions and collective bargaining. The common complaint is that although the NLRA does make it illegal for employers to discriminate against workers because of union advocacy, the legal processes under that statute are too slow and weak to deter employers from telling workers, “I don’t want to deal with a union and if I find you agitating for one, you’ll be fired.”
To remedy that purported defect in the law, Representatives Keith Ellison (D-MN) and John Lewis (D-GA) recently introduced a bill that would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to allow anyone who charges that he was fired because of his union advocacy to sue under the Civil Rights Act. …
… The Ellison/Lewis bill would write into law the ideas advanced in Kahlenberg and Marvit’s 2012 book Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right. One of their key arguments is that income inequality has increased in the U.S. because labor union membership has been waning for decades. (While that’s true for the private sector, public sector unions have steadily grown at the same time.) “Progressives” can’t resist the notion that we’d have a far more equitable society if only more workers (better yet, all) were represented by unions, which redistribute wealth from the rich business owners to the underpaid workers. Therefore, the law should do more to help unions.
But the idea that unions raise compensation for labor in general is just as faulty as the twin leftist belief that raising the minimum wage makes all lower-skill workers better off. What raises wages is increased production. Long before unions had any impact in America, worker pay was rising, due to technological breakthroughs and improved efficiency in the use of resources – both of which unionization tends to hinder.
Now, it’s true that on average, workers in unions earn more than do workers who are not, but it’s fallacious to reason that because on average workers who unionized in the past make more, all workers who unionize now or in the future will reap similar gains. Many decades ago, unions established themselves in those industries where there was little competition and high fixed investment, and extracted all the advantages they could – the auto industry for instance.
That was then. Today, there are few if any of those “opportunities” remaining, and when the unions do come knocking, workers often weigh the tangible costs against the promised but speculative benefits and say “no,” as in the VW Chattanooga case noted above. Moreover, most of the sectors where unions are pushing hard, such as fast food, are ones where high competition and the prospects for automation make unionization foolish.