by Paige Terryberry
Senior Analyst for Fiscal Policy, John Locke Foundation
From their origin, unions have maintained that they stand for workers’ rights. Unions are often romanticized as having ameliorated the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. But they have a blatantly racist past.
The infamous Davis-Bacon Act that still exists today, championed by unions as an “undeniable success,” was passed in 1931 amid the Great Depression “with the specific intent of preventing non-unionized black and immigrant laborers from competing with unionized white workers for scarce jobs during the Depression,” as reported by the Institute for Justice.
Unions also take credit for many important initiatives like ending child labor, creating safe workplace standards, and the 40-hour workweek. But those advances were made possible by the increased wealth and living standards generated by the competitive economy. Organized labor may have done some good for certain members and raised a purposeful awareness of improvements to working standards, but the very structure of organized labor is a cartel and their model is based on coercion of workers, not voluntary association. They are ripe for abuse and hardly harmonize with the free market, the real solution to poverty and the surest way to raise worker wages.
Despite their stated intentions, unions are not pro-worker. Unions strive to raise worker wages above the market rates. While that perhaps sounds beneficial, even Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary under President Obama, agreed that in consequence it increases unemployment to the detriment of workers everywhere. Where unions negotiate wages above the market rate, those employers will hire fewer workers. This releases more workers into other industries, and the additional supply of workers drives down wages in those fields.
Yet as our economy has become increasingly competitive, raising wages for union workers becomes even more difficult as companies cannot pass on ever-higher prices to consumers or further lower their profits. One powerful example can be found in Detroit, where the United Auto Workers union hollowed out the city and brought the auto industry to near bankruptcy.
Even so, the Left continues to champion unions. President Joe Biden promised to be the most pro-union president in history. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY-14) bragged that her Green New Deal would “create the most unionized workforce in a generation.” Given that union members generally vote for and donate to Democrats, such pandering is less surprising, even if it is shameful.
The “worker power” that unions champion is really union and political power. Workers have genuine power when they can participate in mutually beneficial exchanges in the market. And while unions claim to represent all workers, they actually represent only their members. Unions intermediate between employers and the managers who should know their work product best. To the union, workers are cogs in the wheel, revenue generators through union dues. Unions have even been known to fire employees through a lottery system.
Workers’ best protection lies in the free market economy, not unions.
Unionization does not give workers power. Often membership fees line the pockets of union leaders and politicians. In the 2020 elections, unions spent $1.8 billion on politics.
Moreover, as economics loses its authority in all institutions, unions are no exception. Unions have plunged headfirst into “woke” pursuits in the name of workers’ rights.
Over the past few decades, union membership has steadily declined. Yet with Biden and the progressive Left, unions have newfound support. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act is the latest push for Big Labor. The PRO Act would override right-to-work laws in the states that have them and force nearly 3 million workers to join unions. Unions would see their revenues almost double. This is a disquieting conflict of interest as Democrats are essentially generating more campaign contributions for themselves.
According to the American Bar Association, under the bill, “employers would effectively be gagged while union supporters would be permitted to use company systems to engage in persuasion” and “legalize and protect intermittent and partial strikes, which would create chaos,” among other harmful priorities.
The PRO Act would also violate workers’ privacy, giving personal details to unions without the option to opt out, and eliminate the intimidation-free secret ballot process.
It would expand joint employer liability to reclassify contractors as employees. This would destroy the franchise model by making them liable for workers they did not hire.
The PRO Act was passed in the U.S. House but failed to pass the Senate. Now the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is attempting to implement some of the bill’s provisions via the administrative process.
The NLRB proposed a rule that would reinstitute the harmful joint employer rule. The Wall Street Journal reported, “The rule is likely to hurt the low-income areas that progressives profess to champion. The franchise model extends finance to entrepreneurs, often minorities, who open stores in areas that the left likes to call ‘food deserts.’”
As Frederic Bastiat observed, “the law cannot organize labor and industry without organizing injustice.”
The pro-worker agenda is not found in unions. Instead, pro-worker reform looks like deregulation, tax cuts, and removing government and central planning obstructions from workers’ pursuit of happiness.