Unions: Dems duck the big question

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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Is Wagner Act unionism a good thing or a bad thing? That seems like the key question raised by Michigan’s enactment of a “right to work” law. The main effect of such laws–which allow workers in a unionized workplace to avoid both joining the union and paying union dues–appears to be to simply weaken unions. Employers know if they locate in a “right to work” state there’s less chance their workforce will be unionized.

My answer to the key question: Wagner Act unionism might have been a good thing in the 1950s, when we didn’t face much in the way of foreign trade and the pace of change required to remain competitive was relatively slow. It’s usually a bad thing now. It may result in (perhaps temporary) wage gains for the lucky few who are in the union, but the cost– impeding change with work rules and obsessive negotiations, plus excess protections for individual workers, plus a tendency to overshoot the mark when negotiating future costs–outweighs the social benefits.  Thanks, in part, to Big Labor’s efforts, government has taken over many of the valuable tasks we used to need unions used to do–e.g. OSHA and policing workplace safety.  And unionism is a poor substitute for a tight labor market when it comes to guaranteeing economic fairness (including a fair share of profits) to individual workers–while, by inhibiting prosperity, unions make a tight labor market a more distant goal. We need to scrap the Wagner Act and replace it with a more benign form of employee “voice” in large firms.

Recent experience–e.g. in the auto industry, where two of the three big unionized firms went broke and required bailouts, while non-union firms are thriving–makes it especially hard to argue that the Wagner Act still contributes to the material well-being of the vast mass of Americans. Is there a Democrat who argues with a straight face that unionization makes firms more competitive? Who points to highly efficient unionized firms that are beating non-union rivals? Union defenders used to make those arguments. You don’t see them much anymore.

Today’s left-centered Web pundits increasingly don’t even try. Instead they deploy a variety of evasions, which have been on vivid display in the debate following Michigan’s adoption–by a fair vote of a fairly elected legislature–of “right to work.”

Example 1: Jonathan Chait doesn’t address the substance of the new law but rather the motives behind it. It’s not designed to lure employers to hard hit Michigan, he argues–it’s

“designed primarily to tilt the future playing field in [the Republican party’s] favor.”

Chait notes that “one should always be suspicious of theories that attribute malicious will to power to the other side” but, undeterred, goes ahead and does it anyway. He has a two-year old quote from the head of a “right wing activist” group to prove his point!

Now, I’m sure GOP operatives do love the idea of denying unions dues money and crippling their ability to influence political debates on everything from taxes to abortion.  (Maybe with good reason. In a state like California the union influence is suffocating in a way that it’s not at the national level.) Chait argues Dems don’t engage in this kind of willful crippling of the opposition because they have such a wonderfully “diverse” coalition.

The problem with this self-regarding theory is that instrumental political arguments have become the major defense of Wagner Act unionism. We don’t need unions because they help their firms, or their members, the argument goes, but because they’re big political players who contribute money and manpower to fighting corporate and GOP power in the Citizens United era. When I ran for office on an anti-union platform in 2010, this was the only argument I heard from my fellow Dems. (It’s not a crazy argument either.)  More recently, Chait’s journolistic colleague, Ezra Klein who–after saying a few implausible words about union members using their “voice” to promote “efficiency”–defends unions this way:

Finally, unions bring some semblance of balance to the political system. A lot of what happens in politics is, unfortunately, the result of moneyed, organized interests who lobby strategically and patiently to get their way. Most of that money is coming from various business interests. One of the few lobbies pushing for the other side is organized labor—and it plays a strikingly broad role. The Civil Rights Act, the weekend, and the Affordable Care Act are all examples of organized labor fighting for laws that benefited not just the unionized.

How is this not an attempt to “tilt the future playing field” in the Democrats’ direction? If you wanted to be demagogic you might call it a “will to power.”

But–whatever the mixed motives behind right-to-work laws, and whatever “tilt” they impart–what about the essential question of whether those laws are a good idea? True, it would be perfectly rational for liberals to decide that maintaining labor’s political clout was so important, on a host of issues, that it would outweigh the intrinsic costs of stronger Wagner Act unions in the workplace. Or they could argue that there are no intrinsic costs. But they have to decide whether there are intrinsic costs or not, and how big they are. The disingenuous thing about Chait’s post is that he tries to skip this difficult bit of the argument and simply blast the GOPs for having long term political motives, as if Dems didn’t.

Example 2: Michael Kinsley tries to turn the tables on the GOPs as a matter of abstract principle, arguing–after an extremely useful survey of the difference between a “closed shop,” “union shop,” and “agency shop”– that “right to work” laws inhibit employers and unions from freely making a bargain that includes requiring workers to pay union dues:

Principled conservatives should ask themselves a question: Why should the government be enacting laws that limit the freedom of individual employers to negotiate any deal they want with their employees?

Kinsley knows the answer, of course: the employers and employees would be striking the “deal” under conditions where the Wagner Act already inhibits freedom of contract in order to benefit unions–primarily by allowing union members to go on strike without the ordinary fear of being fired and by making an elected union the “sole and exclusive” bargaining agent even for those employees who might want to cut a different deal for themselves.  Once you give unions the club of a strike–and a National Labor Relations Board to back it up–we’ve left the arena of free deal-cutting and entered a game where the rules are  made by the state–rules that forbid some sorts of deals but not others, rules that give one side or the other clout. Principled conservatives can easily argue that these rules give too big a club to labor, forcing employers to negotiate deals they’d otherwise avoid–and that right-to work laws are a reasonable way to adjust that leverage downwards. You can argue that’s wrong, but you can’t argue that it’s wrong by appealing to an already-abandoned principle of freedom of contract.

Kinsley’s second argument addresses the alleged virtues of “right to work” more directly, but again short-circuits the argument before engaging the issue of unionism’s benefits:

On another level, right-to-work laws have become another weapon in the pointless, costly and ultimately zero-sum competition among the states to attract new businesses. ….

But studies show, naturally, that states with right-to-work laws attract more new businesses than states without them. No doubt. That’s not the same as proving that the favors and privileges offered to business by states make economic sense.

No, it doesn’t prove they make economic sense. But it doesn’t prove they don’t either. And that “zero sum” bit is wrong. “[C]ompetition among states to attract new businesses” won’t be zero sum if the states are competiting by offering “privileges” that result in more productivity without equivalent costs–e.g. if they allow a more efficient form of business organization. Then the result of competition, when all states are forced to adopt this efficient arrangement, will be a positive-sum boost to national prosperity.

Kinsley might just as well argue that the attempt by Ford to steal business from Toyota is zero-sum. It might be, but it might not be. Maybe it is if Ford simply spends more on deceptive advertising. But it isn’t if Ford actually offers a better hybrid. Again, the issue is whether offering “weaker unions” boosts efficiency or not–an issue Kinsley’s ducking no less than Chait.

Simple question: Would Kinsley want a magazine he edited to be unionized? I think I know the answer.

Mickey Kaus