America Can’t Grow Unless We Say Union No

A buddy reminded me recently of a common ad from our youth, the jingle of which proclaimed “America works best when we saaaaay union yes!”

Scott Shepard

Scott Shepard

It was one of those breezy little lies that made us Gen Xers so skeptical and jaded. (Would that a little of that skepticism of assumed authority had rubbed off on our juniors.) It was just the latest in a long line of jingoistic little ditties aimed at getting people to pay more for inferior products, ostensibly to help the working stiff, but largely to line the pockets – and, who knows, perhaps the Meadowlands end-zoneresting places – of union bosses.

By the 1970s and 1980s, private-industry unions had become loci of corruption and destruction. (Many who now oppose unions used to assert, in a throat-clearing sort of way, that “of course, the unions had their purposes in the dark old days,” but now we know that anything undertaken by white men before the advent of the internet was inherently evil and probably also very murdery, so that’s out.) Two strikes destroyed the economy of the little Pennsylvania Appalachian (you know they go all the way up, right?) town that I grew up in, driving out first Piper Aircraft and then Hammermill Paper.

Wild wage-and-benefit demands by the autoworkers’ unions helped to make American cars of that era absurdly expensive (when compared to the salaries of the purchasers – rather than the makers). Lax union-driven work rules, meanwhile, helped to make them terrible. Savvy buyers knew to learn the weekday on which the cars had been assembled. Monday-built cars were shunned, because work proceeded that day in the fog of hangover. The companies couldn’t act against this shoddy performance because the unions intervened.

The unions, meanwhile, won’t act to improve quality. It’s not in their interest. In fact, unions benefit from hobbling performance. Really competent employees don’t need union protections; they’ll be fine on their own. It’s the slow and the slothful who benefit from union insistence on slower production and protection against dismissal for incompetence.

No, what union leaders want is for union members to do as the union demands. This often means decreasing performance levels so that the best – who, in a free labor market, would merit the highest pay – don’t show up the slackers. And it always means following the union line. Unions do not increase worker autonomy. Workers may have complaints about their employers, but at least the people who run companies have running the company as their chief focus (or at least, they did in the days before woke). But union bosses’ whole power and “value” comes from their ability to control and corral “their” workers, which is their highest priority. So they demand serious conformity, and pay a lot of attention. Subbing in an attentive and venal master for a distracted and largely disinterested one isn’t an improvement.

(Public-sector unions, meanwhile, are so bad an idea that even FDR, hardly one to defend individual liberty or to worry about overweening government power, recognized that they represented a fraud against the people. They’re so bad an idea, and have engendered such disaster where tried, that they will require their own column – and, one may faithfully wish, epitaph.)

The left’s union wing is now pushing the new administration to ban right-to-work laws nationwide. The effect would be to force workers to join unions that they do not want, if a majority of their fellows vote it in. And those votes are often so rigged as to be farcical. Even Jeff Bezos, who was quick to malign anyone who objected to the lax voter-integrity standards of the 2020 election, was sharp enough to see how mail-in ballots lead to fraud when his own company’s interests were on the line.

There are good reasons to fear this push. The results would be catastrophic for an American economy that Biden, his team, and his allies are already working hard to kneecap. (If “expert consensus” forbids dissent in the global-warming discussion, then arguing that minimum-wage hikes are good for low-income workers must be groundsfor permanent cancellation.) And now that the new administration has killed off the union-heavy Keystone Pipeline – a terrible move for the environment – the unions feel as though they’re owed something.

Union leaders should be wary of pushing for nationalization of union rules, though. Any attempts so far to regulate union conduct and transparency have been met with claims that unions are simply private membership organizations, whose internal policies are their own business. But in closed-shop (i.e., non-right-to-work) regimes, unions are empowered by government to force people either to join them or to pay fees as though they had joined – in effect, taxes. An organization that you can’t opt out of and to which you must pay taxes lest it take your job away from you is – no question about it – a government. Mandatory unions are arms of the government, and can and should be regulated as governments. This would mean open accounting, total transparency and aggressive oversight. And it would mean applying to unions all the rules that have been applied to corporations. (How about limiting the pay and benefits of the highest-compensated union leaders to six times those of the least well-paid workers? Or applying freedom-of-information laws to all union documents?)

Maybe such rules won’t be applied now, but certainly when the party they so ferociously oppose returns to power. Changes in government control, after all, are a certainty of American national life. Unless, perhaps, the union fix is in.

Scott Shepard is a fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and Deputy Director of its Free Enterprise Project. This was first published at Townhall Finance.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.