Monday, October 20, 2008

Living in a Union Age

Claire Berlinski, whose previous book I reviewed as part of a larger group of Euro-doom tomes here, has a striking piece in City Journal about how the Democratic Party proposes to do in the U.S. the sorts of things that caused so much damage in 1970s Britain, until Margaret Thatcher, facing a country teetering on the edge of ruin, undid them:

When Thatcher was elected in 1979, Britain had just endured a winter of discontent—a season of strikes and trade union agitation so severe that the nation stood effectively paralyzed. Food supplies were interrupted, whole industries choked, and exports fell. “We don’t want to increase our trade with you,” said the Soviet trade minister to his British counterpart. “You’re always on strike.” Rubbish piled up on the streets that winter; at one point, so did human corpses. This was what had become of a nation that was once the world’s greatest trading power.

For obvious reasons, Thatcher put reform of the trade union law at the top of her agenda. Among the key provisions of Britain’s 1980 Employment Act was a change in the way government would recognize unions. At the time, workers voted to join unions—or not—in public, by voice vote. Dissenters suffered harassment and physical intimidation. Henceforth, Thatcher decided, new union membership agreements would require approval by means of a secret ballot in order to protect rank-and-file workers from bullying by union organizers.

(The article is presumably a part of the promotion by Ms Berlinski of her new book about Mrs. Thatcher.)

The so-called Employee Free Choice Act would require that unions be recognized as a bargaining agent when a majority of employees publicly declare for one. Under current law, a majority must vote in secret for the union as their collective-bargaining agent.

Any privileging of collective bargaining in the law - requiring, for example, that employers even recognize a union if they do not wish to - is a violation of individual rights. It is also a disaster for productivity, turning the workplace into a place of zero-sum struggle (with customers conspicuously excluded from the conversation) instead of an effort of mutual cooperation for mutual gain. In a unionized workplace, fingers are pointed, pay is detached from productivity, and productivity consequently falls, with consequences for the rest of the society (which gets no say, although arguably it should, in whether a union is recognized).

But the issue of the moment here is what this means for people who do not wish to join unions. I know from personal experience (at a university I have worked at) that unions react badly to dissenters, and there are bad consequences to refusing their very untoward advances. When workers generally speaking are identified in public as union opponents, bad things may happen to them. Is it too much to suppose, therefore, that threats or fear of backlash might motivate them to vote for a union that they otherwise dislike? This is why political elections employ secret ballots in open societies, and public ballots in totalitarian ones.

There is nothing particular about labor unions in this regard. Any group so privileged in the law behaves the same way. (The ABA and the Recording Industry Association of America use their legal monopoly privileges to behave with equal thuggishness towards paralegals and copyright violators, respectively.) This is why equality before the law - allowing each individual to pursue his interests under the same rules as other individuals - is so important. But these are increasingly collectivist times. And Americans may soon be about to learn what it took the British a decade of pain to realize. That it is happening here, in the land Mrs. Thatcher admired so much for its devotion to the ideal of individual equality, is all the more unfortunate.

Union membership in the U.S., outside of the public sector (which is not subject to the realities of the private one), has been in decline for decades. Economically and philosophically this has been wonderful for the people of the United States of America. But it may be coming to an end.

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