Labor unions can be great institutions again
Liberals typically celebrate Labor Day with a bit more enthusiasm than do conservatives. That’s because conservatives often see labor unions as inherently antagonistic institutions that are anti-business or socialist. Conservatives also understand that labor unions largely exist to get Democrats elected to Congress.
Some conservative critiques of Big Labor are true, but they need not remain so. Unions could be something much more than political units operating inside industry. In fact, they have been and in some places still are something much more: institutions of civil society.
In an essay last year titled “The End of the Working Class,” libertarian Brink Lindsey correctly described the nature of the problem: “social disintegration — the progressive unraveling of the human connections that give life structure and meaning.” Lindsey names “declining attachment to work; declining participation in community life,” among other examples of a plague we could call deinstitutionalization.
This plague is particularly acute among the working class. One major reason is the changing nature of work.
For white-collar workers, the workplace itself might be a true institution of civil society, where bosses and colleagues, engaged in work they find meaningful, and coming from shared educational backgrounds, become a network that provides guidance, role models, and purpose.
The unskilled factory worker, on the other hand, is less likely to find these nonmaterial benefits at work. If there was a valuable mediating institution in his life, it has been his labor union.
Unions in the U.S. are fading away, though, as are the reliable factory jobs they accompanied.
Lindsey wrote of the working class: “Its members shared a whole set of binding institutions (most prominently, labor unions), an ethos of solidarity and resistance to corporate exploitation, and a genuine pride about their place and role in society. Their successors, by contrast, are just an aggregation of loose, unconnected individuals, defined in the mirror of everyday life by failure and exclusion.”
There are many root causes beneath this blue-collar deinstitutionalization, but part of it lies in the nature of American unions. Although they often served, and often still do serve, as excellent mediating institutions, their legal and professional framework makes this increasingly difficult.
In the U.S. and the U.K., the ideas of business theorist Frederick Taylor convinced employers to treat their workers as machine parts. This drove union leaders to treat management and ownership as enemies.
Federal labor law developed around this inhuman relationship. Employers are now legally required to recognize unions if most workers vote for one. Reluctant workers have generally been pushed by compulsory dues to join unions. Business-friendly legislation in response further removes the situation from the sort of negotiation and pursuit of mutual benefit that ideally define the market.
Results have included the failure of so many businesses that gave too much to unions, and a loathing of unions among many employers. Meanwhile, with the worst employer abuses solved through workplace regulation, many unions have become political organizations that occasionally dabble in collective bargaining.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If unions were like institutions of civil society — negotiators, rather than lobbyists, political players, and litigants — they might be stronger and more able to help their members.
Under the “Ghent System,” prevalent in parts of Northern Europe, workers and employers voluntarily have incentive to work with the unions.
You see, the unions there — rather than the government — administer unemployment insurance. The unions also provide job training and other services. Some unions these days also enforce accountability on workers, disciplining those who start fights or don’t show up on time. Throw in help in hiring and recruiting, and you could make employers want to deal with unions, for the same reason retailers often want to use distributors.
A union you voluntarily joined that provides training is a true institution of civil society. It brings you in the door with an insurance product, but it also provides mentoring, friendship, and purpose.
Just imagine — unions that workers don’t have to be forced to join, and that businesses truly want to sign on with. This would ease labor peace, but more importantly, it would give America’s working class what they most desperately lack today: connection to institutions of civil society.