In Search of a Legitimate Labor Movement

Sarah has worked for a major grocery store chain for the past 25 years. Adjusting for inflation, she makes less now than she did over a decade ago, especially since her hours were cut in order for her employer to avoid being required to offer her health insurance. Even more difficult, she is “on call” most of the week, without a reliable schedule, which makes it impossible for her to take on a 2nd part time job to help make ends meet. Including benefits, Sarah is lucky to make $30,000 per year. Now in her early fifties, she will need to work for as long as there is strength left in her body to do the job.

George works for a fire department serving an affluent suburb on the California coast. Taking into account the vacation time he earns as a 25 year veteran, he works less than two 24 hour shifts per week before qualifying for overtime. Since five day weekends are overkill, he often works one or two extra shifts a week, doubling his pay. When he goes on calls, 98% of the time they are medical emergencies, not fires. Including moderate amounts of overtime and the employer’s payments for his benefits, George makes about $250,000 per year. Now in his early fifties, he will retire in a year or two and collect a pension and health benefits package worth well over $100,000 per year.

Both of these individuals are hard working, honest and conscientious. Both of them perform jobs that have a vital role to play in our society. Both of them deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Neither of them wrote the rules. And both of them are represented by unions.

While these individuals and the work they do is beyond reproach, the unions that represent them leave much to be desired. In Sarah’s case, typical of tens of millions of private sector workers, the unions who represent her have ignored economic reality in pursuit of ideological fantasies. Almost universally, to cite a particularly wounding example, these private sector unions have supported immigration policies that increase the supply of semi-skilled workers who compete with Sarah for work hours. Also common are the pragmatic alliances these unions form with extreme environmentalist organizations who have bottled up development of land and energy, driving the cost of living beyond the reach of an ordinary worker. One may cogitate endlessly over what constitutes optimal and humane policies with respect to immigration and the environment. But to agitate for higher wages and benefits in a society awash in cheap labor and artificially inflated costs for basic necessities is a fool’s errand.

In George’s case, which is equally typical, at least in California, the unions that represent him should not even be permitted to exist. Associations of government workers who engage in collective bargaining are not unions in any traditional sense of the word. They elect their own bosses, they take money from taxpayers instead of competing for consumer spending, and they operate the machinery of government which lets them intimidate or co-opt any special interest that might oppose them. They have priced normal government services beyond the capacity of ordinary taxpayers, and bred cynicism about government into the heart of any financially literate American. And government unions have even less interest than private unions in acknowledging the complexity of issues such as immigration or environmentalist overreach. In both cases, policies that harm the aspirations of private workers have the opposite effect on them, enhancing their job security.

A legitimate labor movement is easy to justify in the abstract. If not unions, what sort of movement will speak for ordinary workers in an era when jobs are being relentlessly automated, global competition is tougher than ever, and the cost of living is punitive? What sort of movement can speak for ordinary workers if, along with these challenges, the nation is gripped by a deep recession brought on because interest rates can’t go any lower and stimulative debt can’t go any higher?

The reality today is that much of America’s labor movement has gone astray. Private sector unions often put ideological goals ahead of the economic interests of their members. And public sector unions, which are not unions in any traditional sense of the word, and which represent the economic interests of their members all too well, are an abomination. They have corrupted our democracy, they are a corrupting influence on government workers because they have exempted them from the economic challenges facing private American workers, they are driving our governments at all levels towards authoritarianism, they are bankrupting our cities and counties and states, and the pension funds they control epitomize the most corrupt elements of America’s grotesquely overbuilt financial sector. Maybe what would remain after abolition, still very powerful voluntary associations, could start fighting for CEQA reform, for example, to benefit all workers instead of just themselves. Before unions infested our governments, that’s what public service meant.

Envisioning exactly how the labor movement might best operate in the interests of the American worker is difficult but necessary. It requires balancing libertarian and mixed-capitalist economic world views. But two reforms would be a very good start. First, outlaw collective bargaining in the public sector. Second, the leaders of the private sector labor movement need to starting caring more about American workers, and less about their elitist ideological fantasies.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

10 replies
  1. Avatar
    Clear Thinker says:

    An interesting factoid in today’s local paper is that the cost of living in Orange County, California, is 46% higher than the national average. When running comparative numbers related to wages, benefits and retirement pay, a disparity like this needs to be factored into the dialogue.

  2. Avatar
    S Moderation Douglas says:

    Tru dat.

    Now you’re trying to be logical. The whole idea here is to highlight the obscene difference in pay between a trained and experienced professional, and an unskilled laborer who could be replaced by almost anyone off the street with about a weeks OJT training.

    If one would insist on being all ‘facty’, one would say that $250 k is on the high end for a ‘firefighter’, even in an “affluent suburb on the coast”.

    One might also say that $30,000 (including benefits) is on the (very) low end for a grocery worker.

    One might say that, according to the BLS, if Sarah were to (sometime in her 25 year career) promote to ‘first line supervisor’* for a ‘major grocery store chain’ in an “affluent suburb on the coast”, she would actually earn as much as a firefighter in Fresno.

    *according to BLS, average pay for ‘retail salesperson’ in Fresno is $24,350, which would kinda fit the “$30,000 year” (including benefits) image Ed is shooting for.


    ‘First line supervisor of retail sales workers’ in the Bay Area average $49,790 (plus benefits).
    AND, by some strange coincidence, ‘firefighters’ in Fresno average $49,790, plus (admittedly much better) benefits.

    All very interesting numbers, but I’m not sure how they relate to a legitimate labor movement. By all accounts, the decline in inflation adjusted wages in the grocery business is most directly related to the huge increase in non-union grocery jobs.

    I shop regularly in both union and non union grocery stores. I have met many wonderful workers like Sarah. If there is a fire or medical emergency in my house, I want George, please.

  3. Avatar
    Tough Love says:

    Sorry SMD, while George may be “trained”, he is not trained to the extent he deserves $250K in annual total compensation ….. maybe HALF of that.

    He’s a participant in a massive THEFT of Private Sector taxpayer wealth, engineered by the Public Sector Unions and the elected officials they BUY with campaign contributions and election support.

    Mr. Ring is correct …. collective bargaining in the public sector should be outlawed.

  4. Avatar
    S Moderation Douglas says:

    He’s talking the ‘Bergen County’ of California, and $250K is a stretch, even at that.

    You and Mr. Ring can debate Ronald Reagan about that whole collective bargaining thing. He started it.

  5. Avatar
    S Moderation Douglas says:

    If, however, you prefer hyperbole, here’s your article du jour:

    “LB City $200K Club 647% Larger than Comparable City” 1/22/16

    1) Long Beach has 218 employees who earned over $200,000

    2) The “comparable cities” are Fresno and Sacramento, which have comparable ……..population.

    3) Long Beach (an “affluent suburb on the California coast”) has a cost of living index about 46% higher than the national average, and about 40% higher than Fresno or Sacramento.

    4) Since LB has about a 700 man fire department, and 218 (total) city employees make over $200K; it is not likely (or even mathematically possible) for the average firefighter to have a total compensation of $250K. *note

    5) But “647%” makes such an impressive headline, n’est-ce pas?

    *note “average” firefighters don’t make $250K, but I have heard there are some spreadsheets with a ‘typical’ function or ‘usual’ or ‘normal’ macro that can massage almost any numbers your little heart desires.
    “Moderation” is not just a name; it’s a way of life. And, now that you mention it, very smooth.

  6. Avatar
    Tough Love says:

    Yes Moderation has a way Of “smoothing”over …. over the facts.
    Don’t worry Taxpayers …. we’re not ripping you off ……… at least not too much.

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