The Modern Union vs. Workers’ Rights

The Modern Union vs. Workers’ Rights

The raging controversy in Wisconsin over eliminating collective bargaining “rights” for government employees cast a bright and harsh light on public-sector unions. Some commentators have distinguished public-sector unions from private-sector unions, but the vested interests of the two are much the same. Both are expressions of what might be called “the modern union,” which came to dominate the American labor movement through New Deal legislation in the 1930s. Differences between the two forms of union should be acknowledged, however.

There is no question that the tax funding of public-sector unions creates important distinctions from those in the private sector. For one thing, private-sector unions negotiate in the context of limited money; if they demand too much the company cannot compete against rivals and union members could find themselves unemployed. By contrast public-sector unions have no similarly clear limit on available money and government has no competitor. Thus public-sector unions are among the loudest voices for increased taxation and big government to sustain their wages and benefits.

Reducing those wages and benefits has become a popular cause largely because private-sector workers (even within unions) make considerably less than the government employees whom they are heavily taxed to support. In December 2009 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that government employees at the state and local levels earned an average of $39.60 an hour (including benefits), while private workers earned $27.42—over 30 percent less. Moreover, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, private workers have a 20 percent chance of losing their jobs in any given year; public workers have a 6 percent chance.

Reducing the power of either form of union is far less popular than reducing public-sector costs for at least two reasons. First, all modern unions benefit from legal privileges such as collective bargaining and the government certification that bestows a virtual bargaining monopoly on specific unions. Second, such prerogatives are widely viewed as workers’ rights to be cherished in the same manner as constitutional rights. That’s why Jesse Jackson compares Wisconsin’s massive pro-union demonstrations to Martin Luther King’s 1965 march in Selma for the voting rights of blacks.

Is it accurate to equate collective bargaining with workers’ rights? Is it accurate to view public- and private-sector unions as distinct rather than fundamentally similar? The answers lie in history.

It is important to define unions precisely. In a free-market context a union is nothing more than a collective agency through which workers protect common interests and secure common advantages through negotiation or other forms of persuasion, such as boycotts or peaceful strikes. Individual workers assign their right to negotiate to the collective agency in much the same manner as they might assign power of attorney; no one is forced to join or to pay dues. Thus the union is a collective expression of the individual right to free association and to contract one’s own labor. Employers remain free to decline negotiation and hire replacement workers.

Many conservatives and libertarians would consider the foregoing definition of unions to be unrealistic. In his article “The Myth of the Voluntary Union,” economist Thomas DiLorenzo argues that those who believe unions can be voluntary fall into “an easy trap . . . detached from any reality and history.” He insists that “violence against competitors has always been an inherent feature of unionism, even apart from the ‘violence’ of State-imposed legislative privileges that unions enjoy” (emphasis added). DiLorenzo refers specifically to the legal power of collective bargaining and to a history of brutal strikes as proof of unionism’s inherent violence. Yet it is not clear that violence is inherent in unions.

Political Evolution

Could unions exist without legal privileges in a society in which employment relationships were not mandated, in which there were no restrictions on self-employment or home industry? Are free-market unions possible?

The current paradigm of a modern union is rooted in the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was created through New Deal legislation, especially the Wagner Act, which established the legal right of workers within an industry or company to unionize if a majority of them voted in favor of doing so. The result has been far from an expression of the free market. For example a modern union receives government certification in order to engage in collective bargaining. In other words, the government authorizes it as the sole representative of a set of workers and legally requires the employer to give the monopoly union a seat at the negotiating table. This monopoly shuts out other groups or dissenters from negotiating their own contracts on their own terms. In many cases individuals can choose not to join a specific union but nevertheless they remain bound by union contracts and are required to pay union “fees.” The modern union thus represents a forced transfer of authority from individual workers to a collective.

Government schools, which are operated by what is arguably America’s strongest union, teach that the New Deal transferred power from business to labor. And without question the modern form of union gained political clout. But the political transfer was far more complex than it is portrayed to be.

Wagner and Big Business

In his essay “Labor Struggle: A Free Market Model,” Kevin A. Carson argues that the Wagner Act was designed to centralize, bureaucratize, and tame the unions to the advantage of big business, which was already no stranger to privilege and subsidy. That is why some of the most vigorous advocates for modern unionism were leaders of industry, such as Gerard Swope, president of General Electric. By specifying who could negotiate terms and how strikes could occur, Wagner removed some of the most powerful tactics from the labor movement. Carson comments, “The primary purpose of Wagner, in making the conventional strike the normal method of settling labor disputes, was to create stability and predictability in the workplace in between strikes, and thereby secure management’s control of production” (emphasis in original).Certification created labor monopolies that eliminated the need for business to negotiate contracts with multiple groups or individuals within the same company. Business also benefited from the unions’ acting as enforcement agents, policing their own memberships’ compliance with contracts. They prevented wildcat strikes and punished boycotts, work slowdowns, and other labor tactics that had proven both popular and effective in the past.

Leaders of modern unionism were aware of the benefits they offered to big business. In Ethics and American Unionism (1958), Sam Dolgoff wrote of John Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) from 1920 to 1960, “In 1937, Lewis assured the employers that ‘a CIO contract is adequate to protect against sit-downs, lie-downs, or any other kind of strike’. . . . he corporations accepted . . . ‘industrial unionism’ because as a matter of policy, the mass-production industries prefer to bargain with a strong international union able to dominate its locals and keep them from disrupting production” (emphasis added).

Wagner and Grassroots Federations

Dolgoff outlined the impact of the Wagner Act on grassroots labor federations such as the UMWA. The National Federation of Mine Laborers had been the parent union of the UMWA, and by its constitution, “the Federation consisted of Lodges (Locals) and districts which vigilantly defended their independence from the domination of the National Office. Their insistence on autonomy and unity through federation (free agreement) was in keeping with the finest libertarian traditions of the American Labor Movement. . . . When Lewis became President in 1919 he did away with the federalist structure of the union, rooted out autonomy and self-determination of locals, centralized and took complete control of the union.” The Wagner Act completed the centralization.

Thus both Carson and Dolgoff argue convincingly that the modern union was an arrangement of shared advantage between big labor, big business, and big government. The relationship between business and unions was not necessarily cordial but it was often convenient.

Among those disadvantaged by the arrangement were smaller employers, the self-employed or non-unionized workers, and the broader grassroots labor movement itself.

Nineteenth-century America was the heyday of the grassroots labor movement. Fueled by a massive influx of immigrant workers and the rapid development of industry, a system of vigorous and varied labor organizations arose to address the specific needs of working people, which went far beyond a decent wage: Labor organizations often functioned as social and cultural support systems as well.

The most prominent nineteenth-century labor federation was the Knights of Labor. Established in 1869, membership reached 28,000 in 1880 and peaked at nearly 700,000 members in 1886. The primary demand of the Knights was an eight-hour day, but it also campaigned on such issues as ending convict and child labor. The Knights emphasized projects designed to empower its membership both economically and socially and to provide security for families. Through local chapters the Knights established worker-owned producer cooperatives; it launched public education campaigns to raise awareness of and sympathy for labor issues; and it organized social support networks to insure against the injury or ill health of members. Indeed many organizations or unions began as “benevolent associations” intended to care for the families of deceased or incapacitated members.

In “Revolutionary Tendencies in American Labor—Part 1,” Dolgoff explained that the labor movement “created a network of corporative institutions of all kinds: schools, summer camps for children and adults, homes for the aged, health and cultural centers, insurance plans, technical education, housing, credit associations, et cetera. All these and many other essential services were provided by the people themselves, long before the government monopolized social services wasting untold billions on a top-heavy bureaucratic parasitical apparatus; long before the labor movement was corrupted by ‘business’ unionism.”

Although the Knights of Labor used pressure tactics such as boycotts and the endorsement of friendly politicians, they did not generally emphasize strikes. Terence V. Powderly, who presided over the Knights during its ascendancy (1879–1893), openly opposed strikes, which he believed caused violence and increased conflict; he favored peaceful negotiation instead. Some local leaders within the Knights disagreed and flexed their autonomy by pursuing local strikes. Indeed, the internal conflict over strikes contributed to the Knights’ decline.

Labor organizations within the nineteenth-century libertarian movement adopted much the same approach as Powderly—namely the use of mutual support, persuasion, and education as tools of labor reform. Perhaps the most prominent of these organizations was the New England Labor Reform League (NELRL), established in Boston in 1869. Its membership boasted individualists Josiah Warren, William B. Greene, and Benjamin Tucker. Ezra Heywood’s The Word served as the NELRL’s publication. The foundational “Declaration of Sentiments” declared the League’s goals to be “Free contracts, free money, free markets, free transit, and free land—by discussion, petition, remonstrance, and the ballot, to establish these articles of faith as a common need, and a common right, we avail ourselves of the advantages of associate effort.”

One example of NELRL activity illustrates the broad manner in which the League defined labor activity. Along with his wife Angela, Heywood founded the Co-Operative Publishing Company from which pamphlets issued, including ones on birth control. The NELRL believed that women workers were victims of the poverty created by unplanned children; thus, birth control fell within the realm of labor reform. “Lady Agents” were sent out to tour the factories and other working-class haunts of New England. Once they had found an audience, the Lady Agents spoke on subjects that merged labor reform with family planning, all the while offering the Co-Operative pamphlets for sale.

With effective networks and diverse strategies, a broad grassroots labor movement grew in power; its threat to entrenched interests also grew. The threat came into glaring focus in 1877 and 1894 with two strikes that involved violence on both sides. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began in West Virginia over a cut in wages; lasting 45 days, it was finally put down by federal troops who went from city to city to quash sympathy strikes by industrial workers. The Pullman Strike of 1894 began in Pullman, Illinois, again over a cut in wages. Spreading nationwide, it also attracted wildcat sympathy strikes and ultimately involved about 250,000 workers in 27 states. Eventually President Grover Cleveland sent U.S. marshals and some 12,000 troops to break the strikes.

By the turn of the twentieth century the labor movement—notably, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies)—had also become a political threat to the status quo. Organized in 1905, the Wobblies had strong leaders but emphasized rank-and-file organization. Unlike the Knights of Labor, however, the IWW enthusiastically embraced strikes; indeed, it initially opposed the signing of all labor contracts specifically because they blunted the power to strike.

With a large immigrant membership and explicitly socialist principles, the IWW became a potent voice against America’s entry into World War I, which it viewed as a conflict in which the workers of one nation were fighting the workers of another for the profit of capitalists. Thus the IWW became a prime target of the Department of Justice. In September 1917, 48 IWW meeting halls were raided and 165 leaders were arrested under the new Espionage Act. The next year 101 of them went on trial. All were convicted and received prison sentences of up to 20 years. Government repression effectively destroyed the IWW.

Government and big business had learned a lesson: An uncontrolled labor movement was unpredictable, politically dangerous, and bad for commerce. This was particularly true in the early 1930s, when Roosevelt swept into power in the wake of the Great Depression.

In 1929 the stock market collapsed and people panicked, causing runs on banks and massive bank failures. Unemployment rose as high as 25 percent while the personal income of those still employed declined. Large cities were hard hit, especially those dependent on heavy industries. Rural areas were devastated as crop prices tumbled and a severe drought turned farmland into dust. Hundreds of thousands of people were driven from their homes in search of any work whatsoever. Still other people left because of bank foreclosures.

A massive and migrant army of unemployed is a formula for labor revolt. Thus Roosevelt offered a New Deal to American workers; it was a series of interlocking economic programs implemented between 1933 and 1936. Through them the federal government’s regulation of all aspects of commerce increased dramatically; its purpose was to create stability, especially in the area of labor.

This is the context into which the modern union, or big labor, was born—a governmental response to labor upheaval and a big-business desire for regulatory stability. The business elite may not have liked every aspect of New Deal labor policies, but it had long favored Roosevelt’s general approach to labor relations.

The clout of a voluntary union comes from the individual members who assign their rights of contract over to a representative of the collective. In modern unions the opposite happens. Some members may join freely but they cannot later negotiate for themselves if they disagree with the union. Other members may be required to join as a condition of working in a specific industry or at a unionized company. Thus the modern union is the opposite of a grassroots organization; it strips individual workers of the rights of free non-association and of contract. The modern union—whether of the public or private sector—is the antithesis of workers’ rights.

About the Author: Wendy McElroy is an author and the editor of This article originally appeared in The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and is republished here with permission.

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