Close window  |  View original article

When Unions Were Useful Instead of Harmful

Unions once provided a valuable service, and could again if they chose to.

By Petrarch  |  July 9, 2010

On Scragged's list of "awful things we often write about" right below "Obama administration appointees" can be found "unions."  Labor unions are responsible for the destruction of countless millions of American jobs and the death of high-wage American mass-manufacturing, to say nothing of the looming bankruptcy of various states and the oppression of taxpayers nationwide.  This country would unquestionably be a better place without unions, unionism, union bosses, union contributions, union corruption, and most certainly, without exclusive union bargaining rights.

How is it possible that such economically devastating and incomparably venal organizations came to be?  How was the first one ever allowed?  Have we always been this stupid?

No.  A very long time ago, unions performed noble and worthy services for their members and their employers, helping greatly to make a better world for everyone.

If unions would take a long, hard look back to their origins, they could benefit us all once again.  Likely?  Perhaps not; but it's worth talking about.

Fighting Against Abuse

The story most Americans know and which public-school teachers and union leaders love to proclaim, is of the workers' righteous struggle against oppressive and callous bosses.  Perhaps surprisingly, there's a lot of truth to the tale.

In the mid-1800s, there were no worker's safety laws or any sort of employer-provided insurance; men injured on the job were thrown out on the street to beg.  Horrors like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire where locked fire-escape doors led to the incineration or defenestration of 146 souls were shockingly commonplace.

Individually, unskilled workers had next to no power.  With ships arriving daily delivering new immigrants, bosses could instantly replace any dissatisfied laborer with a more cooperative and probably starving substitute.  You think it's too dangerous to work here?  Nobody's making you stay...

American unions were intended to cross company lines, and indeed ultimately to organize workers across entire industries.  The early union organizers recognized that they had to be able to enforce some kind of labor monopoly in order to have any power over their employers.  If a company can instantly replace striking workers, why worry about a strike?  Hence the mass violence that characterized early unionism, as strikers and activists prevented the unemployed from taking the jobs they refused to do by beating them up.

The means may have been wrong, but the ends of the day were good.  First individual companies, then states, and eventually the Federal government established standards for safety, overtime pay, injury compensation, and all the other panoply of worker protections that modern America has come to accept as normal.  As the Industrial Revolution changed into the Information Revolution and almost all jobs required some skills, even the stingiest boss realized that it made good business sense to keep his employees alive.

Quality Labor Supply

But the unions did not merely provide benefits to their members.  For many years, they also provided employers with a way to ensure an adequate supply of skilled workers wherever they were needed.

What today we call "skilled trades" evolved out of the medieval guilds, predating America, in which young men would be apprenticed to masters in a given line of work.  Trade unions followed this same pattern: a young man would be permitted to join the union as an apprentice working under a full member, graduating to journeyman and eventually master status as his skills and experience improved.  By hiring a unionized master electrician, an employer wasn't merely paying unearned economic rent; the employer could have confidence that his new hire was, in fact, fully qualified and able to perform the job of an electrician.

A few unions still have this reputation today: New York City's skilled trades, for example, are notoriously expensive and featherbedded with arcane and needless work rules, but the tradesmen themselves are known for doing their work thoroughly and well, albeit slowly and at great cost.

It's difficult for non-entrepreneurs to fully understand just how difficult finding qualified employees can be, yet how absolutely vital it is to any business.  Particularly in an assembly-line factory, a machine malfunction can easily shut down the entire line, idling the whole plant and all the workers until the problem is fixed.  An incompetent electrician or machinist can not only hurt himself, he can kill the profitability by plant-closing mistakes and needlessly-long repairs.

Yet very few bosses are themselves sufficiently skilled in every trade to be able to properly evaluate a new hire's skills, and government-funded skills tests are no help.  Who can best know how good an electrician or plumber is?  Another electrician or plumber - and that's the service unions provided.

Instead of a headhunter, the boss could call up the local union hiring hall.  "I need an electrician" - and later that day an electrician would arrive, whose certificate from the union was all the proof the boss needed that the new employee would know what he was doing.

Originally, unions did their own training, operated their own apprenticeship programs, and disciplined their own members for professional incompetence much as medical associations are supposed to do today for doctors.  The union members knew that the reputation of their union depended on the high standards of its members and were just as harsh on layabouts or the useless as any boss would be.

We have a friend who bought a house in Boston nearly 40 years ago and wanted a garage.  A union bricklayer gave the lowest bid; he was glad to accept because at that time the union had a reputation for quality work.

To his surprise, the work went a lot faster than he had seen on major projects.  "There isn't much construction now," the bricklayer explained.  "I needed work and I knew you couldn't afford our usual rates."  Although the bricklayer understood that our friend would have gone without the garage if he hadn't gotten a bid he could afford, the union did not seem to connect "not much construction now" with the costs they imposed on building owners whom they assumed to be richer.

Forgetting the Roots

So what happened?  Producing real value is hard work, of course, so it's no surprise that over time, unions found it easier to extort benefits by using political power than by providing valuable services just as GM found it easier to restrict Japanese auto imports than to improve their own products.

In a way, the worthlessness of modern unions mirrors the cause of the Detroit's Big Three's decline.  The car companies forgot their primary purpose: to make cars that people wanted to buy at a price they could afford while still being profitable.  The unions forgot their primary source of value: to reliably supply employers with workers who were skilled in various areas of labor and who were willing to sustain the long-term profitability of the enterprise.

Instead of disciplining the incompetent, today's unions fight to retain their jobs no matter what - so we get such idiocies as the "job bank" where laid-off autoworkers continue to collect their salaries while sitting around playing cards, and the "rubber room" where teachers accused of crimes earn full pay while doing nothing.  The unions no longer have a purpose in fighting for worker safety - it's the law for all workers, regardless of union membership.  By monopoly bargaining power, they can obtain higher wages for their members for a time, but only until the company moves the factory to a less-unionized state or goes bust.

For union workers to sustainably collect higher wages over the long term, they must be worth those higher wages.  Many years ago, they were; today, mostly, they aren't.  Instead of a useful service, they have become a rent-seeking monopoly leech sustained by pure political power - and a change in politics can spell their doom.

Futures Dark and Bright

It doesn't have to be this way.  Bosses still struggle to find qualified workers, the more so since a high-school diploma no longer means much of anything and even a college degree is no guarantee of common sense or useful experience.

Union bosses dream of extending unionism into white-collar professions like computer programming.  They've had no success thus far - but that's because they've forgotten the service they once provided.  If there's one job category where old-style unions would really be useful, it's computer programming!

Think about how many incompetent programmers there are whose skills can only be judged by their peers, with no organized way of readily doing so.  A computer-science degree is also no proof of actual useful competence, whereas many of the greatest programmers have never spent a day in the classroom.  An organization which apprenticed, trained, and certified programmers reliably and consistently would be well worth some extra cost.

Instead, today's union leaders have chosen to pursue increasing public-sector unionization on the presumption that the government is the one organization which can never go bankrupt and which can always extract the money to pay whatever salary demands the union makes.

Except that this simply isn't so: we see increasingly many reports of local governments firing all their employees and using contractors instead, or threats to declare bankruptcy and cancel union contracts.  There is always a limit.  The limit is just not as obvious with government, but it's no less real.

Like Detroit's automakers, modern American unions have a choice.  They can re-examine their history and find a way to be really useful so that companies and people will choose to work with them.  Or, they can continue to steal unearned money by force and violence - but that only works until the costs of temporary peace exceed the cost of permanently resolving the problem.

And then, the politics would abruptly change, and there'd be no more unions.  The machinists of Eastern Airlines proclaimed "Full pay 'til the last day", and that's exactly what they got; there's no more machinists union at Eastern, and no Eastern Airlines at all.  The mechanics of Northwest Airlines tried much the same thing with much the same result.

Will anyone in labor learn the lesson?