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The Flag of the World

-G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

This here blog is a glimpse or two or three at the condition of the 'fortress of our family' through the eyes Timothy Goddard, a Christian writer with an unhealthy interest in politics living in the Puget Sound area.

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Monday, November 03, 2003


Conservative problems for a liberal answer: Are unions worth it?
A desire of mine, in this blog and in life in general, is to come up with what I call "conservative answers to liberal problems," and to take note of those who do. Today, Josh Chafetz of OxBlog and Larry Miller in the Weekly Standard take up a doozy--the issue of unions.

Miller and Chafetz both assert that conservatives should not reflexively oppose unions any more than liberals reflexively support them. Miller suggests that while conservatives
correctly heard the screams of torture victims in Iraq, and bombing victims at pizza parlors in Israel, and we correctly slump at the face and name of each American soldier killed, and each crime victim here at home... we must also see that every time a union takes its members on strike, right or wrong, the curtain goes up on a terrible drama, and the main players are working Americans with families who are scared and have no idea what's going to happen next.
Miller also suggests that "Each fight between management and labor must be taken on its own merits." Chafetz notes that
when unions are engaged in organizing workers and bargaining for a better deal for their members -- including when they're on strike -- they're just a voluntary organization pursuing a mutual interest. In that capacity, they're just another of Tocqueville's intermediate social institutions. And sometimes -- not always, but sometimes -- they're right in their disputes with management.
Both of these points--that strikes and other disputes must be taken on a case-by-case basis, and that unions are a legitimate form of intermediate social institution--are ones I have pondered before. I first pondered these ideas back in early 2000 during the Boeing engineers strike. I lived then just a few blocks from the 747 plant in Everett, and so got a good view of the clever "no nerds, no birds" slogans and well-behaving picket lines. I tentatively supported that strike (as much as it mattered for a high school senior to do) as it looked like the engineers really were getting a raw deal. But a major reason they were getting a raw deal was that the overly powerful and often-striking machinist's union had already taken up a disproportionate amount of pay and benifits through their practically regularly-scheduled strikes.

So, while there can be such a thing as a "good strike," can there really be such a thing as a "good union?" It's possible, I suppose, but I see a lot of problems standing in the way of such an animal. First off--and this may be less true in parts of the country other than Washington and Minnesota--is the symbiotic relationship the unions have with the Democratic party. It's nearly impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins, as union headquarters serve as de facto Dem campaign headquarters and the Minnesota Democrats refer to themselves as the "Democratic Farmer-Labor party." The two are so tightly interwoven that it seems like it would be impossible to unwind one from the other.

This stems from the history of unions, which presents another challenge as well. Part of being inextricably linked with the Democratic party comes from their history of being linked with thuggish Tamany Hall-style political machines, and the union tendency to use, well, thuggish behavior to achieve their ends. While this may not be true of say, the teacher's union (they have other, possibly more despicable ways of intimidating, but that's beside the point), in those that it is true for, it seems like it would be similarly difficult to sift out, making unions even more difficult to redeem.

In addition, the whole "solidarity of the workingman," "brotherhood of such-and-such" and "fraternal order of so-and-so" thing adds an artificial emotional variable to the equation, so that people who cross picket lines, whether as workers or consumers, are considered some sort of "traitor," regardless of the reasons for the strike. This leads to problems such as the derogatory term "scab," which, sadly, even Miller uses without batting an eye. The problem is, the idea that we should take each labor dispute on its own merits, approving of some and disapproving of others, is an anathema to this idea of "solidarity," which is, again, so crucial to the very core of what unions are.

As a subpoint to this, the idea that the management is somehow "immoral" by "breaking a strike" seems ridiculous to me. It seems to me that the purpose of a strike is to remind the employer that they need their workers badly enough to give them what they want. If this ends up being true, the unions win. If this is not true, then the company wins. A strike is an ugly thing, a naked contest of wills, and crying "no fair" when your opponent wins is petty, small, and a key union tactic.

Unions also have a distinct and unfortunate tendency to be run, not by the workers, but by people who actually work for the union, not for the company itself. This is certainly not always a problem, and when it is, it is certainly not insurmountable. But the fact remains that union bureaucracies do not, in the end, exist to serve the union members, but the union bosses. Again, this is not a uniform problem, nor is it a problem only related to unions. But it is a problem that means that some unions exploit their workers more than the management does.

Lastly, closed shop. There are few policies I despise more than that of "closed shop," especially when the shop that is closed is a government agency. A public school, for instance. I don't feel a deep need to go any further in this, at the moment, except to mention that it is a goal of mine to see every state outlaw the closed shop, at least for government employees.

All that to say that you can't run from your history. The flaws in current union structure are not inherent, per se, but they are part and parcel of union history and identity, and they are so massive that I wonder if unions, in their current form, perhaps ought to be universally opposed. Not reflexively opposed, but on the basis of the fact that the very concept of a union is right now too closely tied to too many bad ideas to be a force for good in the long run, even if it may do some good in the short run.

I don't know if this is true--it's merely an idea I am considering. Any thoughts? As the title of this post implies, I'm not providing the "conservative answers" here, just the problems with the liberal answer. I've got the seeds of what could be answers rolling around in my head, but I'd like some time to process them before I try to state them. That post, though, will be coming.
Agree, disagree, have more information on the topic? Please, feel free to leave a comment. No profanity!

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