Is there a conservative case for private sector, non-compulsory unions?
I'm thinking of organizations like pipefitters, meatpackers, electrical workers, etc. Are any Ricos members of unions? Thanks in advance.
Answer by Austin Murrey
Freedom is always the key word in any conservative argument regarding economics.
The conservative argument is market based: individuals have the right to associate with each other to maximize their bargaining power in a free agreement with their employer - a union is essentially a corporation that attempts to sell its members' services on the best possible terms to an employer.
In that sense you can defend unions the same way you can defend any legitimate business practice: in an open market you or your product are worth what people are willing to pay you. Unions simply insist on health benefits, pay standards and work conditions that benefit their members to the greatest degree the same way a company tries to sell you a product at the highest possible price.
As a free marketeer, anytime anyone is able to get an offer of pay that favors them I encourage them to take the money and run.
The caveat, as you noted, is that most unions act in ways contrary to free market principles: using member dues to influence politics and legislation that favors them exclusively and harms non-union workers and employers, "closed" shops where you can only work as a union member, harassment of non-union scabs, etc. Conservatives argue against these measures because they distort the market: you should be free to unionize, but your employers should be free to hire non-union workers in a union business and employees should be free to be non-union in a workplace with union employees.
Answer by Rob Long
Well, yes, I am a member. Of a union. Actually, I think the Writers Guild is technically part of the AFL-CIO, which somehow diminishes both groups.
It's not compulsory, but it is de facto compulsory -- it's possible to declare what they call "financial core" membership, which means that the WGA administrates all health and pension benefits for you, though you don't have to pay union dues, but it's a huge hassle and most people don't do it.
And that's the trouble with "non compulsory" membership in unions. Somehow they always end up being so nearly-compulsory as to be required.
The big problem with unions is that they act like cartels. Monopoly power tends to degrade service and this has been the case with unions. The problem in America, IMHO is the Clayton Anti-trust Act of 1914 which gave unions an anti-trust exemption. Imagine a world where one union was not allowed to represent the workforce of all three of the Big 3 automakers. In this world the unions would actually compete to represent the workers and would (also IMHO) often have interest aligned with those of the company's management and shareholders. That is growing the pie instead of just cutting a bigger slice of it.
In terms of efficiency, labor unions impede the adoption of new technology but increase the efficiency in which any adopted technologies are used.
Source: Chintrakarn, Pandej, and Yi-Yi Chen, "Do Unions Impact Efficiency?: Evidence from the U.S. Manufacturing Sector." Contemporary Economic Policy, July 2011.
Answer by John Murdoch
Yes, there is.
There are now three types of unions in America: government employee unions; industrial unions; and trade unions. The distinctions are important.
Government employee unions: Made up of (duh) government employees. Only serve to increase their salaries and your taxes. A specialized kind of industrial union.
Industrial unions: organized among all employees of a given industry--for example, the United Auto Workers, the Ladies Garment Workers, the Longshoremen, and the Teamsters. They are organized by industry--not by trade or skill. These unions for the most part were part of the old Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO); membership is automatic when you are employed in an organized shop; they are vociferous (and sometimes violent) about enforcing "closed shop" rules. Key point: you get a job at a union shop, you have to join the union. (Get job --> join union.)
Trade unions: organized among skilled workers within a given trade--for example, the Electrical Workers, Plumbers and Pipefitters, Machinists, Musicians, and Operating Engineers. These unions typically were part of the American Federal of Labor (AFL), and essentially descend from the medieval guild system. Membership typically requires specific training, often apprenticeship, and is a prerequisite for even applying for a job at an organized site. (Get into union apprenticeship program --> go through union training program --> qualify for membership --> get job.)
The trade unions serve a valuable purpose: they are the de facto hiring hall for lots of industries. When you hire somebody from the electrician's union, you are getting a skilled, qualified worker. If you have a problem with the quality of the guy's work, the union will remove him and send somebody else. You pay an arm and a leg--but you get reliable, dependable, meets-the-electrical-code work.
In the same way, the musician's union functions like a guild too. Producing a musical? Call the musicians union, tell 'em the instruments you have in your score, and the number of players of each that you want--negotiate over whether Flute 3 can double as Piccolo for the 16 bars in the score that require it, and you're done. Again, you pay serious money: but you get skilled, qualified pros who need minimal rehearsal before they're ready for prime time. Any problems? The union will take care of them, and provide suitable replacements.
There are plenty of instances where trade unions and industrial unions conflict. The most recent was a fight between the (industrial) Longshoremen and the (trade) Operating Engineers over the Export Grain Terminal in Longview, WA this year. The Longshoremen have (violently and) exclusively ruled the west coast docks; but the OEs are the trade union for crane operators. (The fight included the Occupy Wall Street types--including the Occupy Oakland rally to shut down the Port of Oakland.)
Trade unions aren't necessarily bad--and can in fact be quite helpful.