"Sundown on the Unions...
and what’s made in the USA, lamented Bob Dylan in 1982 — "they don’t make nothing here no more." Globalization has put increasing pressure on labor unions in the United States. In the last two decades there have been many fewer strikes and more "givebacks" as unions strive to keep their ground in the face of job cuts and layoffs.
Today’s unions are far different from what they were in the "gilded age", however — when workers bravely organized and fought to win such basic concessions as a ten-hour workday, an end to child labor, or compensation for workers disabled on the job. Today, although "elections" are held, members have little say in union governance. Membership is usually compulsory, yet overall union membership is declining. And unions have been unwilling to reach out to fellow workers in other countries or in other industries. In fact, when mechanics at Northwest Airlines recently formed their own independent union and went on strike, AFL-CIO members in different jobs at Northwest routinely crossed their picket lines!
While the decline of unions is partially attributable to increased competition from foreign workers, it is also due to a decline in real wages in the US, making unions’ jobs that much harder.
A poster memorializing Joe Hill, the itinerant labor organizer and songwriter from the days of the I.W.W., the International Workers of the World, or "Wobblies", who sought to inspire all the lowest-paid workers in America and everywhere else to stand up and join "One Big Union". Hill was convicted of murder in a bitterly disputed case, and executed by a Utah firing squad in 1915. The I.W.W. maintains an organization to this day (as do the Single Taxers, who sought the same goal through very different tactics).
In economic terms, a modern labor union provides "protection" for workers in a particular industry — similarly to the way that tariffs provide protection for the products of an industry. Competition is discouraged. Undoubtedly this is a fair response to workers forced to toil ceaselessly for bare subsistence wages. Yet it is not, in itself, a way to increase worker productivity. Workers say to managers, in effect, "We will not become more productive, but you must pay us more. If you do not, we will not work, nor will we let anyone else work for you." If management’s most profitable course of action is to invest in capital and training to increase their workers’ productivity, they will do so. If they are able to exploit workers who will work for less, however, they will do that.
That is today’s muddled economy: protected workers making protected products, both labor and capital paying huge taxes while real estate and finance reap windfalls, and the cumulative effect of all these piled-up inefficiencies showing up in permanent unemployment and recurring economic slumps.
Henry George wrote the following eerily prescient comments in 1883, in Social Problems:
When workmen in any trade form a trades-union, they gain, by subordinating the individual interests of each to the common interest of all, the power of making better terms with employers. But this power goes only a little way when it is checked by the pressure for employment of those outside its limits.... It is necessary, if workmen would accomplish anything real and permanent for themselves, not merely that each trade should seek the common interest of all trades, but that skilled workmen should address themselves to those general measures which will improve the condition of unskilled workmen. Those who are most to be considered, those for whose help the struggle must be made, if labor is to be enfranchised, and social justice won, are those least able to help or struggle for themselves, those who have no advantage of property or skill or intelligence — the men and women at the bottom of the social scale. In securing the equal rights of these we shall secure the equal rights of all.
In today’s global economy, the people George is describing are precisely those exploited foreign workers who are taking "our" manufacturing jobs.