Like most people who pay attention to the news, I’ve been treated to several weeks of Republicans using the Detroit bailout as an excuse to bash unions. Like a broken record, it was easy to ignore for a while, but the repetitive droning of discredited canards (like $70/hr wages) is getting more and more and more annoying.
And it’s particularly annoying because the vast bulk of the union-bashing is coming from the alleged free-market conservatives. What the hell is so conservative about beating up on unions, anyway. Unions are the quintessential model of a market based solution to a problem. The management and the money people might not like them, but that alone doesn’t mean they’re not a market solution – unless the real criteria for “free-market” is “stuff that makes people who already have money happier”.
Yes, I’m serious. Let’s take a minute or two to think about what unions actually are, and what they do.
At its most fundamental, a union is nothing more or less than a group of people who have figured out that if they act together to place limits on the supply of their own labor, the businesses that have a demand for that labor will need to pay more. Unions are basically employee-owned businesses that sell labor. Like any good business, they try to both encourage demand and control the supply.
At this point, I can see the objections coming. How, I’m sure someone is going to demand ask, can I claim that unions are really a free-market enterprise if employees can be forced to join in order to work in a given location. And if I really believe that the unions are free-market, why am I opposed to the so-called “right-to-work” laws?
Right now, there are laws on the books that actually restrict the ability of the union to operate in a free-market environment. Under American labor laws, if a union is present in a workplace, it must represent all the employees regardless of whether or not they are union members. The “right-to-work” laws that states are allowed to pass under Taft-Hartley state that employees cannot be forced to pay dues or fees to a union as a condition of employment.
This combination of laws effectively creates a situation where the unions are forced, by law, to provide services to people, while simultaneously barring the unions from demanding payment for those services. That not a set of free-market laws. That’s a set of laws that are what Ed Brayton calls “Tonya Harding laws”. Businesses couldn’t get around unions when there was a level playing field, so they got the government to pass laws that un-leveled the field.
Keep that in mind the next time you’re listening to massive pricks flamming jackasses good conservative legislators like Jim DeMint and Richard Shelby pontificating about how the unions are hurting Detroit, and why the Big Three need to look at “right-to-free-ride-work” states like theirs for the solution.