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Unions: Myth versus Facts

Written on Friday, July 15, 2011 by


Trade unions have been prominent in the news lately. Their thuggery in several of our states has made far more people sceptical of them—especially when articulate Republican governors stand up to them (see NJ governor Chris Christie explain the facts to one unionist:

But even many conservatives, especially those (mis-)educated by members of the Teachers Unions in government schools, think that unions are (or were) a good thing that has been abused, or are somehow even a Christian teaching.

Unions stopped child labor?

One of the enduring myths is that evil corporations would still be exploiting workers, and sending little children into dangerous jobs, were it not for unions and leftist laws.  But this shows ignorance of history.

In reality, the Dickensian conditions of the 19th century had nothing to do with “exploitation”, and everything to do with low productivity and lack of all the modern technology that now improves our lives. Back then, there was no electrical machinery, lighting or air conditioning; no modern plumbing or safety equipment; and no antibiotics to cure many diseases.  Even the “wealthy” people were worse off than most “poor” Americans today.

Without advanced machinery, workers simply had to work long hours just to survive.  Children were not forced to work by “greedy” employers, but by their own parents, so that the family as a whole earned enough to live.

But after new equipment was developed, workers could then support their families with fewer hours of work.  Then it was no longer necessary to send children out to work.  Unions deserve no credit at all; if anything, they hindered the very same improvements that improved the lot of the workers, then jumped on the bandwagon of improving conditions to take credit.  Economist George Reisman points out in his book Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1998):

“They have opposed the introduction of labor-saving machinery on the grounds that it causes unemployment. … The abolition of child labor was an accomplishment of capitalism and the rise in the produc­tivity of labor it achieved. As in the case of maximum-hours laws, insofar as child-labor laws merely ratified the abolition of child labor already being achieved by the market, they were superfluous. Insofar as they went ahead of the market, and imposed reductions in child labor beyond what parents judged their families could afford, they were destructive. Along with depriving poor families of urgently needed income, they had the effect of forcing children to work at lower wages and in poorer conditions than they needed to.” (pp. 658–662)


As a good example of how the free market did more to improve the conditions of the ordinary workers, consider Henry Ford, a major founder of the automobile industry.  In 1914, he offered his employees at his assembly plant $5 per day.  Wow, “talk about exploiting the workers”, leftists might say.  But in reality, it astonished the world because it was twice the normal wage, and equivalent to $111.10 per day in 2008 dollars.  Furthermore, the resulting cheap cars were affordable by many Americans, and made them even more productive workers.  Yet Ford had no time for unions.

A modern-day example is the “sweat shops” of multinationals, again much maligned by Leftists.  They also typically pay about twice the local wage, offer better working conditions, and teach valuable work skills (see economist Thomas Sowell explain).  But Leftists bully multinationals into ending this “exploitation”—which workers want! —but care little about what happens to these workers when this opportunity is removed.

Freedom of association

To make one thing clear, true freedom must include the freedom to associate with other workers as well, including for collective bargaining.  But freedom must also include the ability to reject this association.  The problems with unions occur when governments give them special privileges, and exclude non-union workers from jobs, or turn a blind eye to union intimidation and violence.  But in reality, unions are not “for the workers” but for the unions.

See this classic clip from the 1980 PBS series, where economists Walter Williams and Milton Friedman mix it up with the teamsters on the subject of labor unions.

Now one of the most cherished policies of the Democrats is the Orwellian Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which actually abolishes free choice by getting rid of secret ballots, opening workers up to intimidation by union heavies.

Modern abuse

We need look no further than the states of New Jersey and Wisconsin.  Government unions have been even more destructive than private sector unions.  It’s very simple: a private corporation might go bankrupt if management decides to overpay its workers.  But governments don’t have this bottom line: the unions are not bargaining with the taxpayers who ultimately pay their salaries, but with politicians who are hoping for union support.  Thus for far too long, government unions have colluded with Democrat politicians to fleece the taxpayers, as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams explain.

And now we see the shameful way a government agency, in cahoots with the unions, is trying to stop a private company opening new factories in a “right to work” state that forbids union compulsion.  See Patriot column NLRB vs Boeing — Tyranny vs Freedom.  If they get their way, Boeing may be forced to go overseas to start their new factory.  Then of course, these same leftists, like Michael Moore, will screech about greedy corporations giving American jobs to foreigners.

Would Jesus support government unions?

Because of the way that leftists have hijacked even large sections of the Church, it’s important to address this question (see also Countering the Churchian Left and Obama’s communist-supporting spiritual adviser Jim Wallis).

No Leftist, churchian or otherwise, would be complete without supporting the unions.  But one of Jesus’ parables suggests that He would not: in Matthew 20.  Here, a vineyard owner hires some workers at the beginning of the day, and they agree to what might now be called the “award rate”: one denarius. Then he hires other workers later and later in the day, and pays them all one denarius, even for fewer hours.  At the end of the work day, the owner pays them all one denarius, as agreed.  But then those hired at the beginning protested at the alleged unfairness.  The owner replied:

“’Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.   Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

This is clearly an example of individual worker contracts, agreed between employer and employee, without government interference.  Furthermore, they were better for the workers than the “award rate”.  Finally, we see an endorsement of private property rights: the owner was allowed to be generous with his own money—as conservatives tend to be (see Who Really Cares? The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism by Arthur Brooks).

Some might accuse me of “missing the point” about the parable.   But how could this parable illustrate any deep theological point, unless Jesus was endorsing what this landowner was doing?


Those who understand history will cease to be leftists.  And passing on accurate historical information should prevent the new generation falling for the same old lies.  One major lie is that unions have been a force for good in the past, because the good really came from the free market they hate.

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  • ARMYOF69

    The unions are in a world of their own. They believe that they ARE special, in that they should put in as little poor quality work as possible for as much money as they can get. Their products are purchased by the rest of us primarily because of lack of competition in that field. The autos industry is a prime example.

    • PerryB, Greater Houston

      Economist Thomas Sowell has said that labor unions, by their nature, create a scarcity of labor to help force up wages.

    • Devasahayam

      And here are some words from 1968 from an unabashed socialist on unions–“like rotten unhealthful version of onion, you peel and peel, nothing changes and it stinks”.

    • John Detwiler

      Unions are the dowmfall of the average citizen, who ends up paying exorbitent wages, for union members who are requires to function within convelouted rules set forth in the labor contract by their Union Officials. Their only purpose is to solidify the strength of the overpaid Officials.Once upon a time Unions were helpfull in evening the playing field between the unscrupulous labor barons and the ordinary worker person. But they are no longer necessary, and are actually a detriment to the worker who must cowtow to these Union Officials. And Public workers should be forbidden to participate in any union because they are working for the people not a seperate entity. Public Unions must be decertified.

    • permanent muslim scum remover…

      unions like the aclu were once a good thing and now have become so corrupt they are not only worthless but go as far as to being harmful to America. all muslims eat pig dung pie,and like it.

  • PerryB, Greater Houston

    Great article! I’ve been (passively) looking for a concise article like this for a while. One thing that I would add, and obviously outside the scope of the article, is that the bubonic plague killed off so many people that people had to be paid more and led to the development of a middle class for the first time. Or this could be leftist propaganda for all I know. I don’t even remember where I read that now – possibly National Geographic.

    • ARMYOF69

      That’s very likely true, since close to 50% of the European population died of the plague.

    • Steven F

      HOW would massive deaths mean people needed to be paid more? There would not only be fewer people to fill jobs, but less jobs to fill. CAPITALISM created the middle class. The plague did not. Note the example of Henry Ford.

    • ARMYOF69

      Actually, Trade Unions of all sorts from, tailors, to tallow makers , sword and armory makers were around since the about the 11th century, certainly in England. They WERE unions. They were called “GUILDS”.

    • Observer

      Don’t be foooled by names, crap is still crap, no matter what you choose call it.

    • ARMYOF69

      Observe well…it was historic….observe first.

    • Observer

      The guilds were more about maintaining standards of work that current-day unions.

  • Marc Jeric

    Given time every union will fall into the hands of criminals or communists (which is the same thing). Then the union will destroy the industry in which it “works”. see stell, automobile, textile, electronics, apparel,… and of course education (now at the level of Zimbabwe), Postal Service (bankrupt), Amtrak (bankrupt)…
    Government employees unions are by definition criminal conspiracies against the people, and should therefore be routinely prosecuted under the RICO Act laws.

    • Devasahayam

      And this proved true in every country.

    • Jose

      Union members have two masters – the one who pays them for their work and the union who they must pay whether they like it or not (in closed union shops). I have belonged to several unions over the years and none of them were worth the union dues I paid. One union did get good wages for members, but was abusive to members and would not survive if it did not have forced membership.

    • 820 RED HORSE

      Unions are employed zombies recieveing entitlements!!! Cause if your in a union you can bet your ass 99% of the money they get is for doing nothing!!WHich in turn is no different than gettin a welfare check!!! CLEANSE OUR NATION OF LIBERALS AND UNIONS!!!!

    • Steven F

      Unions, even if the are ‘good’ at the start, share one FATAL flaw with every bureaucracy. At some point, it becomes clear that if they actually SOLVE the problem, they become unnecessary. At that point, they invariably BECOME the problem.

  • Pat Cole

    No public worker should be allowed to have unions.
    Public workers pay and benefits should be voted on by the taxpayers who are stuck paying the bill.

    • Lee Baldwin

      I am pretty sure public workers do not want to be unionized, but they are forced to join the union. This could not possibly be more wrong. It is holding TAXPAYERS accountable for mismanagement of public salaries. Unions have been the worst thing America has ever had. the reason for so many bankrupt cities and states is unionized public employees. This is where all your tax dollars go.

    • Cate

      In Washington state the park rangers voted to become unionized, then the union got them to vote for a closed shop. Some things got better for the rangers and some of the new rules made doing their job much more difficult. My park ranger didn’t really want to be in the union but he did like his job.

    • Observer

      What is even more annoying is that professional athletes also have unions. Just think how much less expensive the major league ticket would be if there were NO professional athlete unions.

  • Anne M. Rubeo

    Unions have outlived their value to the American worker. they were formed to prevent nepotism, intimidation, etc. and that is now their modus operandi. If we could just get the media to be more factual in their reporting,the public would see the tacticsand thuggery used by unions.

    • Buckeye

      What SCAB STATE are you from and did you ever work in a non-union job.

    • Ridge Runner

      Mr Buckeye you are ignorant as a 9 year old black polelok retard(and i have never see a black pole)You are just another lazy ass liberal with a scab on your ass from siting too much and hollering give me with your hand out streched.try working and if you can do a good enough job you will not need a union to hold a job.Your commitment to working for a living in stead of wanting some thing for nothing might make you a better person and more respect for your self.I have worked inboth union and non union jobs and was treat better in the non union work place.I was a shop stewart in the one union job that i had.

    • 820 RED HORSE

      Buckeye, I have a cure for your illness,maybe you seen the procedure I posted a couple of days ago, maybe you can get a few of your union buddies together and perform it as a group…the more the better!!
      1. load a .45 cal 2. place barrel in your mouths. 3. Squeeze..don’t jerk the trigger.
      4. pull till you hear the BANG!!! 5. repeat as needed. have a nice day!!

    • Bill

      You first1

  • Buckeye

    O.M.G. What a bunch of lies and who would believe anything the fat hog Cristie says. Check some more facts Mike Lee US senator from utah and state senator Cunningham from Missouri both have bills up to eliminate child labor laws. Also on the Today Show today Michelle Bachman says she wants to eliminate minimum wage laws. She thinks about $2.00 per hour should be great but in the same breath she bragged about her kids I remember she said one was a doctor. Try college or even kindergarden on $2.00 per hour.

    • Nathaniel Davidson

      The real minimum wage is *zero*! That is, people can’t get any job because their productivity is less than this leftist-set minimum. See Then they lack an opportunity to learn valuable work skills. The late Milton Friedman called the minimum wage law the most anti-black law on the books because of its dire effects on black teenage unemployment.

  • Soroseetsdik

    Since they receive funding in the form of roundabout shares redistribution bailouts they are an illegal PAC. Taxpayer funded Capitalism prohibitionists.

  • Soroseetsdik

    Gotta love the “worker’s rights” branding when what they really mean is NO rights to self-determination.
    Worker’s paradise: Government run co-op where workers are issued worker’s dorms above said workers appointed factory jobs serving the collective (Collective=Elites)

  • michael sharpe

    It immediately gets my attention when I hear the word ‘class’. Free markets allow one to be born very poor and rise to be very wealthy,or take risk. No one born poor is cursed to poordom forever. One can be born wealthy and end up poor. I cut the class b.s. from my life and feel sooo much lighter.

  • Clark

    My youngest son accidently joined the Retail Clerks Union at the grocery store he works at. He wanted only his medical benefits and the union bitch pressured him to join. Immediately afterward I tld him to qit. He made four trips to the union office each time being told they will hold his request so he can think abouot what he is doing, to think about his co-workers who “fought for his benefits”. Our state is a right to work state. Finally, with my help we filed numerous complaints with the union,, Department of Labor, Justice Department, and the NLRB. As a last resort we advised the union we have all requests to terminate membership in writing and their responses and we will be filing a lawsuit against the union. We no longer made a request for any action on his desire to quit. Guess what, he is no longer a union member. He does get harassed by the union reps. every time they are in the store. I told him let them keep doing it, document it, get witnesses and those filthy low life bastards will pay!

    • am2sweet

      Your post is only one example of what goes on regarding unions. My husband can attest to the fact that unions have thugs that delight in threatening anyone who ‘gets in their way’. He was in his truck on a job site and a union vice president came over carrying a tire iron and acting like he was going to hit my husband with it. Luckily my husband had a gun with him as he’s licensed to carry and laid it on the dash. The union thug and his buddy backed off then. Neither of them had a right to be on the job site but they don’t think rules apply to them being union and all. Unions are alreay run mostly by Mafia thugs and don’t do a thing for the workers other than take their money and let them picket when they don’t have work.

    • Observer

      I learned about unions when I was 15. I got a job at a large grocery chain in the ’50s where I had the join the Retail Clerks Union. My wages were $1.025/hr. It was just the income I needed then. Then we were told they we were going on strike for higher wages. The checkers and box boys. I was out of work for a couple of months. Then then as a box boy I got my raise, my new wages were $1.05/hr. I soon realized that I would have to work for a long time to make up the money I had lost while “on strike”, that formed my opinion about unions for life.

  • sharpshooter

    Sat through contract talks representing management for a local government unit for more than two years. Union requested a federal mediator who sat with the union during talks plus ate all his meals with the union. Even trying to schedule the next meeting would take 4 hours. After one such meeting when the next date was decided without any input from me I advised the mediator I would not be availible as I had a prior commitment. The mediator demanded to know what that commitment was so I calmly informed him I promised my dog I would give him a bath that day which sent the mediator into a frenzy threatening me with all kinds of federal mayhem including an IRS audit …. when he finally settled down I informed him I could not break a promise to my dog because he’s in the union.

  • T Lady

    Even after thirty one years, what Walter Williams and Milton Friedman stated in that clip speaks volumes. As Friedman noted, it’s the special privileges afforded to Big Labor that are literally draining the coffers of the American Taxpayers.

  • tweety

    Unions are continuing to exist based on long-ago incidents of child labor, worker abuse, etc. Those ages are pretty much long gone, yet the union claims to be the savior of the worker. I was forced to join a union and they happily collected over $400 a year in dues from my paychecks. I had no idea where that money went or what causes that money was donated to. The union took credit for everything that was good about our jobs and ranted and raved against anything bad (rarely did anything about it). In the end, they would ask for even more money to “continue the fight.”

    • bsaggie

      Most of it goes to Dem campaigns, Obama etc.

    • Bill

      If you wanted to know where you money went all you had to do is ask.

  • http://http/ sean murry

    the unions are in thier own world they havent got a clue to reality.The thugs are union members.


    In my career I have belonged to at least four unions, none of them in the public sector, for the public sector unions I have nothing but disdain, they have emphasized the word parasite, used the art of extortion and made a pact with lowlife politicians.

    I have belonged to many associations as a professional and often have wondered why the government made them manadatory and expensive in so many cases, since some seemed to work not in my favor but against protecting my profession.

    Private Sector unions have improved the construction industry to a large degree by making the training of many in the business proficient and asking companies to join in to build a professional workforce. If you allowed closed shops and did not vote on your dues then you allowed the union to corrupt the purpose and abuse the membership. We too have a responsibility to force the union leadership to stop unethical behavior and misuse membership money and it takes guts to stand up to the political thuggs that seem to come out of the wood work. There are laws to put unions out of biz when they misbehave.

  • Steven F

    I wonder what public sector unions would say if they have to negotiate with a ‘taxpayer union’. The reason they or worse then private sector unions is that the party that has to PAY for the agreement is not represented at the bargaining table.

    • ra113s

      RIGHT ON! Taxpayers have to WAKE UP! We are not at the TABLE! Government UNIONS are committing Collective Bargaining FRAUD!They must be SHUT DOWN NOW!

  • Curtis

    Unions are the primary building block of communism. That is where they came from and that is what they espouse. Any history of unions without direct connection and correlation with the Marxist communist movement would be inaccurate.

    • Curtis

      and any history of communism without showing the direct connection between the two would be incomplete.

  • Ridge Runner

    The unions are comparable to our government they are just too many a holes in them and too much corruption.

  • stephen russell

    Unions=Job Loss or Jobs leaving to SC IE Boeing.
    Yes Unions were Good Then 1880s-BUT not for 2011.
    Outdated, fossil organzs, whose time is Long Gone, see CA State & Detroit MI as examples of Union greed.
    Most UAW workers drove Imports, yet they made US cars, Hello.,

    • Nathaniel Davidson

      In my article I showed that the “good” the unions did in the 19th century is largely mythical.

  • Mishap

    My father worked for the Federal Government as a computer programmer for 30+ years. He finished his assigned work for the week within a day or two and spent the rest of the week at his desk because after multiple requests for something to do he was told being given anymore work would breach the union contract. That he was also jeopardizing his job for being “disruptive”. He couldn’t even offer to assist anyone else as that was interfering in their “productivity”.

    He said that if he had not already put in 20 years he would have found another job.

  • Observer

    The original purpose of unions was good.
    The current purpose of unions is bad.
    Bad because
    1. They distort the natural state of wages in an industry and an area.
    2. They become money buckets for all sort of organizations, mostly political, instead of the original purpose for forming the union.
    3. Most union jobs are held by democrats.
    4. The democrat party has a very large money pool as a result.
    5. The union will extort money from their members to support political candidates, regardless of whether the member would support that candidate or not. This is the definition of extortion.
    6. And then why does anyone wonder why we get crap politicians elected initially, and then re-elected in perpetuity.
    &. Think about this bullshit system of union extortion, and their power to screw your lives over.

  • donl

    I was in a union at a u.s.s. plant in elmira n.y. for 15 years. I couldn’t avance due to the union. I quit, and ever since then i kept advancing. In job status and financially. So if your in a union and you are good and dedicated to your job, do get out!!

  • ARMYOF69

    Our voting system needs major revisions.
    Anyone who is receiving aid for any great length of time ,like years, should have no rights to vote. Exceptions made would have to be properly identified, such as disabled veterans. Otherwise those “on they take” will always vote fro their personal interest, and not for the country’s good.