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.
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.