Who’s to Blame for Union Woes?
Unions are still fighting a management that died long ago.


Michael Barone


The labor-union movement is in deep trouble. Only 6 percent of private-sector employees are union members.

Voters are beginning to realize, thanks to governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, that public-sector unions have negotiated unsustainable levels of pensions and benefits — and that public-sector unions are a mechanism for involuntary transfers of money from taxpayers to the Democratic party.

Who’s to blame for the unions’ plight? I blame Frederick W. Taylor. Most readers will ask: Who? And those who know the name might wonder why I pin the blame on someone who died in 1915.

But Taylor, the supposed pioneer of scientific management, was an influential man in his day and long after. He conducted time and motion studies aimed at getting workers to perform single tasks on long assembly lines most efficiently.

Workers, he said, should be regarded as dumb animals, incapable of initiative, inefficient when they are not compelled to perform the same simple task in the same single way over and over.

Taylor, as Robert Kanigel makes clear in his excellent biography, The One Best Way, was something of a charlatan. He faked a lot of his time and motion studies. Nevertheless, he had huge influence on the managers of assembly-line industries like autos and steel.

Their workforces consisted of off-the-farm and immigrant hordes with little education and often little English. They thought the best way to profit was to use Taylorite methods to squeeze maximum production out of their low-skill workers.

The industrial unions — the United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers — that succeeded (with government help) in organizing industries during the 1930s understandably saw their main task as combating Taylorism.

They would prevent management from ordering dreaded speedups, based on Taylorite analysis, by insisting that every change in work rules be negotiated between shop stewards and foremen.

They would prevent management from rewarding speedy workers by insisting that promotions be based on seniority and preventing any hint of merit pay.