We are halfway there: On Friday, the state assembly of Wisconsin voted to make the state the 25th to pass right-to-work legislation, and Governor Scott Walker is expected to sign the bill with some satisfaction. That’s 25 down, 25 to go. (Our optimism is not so unanchored as to consider the sorry case of the District of Columbia.)
Right-to-work laws end the practice of union bosses’ enriching their organizations through a legal variety of extortion under which all workers are required to pay the equivalent of union dues, whether they wish to be represented by a particular union or do not. The traditional position of Democrats, toward whose campaign coffers a great deal of that money is destined, is that this practice is necessary to ensure “fairness” — that workers enjoy the unions’ protection whether they want it or not. But the correct term for an arrangement like that isn’t “fairness” — it is “protection racket,” and Governor Walker’s signature will put an end to this particular brand of racketeering.
A great deal of attention is being paid, and will be paid, to what this means for the presidential aspirations of Wisconsin’s governor, who confronted and trounced entrenched public-sector interests and then trounced them again when they tried to recall him. Governor Walker is an impressive man offering a welcome infusion of ordinary good governance to the Republican presidential pageant, but the political concerns here are secondary. The most important consideration is the excision of a cancer from the American economy and the American body politic.
The prominent American labor unions mainly are in steep decline, but, because of certain legal privileges, they punch above their weight politically and economically; they are corrupt, sometimes in the formal legal sense and often the more general moral sense; they are an appendage of the Democratic party whose remarkably well-compensated bosses ransack their members’ paychecks in order to exchange political donations for political favors; and, perhaps most important, they are today a prominent presence mainly in the public sector: The face of the American union member in 2015 is not a working man in a hardhat or Rosie the Riveter, but a bored DMV clerk twiddling his thumbs on a government-mandated break while a taxpayer waits six hours to renew a driver’s license. Unions are not a mechanism by which the rights of ordinary workers are secured; they are a mechanism by which the enormous streams of taxpayers’ dollars shunted into inefficient and criminally wasteful bureaucracies are laundered into campaign donations and political muscle for Democrats.
The foundational law of American labor is the Wagner Act (formally the National Labor Relations Act), adopted in 1935, in the depths of the Great Depression. In principle, this and other measures are intended to elevate the bargaining position of workers and would-be workers relative to business owners, and one can imagine why that would have had great appeal in 1935, when jobs were so scarce (unemployment was at nearly 22 percent) that the unemployed and workers both were relatively powerless. That is how organized labor is supposed to work, in theory. In reality, private-sector participation in labor unions declined rapidly over the last part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st as three related factors came together: 1) overreaching unions insisted on inflated wages and (arguably more important) productivity-killing work rules that encouraged the offshoring of many labor-intensive manufacturing jobs and the replacement of human labor with automation; 2) growth in employment opportunities and wages was strongest not in union jobs but in the services sector, especially in fields such as law, finance, and health care; 3) traditional union constituencies such as autoworkers followed jobs to non-union shops such as those operated by the “transplant” overseas automakers in the southern United States, and while many of those workers are well inclined to unions in general, they made it clear that they do not wish to be represented by the particular organizations that have long dominated U.S. industry, e.g., Volkswagen workers in Tennessee rejecting the UAW’s attempt to insert itself into their business.
That final factor is worth meditating on: Unions may have a productive role to play in the American economy, and the problem before us is not necessarily unions per se: The problem is those particular organizations — AFSCME, SEIU, “The Helpful Union Guys” (THUGS, in their own reckoning) — that have long since stopped serving the interests of their workers and instead are dedicated to serving themselves.
What’s the proof of that? That they have campaigned so hard, so bitterly, and so ferociously about the relatively simple matter of whether people should be allowed to join them and pay dues and be allowed to decline to join and pay dues. The unions’ position has been that if workers are given a choice, it will undermine the unions’ position — which tells you all you really need to know.
In 2015, there is one effective way to increase workers’ power at the bargaining table: a growing economy with a hungry demand for workers. Self-serving union bosses have for too long stood in the way of achieving that. Wisconsin and 24 other states have taken a step in the right direction on the latter issue — achieving the former will require a national effort.