Politics & Policy

What Makes American Workers Great

On the Ford assembly line in 1928. (Hulton Archive/Getty)
It isn’t thieving union bosses.

When it comes to fortifying sanctimony with criminality, it is hard to beat the American labor movement, which we hear a great deal from on Labor Day weekend. The education monopolists may dabble in criminality, as with those teachers and administrators in Atlanta who soon will be reporting to prison, but they’re mostly sanctimony most of the time, and of course the union bosses have a hand in that, too, teachers’ unions being what they are. But for a really elegant balance of sanctimony and criminality, you want one of those Philadelphia union goons who talk about solidarity with working people while committing arson and vandalizing churches in the service of their own narrow economic interests.

The good news is that in the real economy, the American labor movement is dead as fried chicken. It’s just waiting to keel over.

The Obama administration and its allies have done everything they can to prop up the labor syndicates, for obvious reasons: They are important sources of donations and manpower for Democratic campaigns — not to mention the occasional act of political terrorism — and they are an indirect source of influence in that the more tightly an industry is under political discipline, the more opportunities there are for political profiteering. The National Labor Relations Board’s improper persecution of Boeing, which had the temerity to go into a place that it owns and act like it owns the place, and the recent risible NLRB franchise decision are acts of desperation. And the union goons should be desperate: Private-sector union membership is steadily declining, down to 6.6 percent of the work force in the latest figures.

(Public-sector unions, which represent more than a third of all government employees, are a separate and distinct problem, one that is going to be worked out mainly in Chapter 9 bankruptcy and whatever process gets cooked up for insolvent states.)

The criminality of the American labor movement is beyond dispute. What’s less often appreciated is that its sanctimony is based on falsehood, too.

The criminality of the American labor movement is beyond dispute. (Our Jillian Melchior is your go-to reporter on that beat.) What’s less often appreciated is that its sanctimony is based on falsehood, too. The unions are not, contrary to the popular bumper sticker, the “people who brought you the weekend” or the 40-hour work week. In reality, Ford decided to institute the five-day week in 1922, though it was not done until 1926 — a decade before the United Autoworkers union was even formed, and 15 years before Ford would sign its first union contract. The Ford example is illustrative in that the company’s work-force innovations — effectively doubling its entry-level wage at one point, five-day weeks, etc. — were driven neither by political pressure nor union extortion nor philanthropic impulse but by the fact that good workers were and are extraordinarily valuable, and every time Ford lost an assembly-line veteran and had to recruit and train a replacement was money out of Henry Ford’s pocket. Ford’s management knew what today’s executives in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street and in Montana sawmills know: People are assets, not liabilities.

#share#The same principle holds true now: A world without union bosses is not a world of wicked coal-mine operators exploiting helpless serfs with nobody standing in the way but the Molly Maguires. It isn’t a union that inspires Google to offer such high wages and rich (indeed, sometimes silly) amenities to its employees — it’s Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, etc., each of which would love to drive a fleet of buses over to Mountain View and bring back everybody it could.

“Well, that’s Google,” you might say, “and not everybody has the skills or the talent to work in High Nerdery in San Jose or Austin or to tote a pitch book around lower Manhattan.” True enough, but the same principle applies to pipefitters and machinists and the 244 other labor categories Evan Soltas takes a look at here. His finding? That changes in productivity account for about 74 percent of changes in wages within any given industry. Workers get paid more because they produce more, not because there’s some coddled predatory halfwit threatening to pass out picket signs.

Workers get paid more because they produce more, not because there’s some coddled predatory halfwit threatening to pass out picket signs.

Detroit is dead. But when Europeans fire up their nifty new turbocharged Honda Type R Civics, they’re enjoying 276 horsepower made in the USA — in a car that isn’t ever going to be sold in the American market. Americans will have to make do with the new NSX supercar, which is built at the same facility in Marysville, Ohio, by highly skilled, highly paid American autoworkers with no UAW bosses around to gum up the works and skim from the paychecks.

Why is Honda so successful in the United States? Last year, automakers announced $1.8 billion in investments in Ohio, and $1.5 billion of that was Honda: $70 million for NSX production here, $123 million for a painting facility there — it adds up. Investment, not union extortion, is what turbocharges the value of labor. There’s a world of difference between what 100 skilled workers with a 20-year-old facility can create and what 100 skilled workers with a state-of-the-art facility can create. Real investment in real capital is what enables economic growth and higher wages.

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If you’re unlucky, you’ve heard some speeches this weekend about all the great things the Teamsters and the IBEW and the UAW have done for the American worker, and all the things they want to do. Don’t believe a word of it. You want to do the American worker a favor, then get rid of the interference — the taxes, the regulations, and, yes, the dopey antiquated union rules — that stand between the worker and the factory door. American workers are among the most creative and productive people who have ever lived, and it wasn’t a corrupt Jimmy Hoffa protection racket that made them great. They aren’t weaklings, and they don’t need protection — not from you, not from Donald Trump, not from Bernie Sanders, and not from James P. Hoffa. All they need is a chance to use the talents and the strength God gave them.

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