Martin Scorsese’s Netflix film The Irishman contains one of the cinema’s most detailed and unsparing looks at how labor unions operated at their mid-century peak of power. Scorsese waggishly introduces a variety of labor-union and mafia figures (it can be difficult to tell the difference) with screen captions telling us how their lives would violently end — in gunfire or via bombing.
It’s startling, then, to read a conservative writer oozing with nostalgia for this reign of terror in which labor unions routinely extorted America with threats, intimidation, and outright violence. Because the mid-century unions wielded huge power over so many industries — shipping, trucking, the rails, construction, manufacturing — their demands amounted to a tax on everything. Except the revenue collected wasn’t spent on public goods; it simply went into the pockets of a special-interest group that enforced its policies with goon tactics.
Unions were not just a nuisance that interfered with American liberty but a destructive and sometimes malign force. Often they destroyed or severely damaged their own industries, many of which have over time relocated to areas that weren’t bled by unions, either overseas or within this country.
Yet at The American Conservative, James Pinkerton praises The Irishman’s “retro civilization: one where, if you can believe it, labor was equal to capital . . . [and] strong unions shaped society. Picket lines were not to be crossed, and work rules — detailing which worker could do which job — were strictly enforced (unless there was a payoff).”
Though Pinkerton concedes that unions did everything from preventing meat from being sold on Sundays in Chicago all the way up to murder, he finds them an essential balancing force against the supposed wickedness of free, non-coerced economic choosing. “The decades of union power coincided with America at its most powerful and in a way at its most cohesive,” Pinkerton writes. “Pluralism among countervailing power blocs — Big Labor versus Big Business — may seem messy, but it’s also societally healthy, keeping the nation’s humors in balance.” He laments that the Democratic party turned away from workingmen’s issues to the culture war: “As workers’ issues receded, so did their relative power — and their incomes.” He praises an era when “labor was equal to capital, when the working class was growing into the middle class,” and contrasts it with how “over the last half-century, reformers have helped capital to triumph over labor, and, as a result, much of the middle class has been busted back down to the working class.” Sardonically Pinkerton concludes that these days, “Hey, you can have all the abortions you want, and you can even buy meat on Sundays.”
There is a lot of this kind of thinking these days in precincts of the right that are culturally conservative and economically liberal. An obvious retort to Pinkerton’s remark that “decades of union power coincided with America at its most powerful and in a way at its most cohesive” is that American manufacturing power peaked because we were the only major industrialized nation untouched by World War II’s devastation, not because unions forced management to pay workers far more than they were worth. Once overseas competitors rebuilt, America essentially lost its industrial monopoly.
As for the “most cohesive” label, which everyone seems to agree applied at mid-century, that was also the period when the percentage of Americans who were foreign-born hit an all-time low. The huge upsurge in immigration that followed the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, not the slow decline in union power, created a less cohesive (or, if you like, more pluralistic) populace. Unions, many of which openly shunned black workers or relegated them to segregated auxiliary units — the “Jim Crow locals” — to keep them from attaining power, should hardly be praised for maintaining social “cohesion” by retarding the progress of black Americans. Not least among the wonders of free enterprise is that it tends to dismantle racism: Factory owners may have had racist inclinations, but when black workers showed up at their doors offering to work for less than white men, the owners were willing to hire them.
It’s because of a black Alabama contractor named Algernon Blair, who brought black workers from the South to Long Island to work on a building site, that Republican congressman Robert Bacon introduced what became the Davis-Bacon Act, which essentially mandated that federal projects employ unions, which in turn discriminated against blacks, especially in the building trades. American Federation of Labor president William Green praised the bill because “colored labor is being brought in to demoralize wage rates.” The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, known as the Wagner Act after Democratic senator Robert Wagner, contained language forbidding racist discrimination in labor unions — until the AFL succeeded in striking out the clause.
Pinkerton shrugs off the union infringement on American liberty as merely restricting the purchase of meat on Sundays in Chicago, but in fact unions equal coercion at many levels. In closed shops unions would coerce union fees from workers, then use the money to buy politicians. They would extort pay raises by striking, or threatening to strike, and enforce the strikes with hired thugs who would beat up anyone who tried to cross a picket line. Infamous practices collectively known as “featherbedding” would require employers to, for instance, pay union wages to workers who were not even present, or to hire far more union workers than were necessary to do a job.
Though private-sector union membership is down to 10.5 percent of the workforce, unions are still up to the same old tricks. In October, GM fired three UAW members for making threats during a strike. When Verizon replacement workers went about their jobs in Boston in 2011, striking workers interfered with them: “We are definitely trying to slow them down in their efforts to keep business going,” a union steward named Matt Lyons boasted. A Verizon spokesman said union members were sabotaging the business by cutting wires. Please don’t tell me you’re against cartels and special-interest groups but you’re okay with entirely innocent people getting their phone lines cut because of a union tantrum.
Unions make it difficult, sometimes almost impossible, to fire the worst workers. They drive up consumer prices with absurd salaries. Want to know why a Carnegie Hall concert ticket costs so much? The stagehands earn $400,000 a year. In New Jersey alone, union deals called Project Labor Agreements have cost Garden State residents half a billion dollars in excess costs since 2002. A 2012 report by the Chamber of Commerce detailed the many ways unions have used their political clout to buy themselves exemptions from various crimes — intimidation, sabotage, stalking, trespassing. Many such laws are still on the books.
“But won’t you think of the blue-collar white guys!” is becoming the “But won’t you think of the children!” of the right. If a policy makes sense, it shouldn’t have to resort to sentimental appeals to a kind of person who is meant to be especially appealing. There’s a reason why the history of labor unions is so intertwined with that of the mafia. The word “racket” applies in either case.