NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE D onald Trump won the presidency thanks largely to a strong showing among working-class whites. But it’s never been clear what, if anything, this meant for conservatives’ relationship with organized labor.
As I noted within a month of Trump’s election for The American Conservative, even The Donald himself didn’t adopt the unions’ political stances during the campaign. He said, for example, that he supported right-to-work laws. Despite his success with the white working class, he lost union households in general by eight points (which, to be fair, was a huge improvement on the 20-point losses suffered by other recent GOP presidential candidates). His administration hasn’t exactly been “pro-labor” as the unions would define it, either: As I’ve discussed in this space, his National Labor Relations Board has done about what you’d expect from one controlled by Republican appointees, undoing much of what the Obama NLRB put together.
Nonetheless, some populist and “reform” conservatives, led by Oren Cass of the think tank American Compass, recently put together a statement urging the Right to support labor reforms. These thinkers don’t support the status quo, but they would like to see a new system where labor has a place at the economic table.
In this piece I’d like to explain the way things work now, the problems with it, and the alternatives these folks suggest.
In the private sector, unionization is generally handled through the terms laid out in the National Labor Relations Act. Basically, if a union wants to organize a workplace, it needs to win an election among the employees there. Once it wins an election, it becomes the sole representative of the workers: It’s illegal for the employer to negotiate directly with individual workers, the employer has to negotiate contract terms with the union in good faith, and outside of right-to-work states, the resulting terms can require workers to support the union financially even if they don’t join. “Members-only” unions, where the organization represents only those who choose to join and pay dues, remain legal — and some in the labor movement have turned to them as traditional unionism has declined — but unions generally prefer to win elections and the legal rights that come with victory.
Conservatives and libertarians, very much including yours truly, have long disliked this system. Effectively, once a union wins an election, government policy forces an unwilling minority of workers to accept the union’s representation and forbids businesses to negotiate contracts freely. The pro-labor Left has struggled under the reality of this system, too; private unionization is down to about 6 percent of the work force. In some states, right-to-work laws allow non-members to opt out of paying dues or fees to the unions that represent them, which the unions decry as “free-riding,” and globalization makes it harder for firms with strong, adversarial unions to compete.
Many on the right are happy to just watch Big Labor, which gives boatloads of money to Democratic candidates and lefty causes, fade out. But the situation does provide an opportunity for conservatives who make the working class a priority or value the social capital that unions provide. In a recent survey, only 45 percent of Republicans but 64 percent of independents viewed unions favorably, suggesting that a new approach might have a political payoff if it can be done without alienating the GOP base.
So what are these alternatives that Cass et al. would like policymakers to consider? They mention several without endorsing any one in particular:
The standard partisan arguments over labor have tended to accept our nation’s current legal framework as the only one, and thus to present its expansion or contraction as the only options. Entirely different arrangements deserve consideration. In parts of Europe, for instance, “right-to-work” is the norm, but so is sectoral bargaining. On one hand, labor and management in Germany often partner on “works councils,” which are illegal in the United States and opposed by American labor unions. On the other hand, such “co-determination” can also extend to labor holding seats on corporate boards, which American unions support but shareholders resist. In some places, unions manage functions like unemployment insurance and job training that we take for granted as government responsibilities. In Canada, collective bargaining offers the parties autonomy to depart from government mandates in regulating their own workplaces.
Let’s start with sectoral bargaining. This is when, instead of negotiating contracts one workplace at a time, unions negotiate broad terms of employment for entire sectors of the economy at once. Getting unions to a place where they had the membership and power to do this would require numerous heavy-handed policy changes. Suffice it to say that if you think the current system is an affront to economic freedom, this will not be any better, and a nationwide right-to-work law will not be a good trade for this arrangement.
Works councils are a little more interesting. Here in the U.S., labor and management are expected to have an adversarial relationship: It’s actually illegal for a company to establish or fund a labor organization, out of fears that “company unions” could undermine real ones. In Germany, by contrast, businesses fund employee-elected councils that have a legal right to review or at least participate in certain business and personnel decisions. (Germany also has more typical unions that negotiate at the industry level.)
This presents a number of possibilities. One would be to relax the rules against company unions so that employers could voluntarily set up ways for employees to participate, as Volkswagen tried to do at a Tennessee plant a few years back. Another would be to blend even more of the German system into the American one, such as by giving workers a right to establish these bodies or participate on boards. Needless to say, the former option is much more congenial to the GOP’s libertarian and business wings.
The last several suggestions also have some appeal to traditional conservatives. The details might be hard to work out, but letting unions take over their workers’ unemployment insurance and training, and allowing unions and management to agree to disregard some labor laws, would all be to the good. For some more ideas in this vein, see this NR piece from Eli Lehrer, a signer of the new letter.
Sitting in the middle of the traditional, libertarian, and reform factions of the conservative movement, I’m inherently skeptical of any effort to reshape the free market. I agree with Cass that the market, by itself, will not necessarily provide acceptable conditions for workers and families — and that conservatives need to find ways of solving this problem. But to my mind the simplest solution here is the best: If some jobs don’t pay enough, subsidize higher wages. Don’t undermine competitiveness and punish the companies that hire these workers by granting labor rights that undermine the freedom of contract, don’t launch an “industrial policy” intended to create jobs there isn’t actually a need for, and so on. Subsidize wages for the jobs the market actually creates and be done with it.
As a result, I’m dubious about many of these ideas for organized labor, especially the biggest ones. But our current union rules are neither free-market-based nor effective, and I welcome the effort to rethink them.