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Unions and Strikes in a Free Society

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The labor-union membership rate of American workers has been declining for years. Labor-union strikes have concomitantly decreased as well. Unions have historically been associated with violence, corruption, anti-capitalistic propaganda, Democratic politics — and strikes.

Unions

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014, union membership fell to 11.1 percent, down 0.2 percent from 2013, although the number of workers belonging to unions held steady at about 14.6 million. By contrast, in 1983, “the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.” Public-sector workers have a union membership rate (35.7 percent) more than five times that of private-sector workers (6.6 percent). Workers in education, training, library occupations, and protective-service occupations had the highest unionization rate (35.3 percent). The states of New York and North Carolina continue to have the highest (24.6 percent) and lowest (1.9 percent) union participation rates.

Unions are nothing more than labor cartels that restrict the supply of workers in a company or industry to drive up the existing workers’ wages or benefits. The cost of higher wages and benefits either lowers profits, is passed on to consumers through higher prices, or both. In general, labor unions benefit their members at the expense of consumers and workers who are denied job opportunities.

The power of labor unions lies in collective bargaining, the power of unions to negotiate with management on behalf of an entire work force. All discussions about compensation, benefits, performance, promotions, or working conditions must occur only between the union and the employer. Directly negotiating with unionized employees is prohibited by law and enforced by government. If negotiations between the union and management fail and union demands are not met, unions use the tactics of strikes, picketing, and hindering replacement workers from entering the workplace or performing their jobs in order to force companies to give in to union demands.

Unions oppose free trade, outsourcing, immigrant workers, automation, and competition, since a cartel can get away with charging higher prices — in this case wage rates — only as long as it retains its monopoly power.

Strikes

Although strikes are not as commonplace in America as they used to be, the longest strike in recent history occurred this past summer in Tucson, Arizona.

In 1905, the Tucson Rapid Transit Company assumed operations of and electrified the town’s horse-drawn streetcars. The streetcar lines were converted to buses by the 1930s. In 1969, the City of Tucson assumed control of Tucson Rapid Transit’s struggling transportation system. Public transit flourished when new buses were added and service improved. In 1975, the public transportation system was renamed Sun Tran. Today, Sun Tran operates about 250 buses on 40 routes to destinations in and around Tucson, and makes about 20 million passenger trips annually.

On August 6, after negotiations between the Teamsters Union and Sun Tran broke down, around 530 bus drivers, mechanics, and other Sun Tran workers went on strike. The striking workers were represented by Teamsters Local 104, which demanded a 75-cent hourly wage increase this year, $1-per-hour increases in the next two years, $1.58-per-hour increases to pension contributions this year, and $1 increases in each of the next two years. Top pay for drivers is $19.22 an hour; for mechanics, it is $22.66 an hour.

Naturally, transportation through- out the city was crippled during the work stoppage, as only limited weekday service on a few routes was available, with even more limited Saturday service. Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild issued a statement encouraging both parties to restart negotiations because the strike was “hurting the community.” But he said that he and the City Council could not by law intervene in the negotiations. The strike went on for 42 days until Teamsters Local 104 and Sun Tran management firm Professional Transit Management signed a two-year contract that is good until June 30, 2017. Sun Tran workers previously went on strike for one week in 1997, two weeks in 2001, and one week in 2010.

A free society

In a free society, there would be no government monopoly on transportation. Ideally, there would be no city or county bus, trolley, streetcar, subway, or train service — it would all be privately owned, financed, and operated. But even in the event that cities or counties still had public transit systems, there would be no prohibitions, restrictions, regulations, or licensing to hinder private transit systems from competing with public ones.

The problem is simply that Americans do not live in a free society. They live in a relatively free society. Compared with North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia — yes, it appears that Americans live in a freedom paradise. But compare living in the United States with living in the United Kingdom, Western Europe, Canada, New Zealand, or Australia and the freedom gap narrows considerably or disappears.

Americans sing on the Fourth of July that they are proud to be Americans “where at least I know I’m free.” But they are free only if they don’t possess a plant the government doesn’t approve of, don’t brew too much beer at home, don’t hire someone for less than the minimum wage, don’t set the wrong prices on their products, don’t have a garage sale, and don’t work as raisin farmers.

Get caught in possession of too much of a plant the government doesn’t approve of and you might end up in jail; get caught too many times and you might go to prison for life.

It used to be illegal on the federal level to brew beer at home. That changed in 1979. However, it is a federal crime for an individual to brew more than 100 gallons of beer at home. A household with two or more adults can brew up to 200 gallons. None of the home-brewed beer can be sold. There are also state laws relating to that as well.

Minimum-wage laws violate the freedom of contract between employers and employees, and especially young, unskilled minority employees. In addition to worrying about the federal minimum wage, many states and cities have a higher minimum that employers need to be cognizant of.

If you own a business and you charge too much, the government accuses you of price gouging. Charge the same as your competitors and the government will accuse you of collusion. Charge too little and the government will accuse you of predatory pricing.

In many communities across the United States, one cannot have a garage sale without first getting a government permit.

Writer James Bovard in these pages a few months ago pointed out that the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Raisin Administrative Committee in one year “prohibited producers from selling 47 percent of their raisin harvest in order to drive up raisin prices as part of a ‘reserve’ scheme” and in the next year “decreed that producers must forfeit 30 percent of their harvest to the Raisin Committee.”

There is no labor freedom in the United States either. The Wagner Act of 1935 forces employers to bargain collectively “in good faith” with any union the National Labor Relations Board decides has been chosen by a majority of an arbitrarily defined “bargaining unit.” In some states you are required to either join the union at your workplace or pay union dues. In other states you can be forced to have a union represent you, but not to pay union dues. Employees who strike over “unfair labor practices” cannot be fired or permanently replaced. Any replacement workers who are hired must be let go when the strike is over. Employers must provide unions with organizing space and cannot discriminate against union organizers or members. Union contracts make firing underperforming workers difficult. And federal anti-trust laws exempt labor unions.

There are a number of things that could be said regarding unions and strikes in a free society.

  •  In a free society, any or all striking workers could legally be fired and never rehired.
  •  In a free society, “scabs” could freely be hired to temporarily or permanently replace striking workers.
  •  In a free society, acts of violence, trespassing, or vandalism committed by strikers would be criminal and subject to prosecution.
  •  In a free society, there would be no National Labor Relations Board.
  •  In a free society, there would be no Department of Labor.
  •  In a free society, there would be no Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  •  In a free society, there would be no government labor economists.
  •  In a free society, there would be no Wagner, Norris-LaGuardia, or Railway Labor Acts.
  •  In a free society, union membership would be voluntary.
  •  In a free society, no one could be forced to pay union dues while not a member of a union.
  •  In a free society, workers could agree as a condition of employment to join a union.
  •  In a free society, workers could agree as a condition of employment not to join a union.
  •  In a free society, individual workers not belonging to a union could go on strike.
  •  In a free society, businesses could refuse to collectively bargain with unions.
  •  In a free society, companies would still be responsible to maintain safe work environments.
  •  In a free society, increased pay and benefits would depend on individual productively, seniority, or overall value to the company, not membership in a union.
  •  In a free society, workers at a company might be organized into several different unions.
  •  In a free society, employers could prohibit the dissemination of information concerning union membership when such dissemination occurred on an employer’s property.
  •  In a free society, businesses could forbid their workers to form or join unions.
  •  In a free society, work- places might contain a mixture of unionized and nonunionized employees.
  •  In a free society, employers could collectively bargain with some or all employees without going through a union.
  •  In a free society, the relationship between management and unions wouldn’t necessarily be antagonistic, as it is now.
  •  In a free society, the government would not interfere in any way with the employer-employee relationship.

There is nothing inherently wrong with labor unions or collective bargaining. As long as like-minded people want to join together into groups, there will be unions of some kind — even in a free society. And it might be easier and cheaper for a company to engage in collective bargaining with all or a portion of its employees. The difference is that in a free society everything concerning unions and their relation to employers, management, and employees would be voluntary, peaceful, and noncoercive.

In a free society, the union’s chief weapon — the strike — might still exist as well. But it is mistaken to think that all workers who strike — that is, refuse to work — would just summarily be fired. They certainly might be fired — and blacklisted, and denied severance pay, and deemed ineligible for re-employment. But a company might very well give in to the demands of striking workers if it calculates that the cost of training new workers to replace them exceeded the cost of acceding to the strikers’ demands. But again, in a free society, strikes would be voluntary, peaceful, and noncoercive — or they would not be allowed to take place.

The widely disseminated union propaganda that without unions American workers would labor in unsafe working conditions, for long hours, at subsistence wages, and receive no benefits is ludicrous. The 89 percent of American workers who are not members of a labor union certainly don’t all toil in dangerous sweatshops for seven days a week at minimum wage with no time off. Union propaganda certainly doesn’t apply to companies such as Netflix, which now allows its employees to take unlimited paid parental leave during the first year after a child is born or adopted, with full salaries and benefits. And just because a company has unionized employees, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it pays them high or even above-average wages. Most of the workers at Disney theme parks in Florida are represented by unions, but starting pay is still less than $10 an hour.

Labor unions could conceivably still exist in a free society, and strikes might very likely still take place by workers in and out of unions. The difference in a free society would be that unions and strikers would receive no special government protection, promotion, patronage, or privilege.

This article was originally published in the December 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.

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