It Is Not For Economists To Decide If Unions Are Bad

Image by Bettmann/CORBIS

Evan Soltas writes (boldface mine):

So there are two ideas here, the potential and the uniqueness of unions. Wasser says unions still have potential and that labor’s gains from unionization are unique. I disagree on both. I think unions are far more likely to grow weaker over, say, the next ten years than they are to grow stronger. And I think that there are many other ways to advance labor — ways that are, to my taste, preferable to re-unionization.

I realize that an economist will, first and foremost, view unions as economic actors. But Soltas misses why unions are so vital–it’s the democracy, stupid (boldface added):

Matt DeCarlo, in the context of teachers unions, explains why this is the wrong way to think about the question (boldface mine):

I sometimes hear people – often very smart and reasonable people – talk about whether “we need teachers’ unions.” These statements frequently take the form of, “We wouldn’t need teachers’ unions if…,” followed by some counterfactual situation such as “teachers were better-paid.” In most cases, these kinds of musings reflect “pro-teacher” sentiments – they point out the things that are wrong with public education, and that without these things unions would be unnecessary….

The question of whether or not “we need teachers’ unions,” though often well-intentioned, is inappropriate.

It’s not up to “us.” The choice belongs to teachers.

Laws pertaining to unions and collective bargaining are of course highly complex, and light years outside the realm of my personal expertise, but the right of workers to organize is grounded in the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. Americans have a Constitutionally-guaranteed right to get together, pool resources, and advocate for what they believe – whether in the form of a labor organization, a small protest, or a celebrity fan club.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about whether collective bargaining should be limited to certain areas, or taken away entirely – it’s a free country – but the freedom to form a union is fundamental and, at least in theory, is protected by law. In the case of teachers, unions exist because teachers want a voice in their workplace. That is why, even in states where collective bargaining is prohibited or restricted, and membership (and dues) is purely voluntary, teachers’ unions can still be influential.

So, I say we should be careful about discussing any unions – for teachers or any workers – in terms of whether or not the rest of us need or want them. Not only does it sort of imply that “we” know what’s best for these workers, but, if you’ll permit me a slight overstatement, asking if we need unions is just a step or two away from asking whether we need freedom.

To say that unions are ‘less tasteful’ is to say that solidarity is as well. In an era where the ability of ordinary citizens to have any say over their economic fates is virtually non-existent, the first step towards solving our economic problems must be realizing that workers are not alone, that there are others in our predicament, and that economic hardship is larger than one person. As we like to say around here, there are no working poor, there are workers whose impoverishment we willingly tolerate.

It is not Soltas’ prerogative to decree what is best for workers. In a democracy, it is workers who should (and must) choose how to defend their economic liberty.

This entry was posted in Basic Human Decency, Civil Liberties, Economics, Unions. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to It Is Not For Economists To Decide If Unions Are Bad

  1. dr2chase – my initials, not a physician. Bikes a lot, works on Go compiler, politically a dfh. "dr2chase" most places, except at work.
    dr2chase says:

    Hmm, if corporations are people, then so are labor unions. Bring on the legalized secondary boycotts.

  2. V. Ramanan
    Ramanan says:

    Soltas is the future Mankiw.

  3. Larry says:

    “Americans have a Constitutionally-guaranteed right to get together, pool resources, and advocate for what they believe”

    This is a poor description of unions, especially the American version, with their mandatory dues provisions, etc. Note that Wisconsin teacher union membership fell by 88% after it was no longer mandated. As a historical matter, unions are in terminal decline and not only in the US.

    The statement also encompasses many other kinds of organizations that do not receive any of the protections that unions do, organizations to the existence of which unions are implacably hostile.

  4. Evan Soltas
    esoltas says:

    Hi Mike,

    What I mean by the question “do we need unions” is “how can public policy best help workers,” particularly in a world where private-sector unions haven’t been so weak in almost a century. That, I think, is an economic question. It has political implications. But your thing about “how dare I say what workers should do,” or whatever, entirely misses the point. Workers can choose to unionize. Or they can choose not to. It’s theirs to decide. What I care about are the collective implications of that individual choice — how do we make sure the economy does right by labor?


  5. Pingback: Links 3/3/14 | Mike the Mad Biologist

Comments are closed.