Union Special Privilege

Eugene Robinson writes in today's Washington Post on Walmart's evil ways and how a change in labor laws can help workers (free registration required).

Liberals like me are perpetually queasy about globalization and what the ability to make T-shirts or television sets in Costa Rica or China for a fraction of what it costs to make them here is doing to American jobs, the U.S. labor movement, the balance of trade -- pick your worry. Yet we don't shun the low prices globalization offers us any more than conservatives do.

I don't shop at Wal-Mart, and neither, I suspect, does most of the rest of the Washington-based commentariat. The reason is lack of convenience -- there isn't yet a Wal-Mart inside the Beltway. But I do shop at less distant big-box stores, including Costco, and almost every time I do, I run into a friend or acquaintance whom I know to be a highly compensated professional of the liberal persuasion. We're there, standing in line with Ethiopian cab drivers and Honduran construction workers and Korean grocers so we can buy two pounds of coffee for what 12 ounces would cost at the neighborhood store.

If we want to, we can shop where the people selling us our coffee beans have union contracts and better benefits. Wal-Mart is just smarter and more zealous, almost to the point of evangelism, in cutting prices than most of its competitors. Where the company is forced by law to accept unions, as in Germany, it accepts unions. We can lobby to change the labor laws here. We have options.

The only effect that such labor laws would have is to promote one set of workers over other workers. There are plenty of workers who are willing work for Walmart today without joining a union. Do they matter? Are they not allowed to compete on an even playing field? These laws would be no different than laws that give corporations entitlements like tariffs and subsidies. While giving special advantages to union workers, other workers - both domestic and those in the third world - are pushed aside. Those on the left would do well to be more consistent and criticize both corporate privilege and union privilege.

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Mathias, If we were living

Mathias,

If we were living in a world where there were no laws giving favorable and unjust speacial treatment I may agree with you. Wal-Mart and other large employers receive all kinds of special treatment that I would love to see done away with. Additionally there are a lot of regulations and rules which restrict workers’ rights I would also like to see off the books. [...]

In the mean time, if we are going to be living in a world where the economy is embedded in a web of institutions and laws then I say unions and workers have just a much a right to fight for favorable legal regimes as corporations do.

I agree that Walmart and other corporations get special treatment that they should not get. Yet, this does not justify union special privilege. As Lisa says, making laws that force corporations to deal with unions does not merely give unions more leverage against corporations, but also gives union workers an undeserving advantage over less fortunate workers. These laws are anti-competitive measures against other workers.

The consistent argument is against all privilege - both corporate and union.

> "...and other workers who

> "...and other workers who want the wages being offered come in to replace the strikers. What has the union accomplished?"

One could say that hiring, replacing, and training newbies accounting for 40% of a work force could be a time-consuming (and rather expensive) task. This many folks out the door at once would be an undesirable hit to the employer. So even a voluntary union would have some leverage, so it seems.

I echo what David says as well. Robinson makes it a point to mention the various ethnic blue-collar (and presumably lower-paid and budget conscious) individuals who shop at Costco, yet he openly wishes for a forced system that would drive up prices at this same establishment. Robinson is unaffected as he smugly refers to himself as "a highly compensated professional of the liberal persuasion" (a.k.a. limousine liberal) who can afford premium set prices. Others who aren't so highly compensated be damned, I guess.

If we were living in a world

If we were living in a world where there were no laws giving favorable and unjust speacial treatment I may agree with you. Wal-Mart and other large employers receive all kinds of special treatment that I would love to see done away with. Additionally there are a lot of regulations and rules which restrict workers' rights I would also like to see off the books.

Some of the biggest proponents of the legalization of unions were employers who saw the law as a means to regulate union and collective worker activities.

In the mean time, if we are going to be living in a world where the economy is embedded in a web of institutions and laws then I say unions and workers have just a much a right to fight for favorable legal regimes as corporations do.

The problem I see is this:

The problem I see is this: say 40% of workers vote to form a union and collectively bargain. The other 60% aren't interested in being represented by a union. The union demands a $2 an hour increase in pay, or they'll strike. Management offers $1 an hour instead. The union refuses and 40% of workers strike, but 60% take the $1 increase and are still on the job, and other workers who want the wages being offered come in to replace the strikers. What has the union accomplished? I think the essential point that the Post columnist grasps is that without special (unfair and unjust) legal privileges, unions are fairly toothless. I have no problem with voluntary unions, but I fail to see what they would actually be able to accomplish. As an aside, why were labor markets "imperfect" and how do special laws for unions make them more competitive?

Workers are not divided into

Workers are not divided into two camps, one camp willing to work union the other willing to work non-union. Low wage workers take jobs wherever they can get them.
If a wal-mart were unionized do you really think a camp of workers would decide not to apply to work there based on that?
Remember that the law which gave workers the right to organize was put into place in order to make imperfect labor markets more competitive.

Should the law be allowed to ban minority unionism? For example, 40% of workers at a Wal-Mart vote to form a union, should those 40% have the right to collectively bargain with the company (this is currently not legal)?

Well, I have no problem with

Well, I have no problem with unions per se. They can potentially be simply voluntary associations - a "firm" of workers. I just don't like it when unions get special privileges by law.

I think you're absolutely

I think you're absolutely right, but unfortunately there are two pretty common things at work here. First there's the idea that people who work for Wal-Mart are being exploited because they just don't have any better choices than working at Wal-Mart. Exploitation is usually defined as not having whatever the commentator would define as acceptable employment options. Then there's the notion that rather than privileging one group of workers over another, unions benefit all workers because they counter the awesome, insurmountable power that employers have. I was just reading a debate on the History News Network over whether some historians' outfit should move their convention because it was originally at a hotel that's in a labor dispute with its employees. One of the members had this to say:
"But we should realize that the hotel dispute is no small matter. Employers and government together have smashed unions into a fraction of their former size. The result has been a steep decline of working-class living standards, health coverage, and funding and access to higher education. Union decline is one reason the country has moved so far to the right...Until the organized power of ordinary people begins to be felt, we will continue in our current downward spiral at all levels."
So there you go. Unions are really the solution to all of the country's problems, and most people totally believe this stuff.

So then he wants to force

So then he wants to force poor Honduran construction workers, Korean grocers and Ethiopian cab drivers to pay more for their bulk goods? What a generous guy with other people's money.