Conservatives Oppose Forced Unionism, not Unions

The July/August edition of The Atlantic features an article by Jonathan Rauch, “The Conservative Case for Unions,” in which he cites Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan as shaping the modern Republican Party as an anti-union party, and that that needs to change.

What Rauch fails to cite in his lengthy essay is that conservatives are against compulsory unionism, not unions in and of themselves. Meaning, most Republicans are more than okay with workers choosing to unionize, but they reject laws that force union representation, and forced union dues payments, on workers who are not members and did not vote in favor of a union.

Despite glazing over this fairly substantial distinction between anti-union and pro-worker choice, his main points throughout the article are that labor law needs reform because labor unions could shrink the size of government and that a greater union presence would give workers more of a voice.

Let’s start with the latter. There are other ways to give workers’ more of a voice in the workplace than forcing more unwilling workers into their ranks.

Rauch mentions workers feel like they are “treated like a machine part” in reference to his husband’s time working part-time at an international airline. He goes on to say, “Most frustrating of all was that the company’s random, dysfunctional scheduling practices could easily have been improved by worker input, had there been channels for worker input.”

As I’ve previously written, there is a Clinton-era labor law reform proposal that could give workers greater influence in how a company operates without requiring forced union dues payments:

In 1993, the Teamwork for Employees And Managers Act, or TEAM was introduced that would exempt employee involvement programs, which were set up in the past to deal with absenteeism, no smoking policies, communications, pay progression, and attendance bonuses, from Section 8(a)(2) of the National Labor Relations Act, which prohibits company dominated unions. Unfortunately, NLRB precedent has outlawed many forms of collaboration that were constructed to determine work issues between workers and management without a union presence.

Simply, the TEAM act would allow companies and workers to “address matters of mutual interest (including issues of quality, productivity and efficiency).” This would increase efficiency and worker satisfaction in a more peaceful manner than collective bargaining that inherently brings conflict.

Such a proposal would give employees greater input on workplace matters and help workers feel less like they are “treated like a machine part.” It is also important to note, workers that choose to be non-members are prohibited from voting on a union contract, union officials, or whether to go on strike. One way to give workers a greater voice would be to stop forcing non-members to work under union rules without any say in how those rules are crafted.

According to numerous surveys, workers want flexibility in their work arrangements more than a voice. A way to avoid just-in-time scheduling practices (besides not working at companies that employ them) is to be your own boss so that you can choose your own hours. The “sharing economy” is providing individuals with just that opportunity. You can’t have more of a voice than if you work for yourself. In addition, the last thing that a union provides to workers is flexibility. Collective bargaining agreements are one-size-fits-all by nature.

Rauch also raises the specious argument promoted by Eli Lehrer, founder of the R Street Institute, that the decline in unionization has fueled the growth of government workplace regulation and of the welfare state, which has stepped in to provide job security as union membership has nosdived.

There is no argument here that the government overregulates the workplace, but it is highly unlikely that greater rates of unionization would lead to bureaucrats issuing less rules that determine how individuals work. Further, labor unions are some of the most influential advocates of workplace regulation of any sort, even if the rules do not directly impact their membership.

For example, almost no union members earn the minimum wage, yet the Service Employees International Union has poured tens of millions of dollars into the Fight for $15 effort to increase the minimum wage. Worse, while unions lobby to increase the minimum wage they also use their influence to become exempt from minimum wage laws. A classic, law for thee but not for me. It is possible that greater union membership (and influence) would cause non-union workplaces to become even more heavily regulated than they are now.

Stan Greer, editor at the National Right to Work Committee, shreds this argument. Indeed, states without right to work laws generally have higher tax burdens and consume a higher percent of residents’ personal income.

Since Big Labor is widely and correctly recognized as by far the most effective lobby for higher taxes on all kinds of people and increased government spending in America, it would be truly remarkable if Lehrer and Rauch were correct.  But the obvious truth is that they are egregiously wrong.  Monopoly unionism actually fuels higher taxes and government spending, as data collected by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation and the U.S. Census Bureau clearly show.

Ultimately, Rauch is just off-base on what the conservative movement stands for. Sure, some conservatives are anti-union, but most just want individuals to have the freedom to choose whether they want union representation. In my book that isn’t anti-union.

A better way to create a fertile economy with good paying jobs is to reform U.S. labor and employment laws. Labor laws and regulators have erected numerous roadblocks that have discouraged employers from hiring, harmed worker career prospects, and sided with labor unions over the public good. It is time to give individuals the leeway they need to negotiate their own contract terms and allow job creators the flexibility to innovate.