Longshore Union’s Exit from AFL-CIO Illustrates Bad Feature of U.S. Labor Law

The largest longshoremen’s union in the West Coast has decided to leave the AFL-CIO. While this may be an internecine organized labor fight, it illustrates a major problem with U.S. labor law.

In an August 29 letter to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) President Robert McEllrath outlined his reasons for leaving the federation. Areas of contention included health care legislation, immigration reform, and — most importantly — recent conflicts with other AFL-CIO-affiliated unions.

In health care, McEllrath and his union objected to the AFL-CIO’s uncritical support of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) — which the ILWU leadership apparently believed did not go far enough in increasing federal involvement in health care — and for “lobb[ying] affiliates to support a bill that taxed our health care plans.”

On immigration, McEllrath criticizes Trumka and the federation for not doing more to promote a path to citizenship for low-skilled immigrants (a fair criticism, in my view, but one that doesn’t consider whether that many immigrants actually want to become citizens, rather than work in the U.S. for a few years, save money, and return to their home countries).

Yet, it McEllrath’s criticism of the role of the AFL-CIO and other unions during some recent disputes with employers that highlights an egregious feature of U.S. labor law that isn’t found in any other area of economic regulation: Unions’ privileged position to act in a cartel-like fashion.

In his letter, McEllrath accuses some other AFL-CIO-affiliated unions of crossing picket lines and of trying “to take over ILWU jobs,” including at one facility “where longshoremen have done this work for generations.” In short, the ILWU’s leadership is upset that non-ILWU workers are trying to take over the work of ILWU workers who walk off the job.

Another word for what McEllrath finds so objectionable is competition. Yet, the cartel-like environment which the ILWU is trying to defend is made possible by unions’ ability to act as monopoly bargaining agents for a given set of workers, under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Some might cite this as an argument for ending unions’ antitrust exemption, but that would simply pile one bad set of laws on top of another. A better solution would be to repeal the NLRA provisions granting unions monopoly bargaining authority over all workers in a given workplace, including those who do not want union representation.