Thomas Frank’s odd view of “conservatism”

In his current column, The Wall Street Journal‘s Thomas Frank blames “conservatism” for horrid conditions at an Iowa meatpacking plant, specifically the Labor Department under Secretary Elaine Chao, for allegedly wasting time “dreaming up schemes for ‘voluntary compliance’ with federal rules by businesses, they were getting tough with labor unions — the one institution that can be relied on to protect blue-collar workers.”

The one institution? Not the rule of law, not a labor market that allows for better job opportunities. Nope. Without unions, blue collar workers would all be mere victims.

Yet Frank is half-right in the workers he describes having been victimized, and that a certain strain of conservatism may be to blame.

But why didn’t the packers just demand more money, or scold their bosses for being inconsiderate?

Because their bosses had them over a barrel. Many of them were illegal immigrants, had probably borrowed money to come to Iowa, and consequently were “very malleable,” in the words of University of Northern Iowa anthropologist Mark Grey, an expert on the local meatpacking industry. “They’re at the mercy of whomever’s going to hire them. They’re at the mercy of their employer, at the mercy of the immigration authorities. You’re going to do what the boss says or they’ll turn you in to la migra [border patrol].”

Indeed, these workers have been victimized — by America’s broken, overly restrictive immigration system, a system that too many self-described conservatives support making even stricter.

However, if Frank hopes to equate “conservatism” with free-market principles, he’s barking up the wrong tree. And as a columnist (even a liberal one) for the consistently pro-free market and pro-immigration Wall Street Journal, he should know better.

Finally, on the Labor Department’s enforcement record, Frank’s column raises two questions as to what he thinks DOL’s role should be. Does he think that unions should face less oversight over how they spend members’ dues? And does he expect labor law enforcers to be everywhere at once?