Raising the Standard.

Truly Pro-Labor

The interfering hand of government. (Photo: U.S. National Archives

In the past hundred-odd years, the American left has succeeded in developing for itself a mythology of Homeric proportions. Whether it be the esoteric mumblings of their Delphic oracle of economics, Paul Krugman, or the more commonplace fable that the left is the semi-divine champion of minorities, of women, of the young, of the poor, of workers (this last being of particular interest here), etc., leftist mythos —and it deserves the status as “myth,” as it bears no relation to reality — has rather successfully pervaded American culture.

The left’s systematic denial and misrepresentation of reality deserves categorical, intellectual refutation, not imitation. Some ambitious young voices within the GOP recognize this, and have striven in recent months to attract new constituents to the Republican Party through right-wing principles rather than through their desertion. In April, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) addressed the historically black Howard University; in his record-breaking speech before the Senate, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) noted the detrimental effects Obamacare continues to wreak on blacks, Hispanics, the poor and young people. Rather than merely repeat what they have already said eloquently enough, I want to address a separate myth — that of the right being “anti-union.”

Organized labor has had an unfriendly relationship with the right for a considerable period of time. The causes are easy enough to discern. The principled right, by virtue of its support of capitalist free markets, seeks to divorce economy and state — which, by extension, includes repealing legislation such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which established a national minimum wage and mandatory time-and-a-half overtime for certain jobs. While such policies are by no means an easy sell to labor unions in the midst of America’s contemporary philosophical decadence, are they indicative of an inherent animosity on the right toward organized labor, or to laborers in general?

In fact, no — laborers should be free to organize themselves and negotiate for increased wages, better hours, overtime pay, and the like. Pursuing their self-interest is their prerogative as individuals, and they should bargain with their employers for all that they believe they deserve in payment for their productive work. Unions are often an invaluable form of assistance in this bargaining process, allowing laborers to pool their resources to hire attorneys to negotiate on their behalf or to sue management for breaches of contract. This is especially useful for workers without advanced, formal education, who may not be capable of negotiating independently. When negotiation fails, unions can organize their members to strike until an acceptable resolution is reached. While a single individual refusing to provide his labor until he is presented with agreeable terms may not entice his employer to acquiesce, if several of that individual’s coworkers join him — provided they have an identifiable self-interest in doing so — then they can together make a larger impact on their employers. True, not all businesses are willing to permit unionization, but such businesses had better offer terms of employment that render a union unnecessary, lest they lose potential and desirable employees to their competitors.

To further elucidate the often advantageous role unions can play in a free market, take my grandfather as an example — a man who began his life farming cotton as a youth in rural Alabama and is now the owner of an iPad. Some time when my grandfather was still employed at a mill, he was the president of the mill’s union. While discussing politics and the state of many contemporary unions’ support of the Democratic party, he told me of an occasion where he and his union successfully negotiated a wage increase without a strike. Another time, an employee had been injured as a result of a manager’s negligence, and when the worker was blamed for his own injuries and the company refused to pay his bills, my grandfather and the union organized a strike. On both instances, the ability to organize collectively proved to be a valuable resource for laborers.

Of course, that was not the end of the story. Shortly after the negotiated wage increase, the national organization of which my grandfather’s union was a chapter (U.S. Steelworkers) called a national strike to increase wages for other chapters. After the strike, my grandfather’s workers found themselves with lower wages than when they had begun original negotiations. In the case of the injured worker, the national organization ordered my grandfather’s union to return to work and drop the issue.

The actions of my grandfather’s parent union reveal an important aspect of contemporary organized labor: a disconnect between big union leaders and the workers they are paid to represent. In many cases, union leadership has entirely lost touch with the interests of their members. Union leaders have padded their own pockets from mandatory union dues and have concerned themselves more with getting “their man” into political office than actually advancing their members’ well-being. Unlike their members, who are often honest, hardworking men pursuing their self-interest in a productive career, big union leaders are often guided by a leftist mythos and make a career out of buying and selling pull in Washington, pushing policies that disrupt the economy, eliminate jobs and reduce the standard of living of their union members. Union leaders, such as those who endorsed President Barack Obama, jealously eye the power offered by a government with regulatory tentacles spread throughout the economy and the ability to sprout ever more tentacles at the stroke of the pen. They see it, and they are attracted to it, in a manner not unlike barracudas targeting a shiny object.

The solution, of course, is to discard the shiny object altogether, and build a Jeffersonian “wall of separation” between the government and the economy until there is no longer an alluring power to be sought there — either by degenerate labor bosses or by businesses themselves. When government force is introduced into what ought to be private contractual negotiations between a business and its employees, the end result is necessarily that rights are violated, and that one or both parties are coerced to accept terms they otherwise would not have in the absence of such coercion. Detroit is a crumbling testament to the results of such a policy.

The notion that the principled right is an opponent to unions is a myth, but like all myths it requires but one light of reason and truth for the effects of its darkness to scatter. In reality, the principled right merely opposes unions using government force as a bargaining chip, for the same reasons it opposes businesses using the government to advantage themselves over their workers or competitors. Businesses should not be forced to provide terms of employment to which they would not otherwise consent any more than workers should be forced to labor under conditions to which they would not otherwise consent. Such is the essence of slavery, which a capitalist free market forbids. Both groups should be able to freely negotiate the terms of their contracts, withholding their respective bargaining chips (i.e. employment and labor, skill and/or experience) until a contract agreeable to both parties is drafted. All rights are respected, and all parties are winners — that is the beauty of capitalism.

—Brian Underwood is a senior studying political science and history

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