Unions are a hot topic in the last few weeks, especially following the Wisconsin recall election and the implementation of right to work laws in some states that have predictably irked those who would be irked and been praised by those who would praise. In this post (and a few others to come) I want to analyze unions, what they are, how they (can feasibly) work, and what they imply about workers and the economy. Here, I want to analyze the moral neutrality of unions.
This is in contradistinction from many who holds that unions are intrinsically good, being lauded as “pro-worker,” “pro-labor,” a defense of the employed from his employer, and various other neat labels which can be easily applied and are supposedly hard to argue with. It seems to me that many of these labels are dubious; some imply a moral good to unions that they don’t (in principle) have, and others are plain wrong.
What is a union? A union is a collection of workers in some particular company or industry (we’ll just refer to these as “syndicates” instead of always typing out “company or industry” since for our purposes here the effect is the same) that negotiates on the behalf of those represented to get them better pay and benefits. The theory is that, by collecting together the negotiating power of individuals and bringing them to force in one unified movement, they are more likely to get better wages. Employers have less of an advantage when they must negotiate with the entirety of those they wish to employ rather than individuals who are competing against each other for the position.
That’s essentially what a union is; an aggregate of workers (and potential workers) who agree to not sell their labor below a certain price. If this aggregate cannot agree to the same price and you have defectors, i.e. those who choose employment at a lower wage than the union’s price, then the union cannot effectively function and it fails to produce any benefit for its represented workers.
Those who rail against price fixing ought to see the implications of my terms, which are perfectly accurate to describe the activities of unions. Unions are, in essence, a cartel of workers. Just look at the opening sentences of this Wikipedia article, and replace “firms” with “workers.” It fits perfectly the activities and feasibility of unions. Notice I’m not saying there is anything morally bad about cartels; they are agreements made willingly by individuals of their own free will about things which it is their right to decide the conditions of trade. People are free to gather together and form whatever kind of organization they wish, whether it be political, economic, religious, philosophical, sports, etc.
However, there is a problem with cartels; it is in the interests of the individuals represented by that cartel (or even those not represented) to sell at a lower price. This secures, for businesses, a place within the marketplace by competing against their competitors. For workers, this helps secure a job and income. There is one difference, though; usually there are a very great number of potential workers, as opposed to businesses in which the cost of entry can be very high.
Usually, when people see that a profession brings wages they consider high, they are more likely to enter that profession. If a bunch of unionized workers have secured a high wage for themselves, this attracts other workers to that profession who seek that high wage. However, these potential workers have a greater ability to negotiate (as individuals) than they otherwise have, since they are willing to compete with the unionized workers by selling their labor at a lower price. This undercuts the unionized workers, and reduces the advantage a union can have in negotiating for any workers; it is in the union’s interest to prevent other workers from competing with its represented workers on price. It follows that unions are not intrinsically pro-worker or anything of the sort. They might represent the interests of some workers, but it is practically impossible for it to represent the interests of all workers within a particular syndicate, since there will always be potential workers who might enter the syndicate and compete on price in order to get a job. As such, the union is pro-represented worker and anti-non-represented worker.
You might notice the derogatory terms and language fostered by unions and their sympathizers about those who choose to work rather than strike, or who choose to be employed without being a member of the union. Strike breakers are scabs, they don’t care about the cause of workers, they hurt the cause of workers’ rights, so on and so forth. This language is thoroughly propagandistic and disregards the rights of employers to negotiate as they will about the use of their own property. (This will be the topic of my next post, on the political problems of unions.) But really, are those who defect evil? Unions would have you believe so, since they “steal the jobs of workers.”
But that’s ridiculous. If one grocery store refuses to sell apples below $5/lb., and another grocery store will sell apples at a lower price, is that second grocery store evil? Hardly. Are those who choose to shop at the second grocery store evil? No. So why is it any different when we’re speaking about workers competing with each other and the employers who hire them? Employers are, arbitrarily, treated differently as consumers, even though we allow consumers of products/services other than labor to act in ways that would, were the same principles surrounding unions followed, imply that we are all scabs and opposed to the progress of workers’ rights.
Unions are only effective if they are able to monopolize on the availability of labor for some particular syndicate, in the same way that cartels are only effective if they are able to monopolize the availability of some product. Without these monopolizing conditions, unions cannot thrive in a marketplace, because there will always be a pool of available workers who will sell some particular labor at a lower price than those who become members of the union, and the union members would summarily lose their jobs, an effect counterproductive to the union’s activities. Unions are, under free trade conditions, morally neutral, an agreement between people to not sell something below a certain price, a gathering of individuals who are looking to make more money by forming a cartel; people are free to join them or not join them, free to negotiate with them or not negotiate with them. In principle, there is nothing good or bad about unions.
However, we need to take into account certain political realities of unions. That will be the subject of my next post on this topic.