Hating on Unions Won’t Fix the Problems They Were Created to Resolve

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I love the way Bleeding Heart Libertarians will talk about issues many libertarians won’t. It’s been especially great since Sarah Skwire came on board. I understand the reticence many libertarians feel when talking about problems that don’t yet have easy-to-implement solutions. Problems like sexism, racism, and the subject of the latest BHL post: power imbalances between workers and managers in blue-collar workplaces.

The post is ostensibly about labor unions, but when you get down to it, labor unions are an imperfect solution to the problem of disparity in power between workers and managers. This disparity is especially pronounced in manufacturing work. So even though there are other sectors which are highly unionized, I’d like to focus on US manufacturing.

Right now, some of you may be having an intense knee-jerk reaction to the idea that workers are victimized by managers. You may be thinking something along the lines of, “This is stupid. If you don’t like something about your factory job, you can just leave. You don’t need a union.”

If this is you — and I think it is mostly because it’s been me in the past — I would humbly suggest you to ask yourself a question.

Have you ever worked in a factory?

If you haven’t, that doesn’t mean you are not permitted to have ideas and opinions on the topic. But you may do well to recognize that by not ever having worked in a factory, you may necessarily know less about the realities of factory work than someone who has. In theory, power dynamics and labor mobility should operate in factories like they do in your office job. However, it’s often the case that realities and theories conflict.

I’ll never forget my very Republican mother coming home from work at the factory saying she was glad for the union at her job. She knew that state-enforced collective bargaining had contributed to making American manufacturing uncompetitive. But she also saw how managers treated their workers. I’ve heard stories of workers wearing diapers because they weren’t allowed to leave the line to use the restroom, of blatant sexual harassment and retribution for reporting it, and other clear violations of human dignity that I honestly cannot imagine having to endure.

One of the main reasons the power dynamic differs between factories and office jobs is that office workers are much more mobile. A white-collar worker can more easily quit a job than can a factory worker for at least three reasons.

1. The ability to telecommute offers many white collar workers the opportunity to find a job in another city without having to move. Telecommuting to work on an assembly line is difficult.

2. Since the US transitioned from a manufacturing to service economy, there are more jobs available to people who qualify for office work than there are for people whose only experience is blue collar.

3. The common phenomenon of towns with only one factory, plus high rates of homeownership, means that quitting your factory job means you’re stuck in a town without other work with a house you can’t sell because the factory isn’t hiring.

So, what’s to be done about the propensity for factory workers to be stuck in jobs where they are abused, lied to, and retaliated against by management?

The main drawback to unions as a solution to the problem is that they have contributed greatly to decreasing US manufacturing’s competitiveness. They’ve been able to do this mostly through state backing and lawmaking and not through voluntary collective bargaining alone. A system of completely voluntary collective bargaining in a truly free market would be an excellent solution to these kinds of power problems.

Maybe instead of railing against unions as they’re implemented now, libertarians could recognize the need for protections from abuses and suggest ways to make private collective bargaining more effective and popular.

Another thing libertarians could do would be to help increase labor mobility by arguing against federal involvement in housing lending. The classic arguments against it have centered on it’s macroeconomically problematic. A focus on how it hurts workers by inhibiting labor mobility will appeal to people concerned about workers’ welfare.

These solutions are imperfect. Their greatest weakness is that even if implemented perfectly, they’ll take a long time to actually help the people victimized by the immobile nature of manufacturing work. However, the answer to problems that don’t yet have perfect solutions is not to deny the problems exist. The solution is to write, think and research better, state-shrinking solutions.