Conservatives Should Embrace Labor Unions

Sep 26, 2020

Brad Littlejohn:

I was very excited to read the new statement from American Compass explaining why conservatives should ensure workers a seat at the table. Now, conservatives are not generally known for being friendly to labor unions, but a lot of this is due to the rise of public sector unions, whereas you’re looking to reinvigorate private sector unions, right?

Oren Cass:

Yes, that’s exactly right. And I think it’s an incredibly important distinction that historically everyone understood. I mean, Franklin Roosevelt famously said that public sector unions don’t make any sense.

Brad Littlejohn:

Over the last few decades, the US has seen public sector union membership growing and private sector union membership plummeting.

Why have private sector unions done so poorly in recent decades, and what do you think are some of the harmful consequences that have come from this weakening of organized labor?

Oren Cass:

Private sector unions have been in such terminal decline because the legal framework we have set up for them is a very bad one. Michael Lind makes this point: that we now have a lower share of the private sector workforce organized than before the National Labor Relations Act was passed during the Great Depression. So, in a sense, you could say labor law is now worse than useless. You might very well have a higher level of organizing just with no labor law at all.

There are a number of serious problems in the way that we’ve set up the system in America that I think have led to its decline, most of which come down to the way that we structure the relationship between the sides at the enterprise or firm level. We have what’s called enterprise-level bargaining, and Americans just take for granted, “Oh this is what labor means.” You have an organizing campaign in the workplace, and the union campaigns to get a union, and management campaigns for no union, and the workers vote. And either a majority say, “Yes,” in which case now you’re unionized and everyone’s in the union and you bargain, or the majority say, “No,” and then there’s nothing.

First of all, that system obviously creates an incredible amount of adversarialism right off the bat. And then, where the union does succeed, it can be a pyrrhic victory, because the union’s success almost by definition is going to weaken the employer in the marketplace. So you’re typically going to see a decline in the health of those firms, and you’re going to see capital and jobs moving away from those firms and those regions where unionization is high to other places where it’s lower.

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