Labor’s Conservative Heart
Everyone recognizes the importance of work for a individual health and life satisfaction, strong families and communities, and more. And macroeconomists know the importance of a productive labor force for the overall vitality of an economy and rising living standards. Less often discussed is how the organization of that labor affects these outcomes. Apart from the occasional story about a big organizing campaign at a prominent consumer-focused company, labor relations in America receive little attention. In conservative circles, the attention is largely negative.
This is a shame, because when we talk about labor relations, we’re talking specifically about the ways that workers come together to solve their own problems. To ignore that is to ignore a unique contribution that the American nation has given to the world. Tocqueville famously admired the long-standing American tradition of not waiting for the government to get things done—not even to get justice done. In this context, justice does not mean John Wayne riding into town with a posse, but rather, in the Aristotelean sense, arranging the community to facilitate human flourishing.
The notion that workers themselves, together, are capable of achieving justice in their workplaces without appeal to state adjudication is a profoundly conservative, not progressive, notion. A labor market dependent on individual bargaining creates regulation and empowers bureaucracy, as it will increase the need for public surveillance of working conditions and for workers to turn to public authorities for justice when things go wrong at work, as they inevitably do. Ironically, the end result of a libertarian approach to labor looks much like the progressive agenda it claims to abhor: a larger, more intrusive state and the disempowerment of the American worker and citizen.
Conversely, labor’s traditional support of principles like a family wage was key to fostering the vital civil society of earlier eras—families could afford not only to support themselves, first and foremost, but also to give to churches, synagogues, and other civic organizations. They had the time and stability to participate in building and sustaining the institutions that in turn sustained them. The labor market’s current structure, in pursuit of efficiency, has delivered precarity that works against these goals of a freely organized America with strong families and strong communities.
To put it bluntly: At least at a conceptual level, apart from families, trade unions are among the institutions in America most aligned with conservative principles and capable of advancing conservative ends.
This argument sounds odd to many conservative ears because the current American model of labor organizing is so dysfunctional. Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which dictates the terms of virtually all private-sector organizing, a worker only has a choice between Union A (which is often not great, and often captured politically by the left) and no union at all. Most choose no union at all, at which point they are forced either to suck it up or head to the state for support and justice.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, this labor model was built in the economic hell of the 1930s, and in the face of an ascendant communist superpower. It works best in the large, bureaucratic environments that were present then. Unsurprisingly, it most often persists today in the public sector. Meanwhile, the labor market’s largest low-wage segments, generally in the service sector, have little access to the significant benefits that unions provide. This includes wages, yes, but also and importantly refers to the things required for stable communities and strong families—a predictable schedule and a voice in one’s work.
As the labor movement’s economic salience has waned, it has become primarily a political force, aligned closely with the Democratic Party. The result has been a decades-long failure of imagination by both political parties. Democrats and their union clients promote policies like “card check” as the means to increase union density and dues regardless of what workers themselves want. And Republicans in turn watch unions almost exclusively supporting Democrats and, instead of addressing real issues like incredibly lax penalties for union-busting, see the purpose of labor policy as diminishing the financial lifeblood of their political opponents.
This delivers the worst of all possible worlds: an almost continuous decline of union density (the unions’ nightmare) alongside an ever-increasing and intrusive role for the state (much to conservatives’ chagrin).
America needs to recover the idea of labor as an organization of free citizens united around a common goal: justice in the workplace with the worker as an agent with a distinct voice that, combined with fellow workers, would be as powerful as the employers. This is entirely compatible—indeed, aligned—with conservative principles. Notably, policymakers who draw on religious traditions often find themselves best equipped to articulate the case.
Conservatives could lead the way in reimagining a labor model that accounts for modern economic realities and supports a plurality of ways that workers can organize to achieve agency in their workplaces. Achieving this will require a certain degree of policy entrepreneurship, with a goal of recognizing a spectrum of workplace organizations and functions. Studying the different models that exist around the world would help. Americans tend to assume their way is the only way, and so the dysfunction of American unions has led to the conclusion that labor organizing doesn’t work. Understanding the many forms that it can take, by contrast, leads quickly to the realization that there are options for everyone to like.
For example, policymakers could consider different labor codes for different industries or job classifications. The needs of both workers and employers in various service industries are very different than in construction, say, or manufacturing. The gig economy creates the need and the opportunity for a model more akin to “sectoral bargaining,” in which workers across employers (or, perhaps, working for many of them at once) bargain collectively with a coalition of all the firms. The prospect of broad representation across employers also underscores the importance of creating room for greater competition between unions and ensuring workers the freedom to exit one for another or to choose not to be a member at all.
Unions could also do many more things. In some industries, a union is the ideal institution for delivering training, policing safety, and providing benefits. Portable benefits tied to a union rather than an employer can make labor markets more dynamic. And for those interested in subsidiarity as a political principle, using worker organizations as benefits providers can help move public services closer to their recipients. A thoughtful approach to labor could rebalance the state and civil society and the citizen’s relationship to both. Conversely, unions could be constrained in their politicking—a realm from which workers consistently say they would rather see worker organizations steer clear.
Unions could become more cooperative. The NLRA, born from the violent labor conflagrations of the early 20th century, assumes that labor and capital are adversaries and focuses on channeling adversarial conflict into collective bargaining. As a result, it minimizes the role that employers can play in worker organizations and has had the unintended consequence of blocking innovative—and highly democratic—forms of organizing. Today, most workers say they would prefer a worker organization jointly run by workers and management.
Finally, whatever forms unions take, conservatives should be unanimous in their commitment to robust enforcement of the law. Both corruption within American unions and illegal union-busting by American corporations are far too prevalent. Complaints must be raised easily and adjudicated quickly, and penalties must be far harsher to deter violations.
Thinking in this way requires moving beyond the outdated Marxist idea of class domination as a motive for organizing. While there are clear instances where workers are being oppressed by their bosses, retribution should not be the motivating factor in labor organizing. A workplace is a community in which labor and capital have sometimes competing, but also highly aligned gifts of productivity and just reward for work. Conservative policymakers can recover the idea that a labor movement allows civil society to balance the power of an over-weening state, and that providing workers with creative, fair ways to achieve the American dream is not hostile to, but constitutive of, American culture.