The Incredible Shrinking Labor Movement

The outlook for organized labor has never appeared as bleak as it does this Labor Day.

Just 12.3% of American workers belong to a labor union, with government employees constituting the majority of unionized workers. In the private sector, just 7.2% of workers are union members. The anemic figure represents the lowest level of private-sector unionization in more than a century. The trend predates the depressed state of the economy.

To put the decline in perspective, 30% of private sector employees belonged to labor unions in 1958. How many Americans will belong to unions a half century from now?

The history of organized labor in America is a history of union leaders pricing union members out of jobs. The post-apocalyptic scenes in such former union strongholds as Flint, Mich., Youngstown, Ohio, and Lawrence, Mass., attest to the shortsightedness of tactics attempting to insulate workers from the laws of supply and demand.

Wages above what the market would bear resulted in a mass exodus of manufacturers from union-indulging states. Manufacturers sought asylum in states that wouldn’t force employers to hire high-maintenance union workers at exorbitant rates.

Is it any wonder that employers eventually abandoned union meccas for the right-to-work South and overseas markets?

A chief means of manipulating the laws of supply and demand for the advantage of the few involved the exclusion, by force of law or violence, of a massive portion of the labor market from competing for jobs. By cloaking the clique’s monopolization of the labor market in the guise of protecting disadvantaged minorities from unscrupulous employers, unions managed to make legal favoritism appear as humanitarianism.

For instance, laws excluding child-, convict-, and low-wage workers have been viewed solely as efforts to prevent employers from taking advantage of children, prisoners, and the poor. In some cases, the laws certainly have had that beneficial effect. But labor-union enthusiasm for such measures generally stemmed not from the protection such laws afforded the disadvantaged, but for the protection they afforded union workers from having to compete for jobs with those performing such services for less money.

Other price-fixing schemes that inflated the wages of unionized workers do not lend themselves so easily to a kind look from posterity.

California’s Workingman’s Party (formed “to unite all poor and workingmen” to “rid the country of cheap Chinese labor”) along with the Knights of Labor worked tirelessly to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The discriminatory federal law effectively barred Chinese immigrants from entering the United States for more than 60 years.

In Muller v. Oregon 1908, the Supreme Court affirmed the labor union argument to ostensibly protect women from work (but really to protect union members from competition with women) by claiming that “woman” has “always been dependent upon man,” that women need “especial care” like “minors,” and that she “still looks to her brother and depends upon him.” Though reading today as a time capsule of turn-of-the-century sexism, the ruling was a mix of the progressive paternalism and union protectionism that back then seemed the wave of the future.

For years, labor unions effectively barred African Americans from joining and then cried foul when blacks took non-union jobs. American Federation of Labor President William Green, for instance, advocated the provisions of the Davis-Bacon Act (1931) dictating a union wage on federal projects because without it “colored labor” will be “brought in to demoralize wage rates.”

When courts or legislatures did not do their bidding, organized labor used intimidation, including murder, to get their way. The Molly Maguires of the Pennsylvania coal fields murdered 16 people, including miners, bosses, and mine owners, in their terror campaign of the 1860s and 1870s. Among the hanged conspirators of the Haymarket Square Bombing of 1886 was a member of the Knights of Labor. The Pullman Strike of 1894 witnessed the sabotage of rail lines resulting in death, arson, and union violence against black workers.
Such thuggish tactics, though rarely so violent, persist. Strangely, large portions of the public find violence and vandalism socially acceptable when in conjunction with strikes and labor disputes.

What employer would want to deal with these headaches? Leaving was the rational option.

A man’s labor, like an apple or a car, is a commodity whose price is best determined by the democracy of the market and not by government coercion. When the price of labor gets fixed above the market rate, jobs necessarily become scarce. This price fixing is a boon for union workers holding the jobs. It’s terrible for workers not holding guild membership cards. And ultimately, even union workers get hurt as companies move to environments where productivity is not so expensive.

The unemployment rate stands at 9.6% this Labor Day. Fear of competition is a primary reason so many laborers are without labor on this day celebrating them.