Unions and Opinion and Economic Analysis and Labor

HICKS: It's time for labor unions to make some changes

February 11, 2012

Unions have been much in the public eye recently, and two noteworthy media exchanges led me to consider the possibilities for the future of organized labor in America.

First, a letter to the editor in a local newspaper regaled the important history of the American union movement in helping secure workplace norms of a modern world. But without a hint of irony, the writer offered an example from 1914. No doubt, President Wilson took notice.

Second, in order to calm the tension surrounding a labor dispute embroiling Muncie and Ontario, several local officials diplomatically pointed out that Muncie was not the enemy of Canadian workers.

True enough. But how is it, I wonder, that an employment contract between willing parties could get to the point where either side is viewed as an enemy?

Life is short and full of real enemies, foreign and domestic. Perhaps I am quaint, but I believe if you honestly think of your employer as an enemy, it’s time to quit. If you think your staff is the enemy, discharge them. Of course, the latter may be what happened in Canada, and that’s a lesson in itself.

Employment is a contract in which one side supplies work and the other buys it. The higher the wage, the more work is supplied and the less demanded. Where the wish to supply equals the wish to purchase labor, a wage is set. This wage varies by location and occupation, but one thing is certain: No buyer of labor will keep workers for long if they don’t add as much to the bottom line as they subtract. Wishing the world to be different will not—indeed cannot—change that.

Trade unions (carpenters, electrical workers and the like) have long understood this, embracing markets and pushing for better-skilled workers (the supply) and a stronger economy (more buyers of their labor). In contrast, labor unions continue to fight against market forces to their lasting ill effect.

America’s storied labor unions, now corpulent and slothful, have seen a precipitous collapse in membership. Indiana, one of the nation’s most manufacturing-intensive states, has at least four times as many Republicans as union members working in factories. The passage of a right-to-work law didn’t so much kill unions as simply remove them from life support.

This leads to a provocative question aimed at the many able labor union leaders: What would happen if you became trade unions, representing not the unskilled masses of the past, but skilled, able and well-compensated craftsmen?

Suppose that, instead of having enemies among employers, you become the place American business comes for skilled workers. What if you focus your time and efforts on boosting the prospects of good workers, not making sure bad ones keep their jobs?

All of this is your call, of course; my union membership has expired. But I urge you to consider it soon—before the 100th anniversary of your last major success passes.•

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Hicks is a director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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