HICKS: Trade unions strong when they work with biz

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

Labor Day must rank second only to Valentine’s Day in terms of our ignorance about the holiday’s reason for existing. Other than a column or two on the fading labor movement, or a union hall fish fry, the grand history of American unions is largely forgotten.

So, this weekend, just about as many of us will think about labor unions as those who dwell upon St. Valentine’s martyrdom in a Roman coliseum next February. For unions, this is a largely self-inflicted wound.

Before World War II, American unions may have been unloved by business owners, but were hardly the target of widespread calumny and disdain. Indeed, the labor movement is largely responsible for securing cherished workplace reforms we now view as commonplace. But the movement itself contained an intellectual force that disdained national identity, arguing for an international brotherhood of workers. To many, this smelled an awful lot like communism.

Perhaps the most absurd case of this occurred when the United Mine Workers went on strike in 1943, during the darkest days of World War II, as daily American battle deaths exceeded those we’ve thus far lost in Afghanistan. Hatred of unions swept the military—miners were exempt from the draft, paid much better than an Army sergeant, and demanding a salary increase equivalent to half the annual pay of a draftee. FDR weighed in clearly during a May 1943 fireside chat, noting that “every idle miner directly and individually is obstructing the war effort.”

Though the union movement in general avoided strikes during the war and many were strongly anti-communist in the 1950s and 1960s, the widespread support for unions was never again as broad, even as membership climbed. By the 1970s, strikes that appeared to cripple an already fragile economy and wage demands that seemed to help fuel inflation clobbered the union movement’s popular appeal. It didn’t matter that the strikes and wage demands did little to damage the economy and nothing to spawn inflation—the damage was done. By the 1980s, union membership began to plummet, far faster than manufacturing job losses would suggest. At the end of this recession, private-sector unions face extinction. But it need not be so.

For labor unions to survive, they must follow the path of their more successful brethren in trade unions. As I noted in an earlier column (which resulted in many angry letters), trade unions, masons, carpenters and the like have a centuries-old tradition and serve as marketplaces for skilled workers. Trade unions remain strong because they work with, not against, the businesses that employ them. This symbiotic relationship isn’t transient, but is foundational to the way they do business.

Certainly, the relationship between trade unions and businesses isn’t all love and sunshine, but it works. While many in the large labor unions are working on reforming, they also need a lot of reputation management. For you see, while ancient stone masons spawned a worldwide fraternal group, the UMW’s preferred presidential candidate hasn’t won West Virginia in three elections.•


Hicks is 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.


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. President Obama has referred to the ACA as "Obamacare" any number of times; one thing it is not, if you don't qualify for a subsidy, is "affordable".

  2. One important correction, Indiana does not have an ag-gag law, it was soundly defeated, or at least changed. It was stripped of everything to do with undercover pictures and video on farms. There is NO WAY on earth that ag gag laws will survive a constitutional challenge. None. Period. Also, the reason they are trying to keep you out, isn't so we don't show the blatant abuse like slamming pigs heads into the ground, it's show we don't show you the legal stuf... the anal electroctions, the cutting off of genitals without anesthesia, the tail docking, the cutting off of beaks, the baby male chicks getting thrown alive into a grinder, the deplorable conditions, downed animals, animals sitting in their own excrement, the throat slitting, the bolt guns. It is all deplorable behavior that doesn't belong in a civilized society. The meat, dairy and egg industries are running scared right now, which is why they are trying to pass these ridiculous laws. What a losing battle.

  3. Eating there years ago the food was decent, nothing to write home about. Weird thing was Javier tried to pass off the story the way he ended up in Indy was he took a bus he thought was going to Minneapolis. This seems to be the same story from the founder of Acapulco Joe's. Stopped going as I never really did trust him after that or the quality of what being served.

  4. Indianapolis...the city of cricket, chains, crime and call centers!

  5. "In real life, a farmer wants his livestock as happy and health as possible. Such treatment give the best financial return." I have to disagree. What's in the farmer's best interest is to raise as many animals as possible as quickly as possible as cheaply as possible. There is a reason grass-fed beef is more expensive than corn-fed beef: it costs more to raise. Since consumers often want more food for lower prices, the incentive is for farmers to maximize their production while minimizing their costs. Obviously, having very sick or dead animals does not help the farmer, however, so there is a line somewhere. Where that line is drawn is the question.