Political Briefs
End Feb. 2 Column

The Importance Of Labor Unions

In general, our present society undervalues the union, just as it (or at least, capitalist managers) did in the 1880s and the opposite of the way it did in the mid 1950s.

I love capitalism, and I have benefited greatly from it. But from 1776 (to pick an arbitrary date) until the 1880s, wages remained flat or drifted downwards and this was basically a poor society, because company A cut wages to raise profits, which reduced the demand for the products of company B, which cut wages to raise profits. As capital is money invested to make a profit (not money invested to make workers happier), this "beggar your neighboring corporation" policy continued unabated until the unchecked power of capital was met by the power of organized labor.

Even that was not sufficient to break the cycle, however. Some would say Henry Ford's greatest industrial innovation was the assembly line. I disagree. His greatest innovation was the living wage. Did he offer it for noble reasons? Almost certainly not. He was a heard-headed capitalist, who raised his employee wages so they could afford to buy his own product. But by paying (numbers generated at random for demonstration purposes) mechanics a dollar a day at a time when everyone else paid 50 cents a day, he not only gathered the nation's best mechanics to Detroit, he raised the average wages of good mechanics everywhere--at least, of those who were mobile. Better-paid mechanics could buy more bread, which produced better-paid bakers. And what had been a lethargic downward spiral of wages and economic activity suddenly became, for a brief century, an upward spiral, under the twin influences of Ford and organized labor.

Alas, when Reagan broke the back of organized labor in the 1980s, the trend was reversed (even though we have been slow to see it). The average household wage has been stagnant for 20 years, even while the wealthy have been sucking up an ever-greater percentage of our national wealth. The middle class made this country great, and the labor movement created it. The disappearance of the middle class, created by the deliberate governmental destruction of the labor movement, will make this country more like most countries in the world--an extremely thin layer of vast wealth oppressing a vast layer of miserable poverty. That won't be good for America or the world.

Not that I feel strongly about the issue.

I was put in mind of this by Harrison Klein, an avid reader and college classmate of mine, who wrote in to say:

Come on Paul! That's such an obvious example of a 'post hoc ergo propter hoc' logical fallacy. Correlation does not imply causation! I bet almost all of the people involved in that situation drink coffee. Does that mean "this miracle brought to you by coffee growers"? I could make the equally nonsensical argument that the Go! flight that overshot Hilo last year because the pilots fell asleep was the result of unions.

While the "great man" theory often isn't the full explanation for successful outcomes, in this case, when you're talking about a piece of equipment controlled by an individual, I think it's more realistic (and fair) to give Mr. Sullenberger full credit for his extraordinary skill and judgment in this emergency.

"That's how strongly I believe in unions" implies an irrational faith bordering on fanaticism. All large and powerful institutions got that way because they offered benefits, but they all have their imperfections. We can certainly recognize the benefits brought by unions, but romanticizing them makes it easier to avoid seeing their imperfections. As I said in an email to you a couple years ago when you ran another item about unions:

Different industries and types of businesses require different employment structures. In some, unions offer employee protections, negotiating power, and organizational stability that benefit both the employees and society. In others, unions merely protect poor employees and the status quo while discouraging innovation and productivity improvements.

I would add that unions probably don't have much effect at all on whether a pilot can safely land his airplane in the Hudson River.

Stressing their labor roots may have been a bit of a stretch as an explanation for the plane crew's performance in this case, but labor unions can use all the good publicity they can get. And, frankly, I doubt management would put as much effort into safety as pilots' unions do. Management doesn't fly airplanes; pilots do. Who has more skin in the game? Management, like, say, that of Ford Motor, calculates that the cost of replacing a bolt on the Pinto gas tank costs less than paying off the families of people who die when the bolt triggers gas tank fires. Similar calculus, I am sure, could apply to airlines.

We both had more to say, but I think you can glimpse the arguments here...