Originally Published: September 6, 2017 6 a.m.
Wall Street Journal piece
My 2014 piece on collective bargaining
The stack of law against labor
With Labor Day just passed, I was thinking about what could improve things for workers.
The goal of anything that would improve workers’ lot has to be about restoring their leverage. During the New Deal era and the height of union influence, workers could
bargain with much more leverage and get a more even deal. That leverage has eroded, a lot.
Union membership is way down. You can research various reasons why, and each have their piece. And, yes, for those who are critics of unions, many did get far too tangled with organized crime and that left a bad impression, but that hardly accounts for all of the change.
Part of it, which I think is underrated, is the enormous stacking of laws against unions and collective bargaining. As I wrote back in 2014, collective bargaining is something that happens throughout the economy. The only place it is seen as wrong, and has a body of law set against it, is the collective bargaining of workers.
And what a mountain of law it is. Laws restricting freedom of speech that wouldn’t be tolerated in any other form, but when it’s against workers, then it’s seen as proper. If you’d like to read a very small taste of it, see the recent article I have included with this column.
Other factors have played a part. Overseas outsourcing to cheaper labor in other countries. The general success of the top to split the pie ever more to their favor. The Wall Street Journal just pointed out that over the past 30 years, of the money that comes into corporations, less goes to workers. There’s also less going to capital expenses. That leaves the remaining category, profit, larger. The link from the Journal is with this column too.
Workers just don’t have the leverage they used to, to be able to require that they get the full value of the wealth their work creates, while allowing for a reasonable profit for the owners. Unions, or some newer version of them, seem unlikely to arise, and would take a long time. Like a house whose foundation has rotted on one side, and is listing and in danger of collapse, the workers’ side needs some jacks put under it so it can be ratcheted back up to level.
There are a number of ways that could happen. Perhaps some kind of union for all workers that could apply pressure on wages regardless where one works. Or something more indirect, like a large jobs program. The more jobs, the less desperate people are for jobs, and the less inclined they are to accept wage offers that are below what’s reasonable for the work.
And reworking the many laws that stand against workers; the minimum wage level and the restoration of overtime rules to name just two. The talk in Washington, D.C. is of reworking tax laws. How about reworking labor laws?
If you’ve bought into the propaganda that raising wages would make us uncompetitive and kill jobs, I refer you back to the Wall Street Journal piece. Sure, we have to stay competitive, but the biggest change over the past half century has been how the pie has been sliced. Let’s roll that back to where it was 50 years ago, by restoring workers’ leverage, and then let’s see what’s competitive.
Tom Cantlon is a local business owner and writer and can be reached at comments at tomcantlon.com.