TCS Daily

A More Perfect Union

By Douglas Kern - July 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Hey -- remember labor? No, not Tony Blair's party. Labor, as in: those big lumbering organizations that used to matter. Time was when big labor was a kingmaker, making or breaking the careers of politicians. Union stewards were prominent men; union presidents wielded the power of senators; union rules and contracts controlled the tempo of everyday life for millions of Americans. A union card was a ticket to adulthood, and a union hall taught countless Americans their first lessons in applied democracy.

Yeah. Labor. What happened to those guys?

Globalization happened. Foreign competition turned out better work at lower prices, and labor responded by jacking up benefits and lowering efficiency.

Affluence happened. Non-union workers made increasingly good wages without the intrusion of union lackeys and bureaucrats. Eventually, Joe Six-Pack didn't see why he needed labor to "protect" him from his own success.

Time happened. Memories of old class struggles and ethnic solidarities faded, even as a younger generation of workers sought out new places, new opportunities, and new fields of endeavor.

Bad decisions happened. Labor leadership yoked itself to identity politics and radical leftism, alienating labor from its proud history of anti-Communism and social orthodoxy.

Oh, and the Democrat party happened. Or failed to happen. What does labor have to show for the last forty years of reflexive support for the donkey party? Not a single Democrat president since Truman has promoted labor interests with any enthusiasm. Labor laws have remained frozen in intellectual permafrost, applying an outdated 1950s paradigm of management-labor relations to a modern economy. Labor membership is getting older and shrinking precipitously, and labor's proposed solution is - what? The presidential ambitions of Richard Gephardt? The endless promises of a never-neverland where Democrats retake the House? Still more union money flushed down the toilet of national elections?

Perhaps in response to the failed strategy of political manipulation, the Teamsters and the SEIU recently seceded from the AFL-CIO - apparently to pursue an agenda that doesn't list "Pray for Democrats to get elected" as step one.

If labor should be aligned with any party, it's the Republicans.

It sounds strange to me, too. I was raised on the old Republican understanding of unions as coalitions of thugs and parasites, with a tire iron in one hand and a placard in the other. The rules of American politics tell us that labor stands alongside minorities, socialists, lawyers, and academics in the halls of Democrat power. But what does labor have in common with those other Democrat stalwarts anymore? One of these things is not like the other.

Unions are middle-class. They don't depend on government handouts, trust funds, or courtroom largesse for their daily bread. Unions suffer when the economy suffers and flourish when the economy flourishes. Union workers and their children fight America's wars, participate in American communities, and speak America's language. Unlike the rest of the Democrat party faithful, union members have no incentive to rewrite the American system. They may prefer lenient labor laws to right-to-work laws, and they may prefer populist economic systems to pro-entrepreneurial ones, but union members have no inherent reason to resent ordinary American life.

Similarly, unions have no need to support massive government projects. When you're already getting decent health care benefits, why get worked up about socialized medicine? When the union has a decent retirement plan, why pledge your troth to the immutable beauty of the current Social Security system? Big employment programs? Please.

The Democrats cannot afford to lose the union vote. In a party where Howard Dean's conspiracy-minded crowd absorbs more and more money, attention, and power, big labor provides a much-needed reality check. Without unions, the Democrat party veers even further away from mainstream values and market economics.

By contrast, the Republicans may gain a uniquely valuable ally. Free markets produce colossal wealth, but they also produce change -- an enormous churning of relocations and retraining and rethinking that can leave ordinary people battered and bewildered. Government solves this problem poorly, as big government tends to create waste, bloated bureaucracies, and the cringing servility of a subsidized class. Rightly understood, unions can be a powerful buffering force against the harsh realities of laissez-faire capitalism. As an intermediary institution, unions can provide job training and temporary welfare assistance more effectively and thoughtfully than an overbearing nanny state ever could.

For too long, American unions have simply denied free market capitalism -- resisting free trade, rejecting common-sense regulations, and demanding privileges that fly in the face of innovation and global realities. Why not embrace capitalism instead of fighting it? Unions that accept the validity of a low-tax, lightly regulated economy will be better poised to help workers develop the skills and flexibility needed to thrive in such an economy. Moreover, such unions would build trust with management and with their own memberships more thoroughly than the tired, discredited bromides of class warfare and mindless statism ever could.

The departure of the Teamsters and the SEIU from the AFL-CIO doesn't mean the end of labor influence in the Democrat party. Who can doubt that gobs of union money will still find their way into Democrat coffers? But the marriage of the Democrat party and big labor is clearly in trouble, and divorce lawyers are already leaving their cards in the mailbox. A labor movement with the courage to flee the Democrat plantation is a labor movement that might start to matter again. And a labor movement that embraces free markets is a labor movement that could change the world.

Workers of the world, unite in freedom! You have nothing to lose but your Democrat chains.

The author is a lawyer and frequent TCS contributor.


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