What conservatives haven’t acknowledged, and what even most liberal commentators fail to appreciate, is how central the collapse of collective bargaining is to American workers’ inability to win themselves a raise. Yes, globalizing and mechanizing jobs has cut into the livelihoods of millions of U.S. workers, but that is far from the whole story. Roughly 100 million of the nation’s 143 million employed workers have jobs that can’t be shipped abroad, that aren’t in competition with steel workers in Sao Paolo or iPod assemblers in Shenzhen. Sales clerks, waiters, librarians and carpenters all utilize technology in their jobs, but not to the point that they’ve become dispensable.
Yet while they can’t be dispensed with, neither can they bargain for a raise. Today fewer than 7 percent of private-sector workers are union members. That figure may shrink a little more with new “right to work” laws in Michigan — the propagandistic term for statutes that allow workers to benefit from union contracts without having to pay union dues.
If Mr. Meyerson’s thesis is correct, I would think that the sectors with the strongest unions, like automobile manufacturing or trucking, would have not only higher wages but the highest aggregate wages. Imagine a graph that depicts the wages received by union workers. The Y-axis of the graph shows how high the wages are, the X-axis how many workers are receiving the wage. What I think that collective bargaining has accomplished is increasing the wage while lowering the number of people receiving that wage. See, for example, the history of the UAW over the last thirty years.
I don’t think that high wages for unskilled and semi-skilled workers can exist peacefully with borders that are open to cheaper goods from overseas and immigrant workers willing to work for less. My example would be the meat-packing industry. The U. S. meat-packing industry, concentrated in the upper Midwest, used to be one in which the workers received good wages. That’s no longer the case. An influx of immigrant workers, first from Mexico but now increasingly from Somalia, put an end to it.
I think that Mr. Meyerson is being nostalgic for the United States of the 1960s, the time when he was in high school and college. Let me tell a story to illustrate how.
Once upon a time the United States was a country in which the marginal utility of labor was rising. That is, the more people a company hired, the more money it made. In that country increasing the number of workers by immigration didn’t push down the wages of other workers. That was the way things were here until about 1970.
Now we’re an entirely different country. The marginal utility of labor for unskilled and semi-skilled workers is flat or decreasing. More unskilled or semi-skilled workers means that wages go down for other unskilled or semi-skilled workers. It isn’t the lack of collective bargaining rights but the lack of collective bargaining power.
One policy decision at a time we’ve gone from a country where healthcare was cheap and televisions were expensive to one in which healthcare is expensive and televisions are cheap. We could be the country we were in 1965 again. That was a country with lots of trade barriers, not much in the wage of environmental laws, much lower immigration from Mexico and the Caribbean, and in which non-whites were barely counted in the unemployment statistics. It would take a lot more than unions to do it and I doubt that most of us would want to live with the changes that would need to be made.