Weren’t the 50s Great?

At the Washington Post Jared Berstein calls for a revitalization of unions and union power:

Damon Silvers, director of policy for the AFL-CIO, notes that the extent of union membership is partly a function of big, lasting shocks to the system, both positive and negative. The 1936 Flint sit-down strike against General Motors represented a turning point in the legitimacy and growth of the United Auto Workers, for example. Conversely, President Ronald Reagan’s firing of 11,000 air-traffic controllers whose union, PATCO, was on strike signaled a level of unbridled conservative opposition that persists to this day.

What could precipitate a positive shock that could lastingly reverse the negative trend in union density? Silvers and other to whom I posed this question had the same answer: centralized bargaining. Especially given the depth of opposition and the existence of the “gig economy” (where the “workplace” hardly exists), organizing one establishment at a time is a recipe for further stagnation. As EPI’s president, Larry Mishel, put it, “We need a design where people have collective bargaining rights as restaurant workers, as opposed to one where they gain those rights one restaurant at a time.”

Maybe I’m not being fair to Mr. Bernstein but his whole column struck me as “cargo cult” thinking. Labor unions were strong in the 1950s because labor unions function by limiting membership and labor was already relatively scarce in the 1950s. Additionally, large, centralized manufacturing without notable foreign competition, e.g. the American auto industry of the 1950s, lends itself to unionization. We don’t have any of those conditions now. Attempting to compete with overseas manufacturing is pushing wages down here.

If you want to increase wages for jobs that can’t be moved overseas, e.g. truckers and restaurant workers, limit the number of people competing for those jobs. Half a century ago fast food jobs were jobs for teenagers, trying to earn a little money to buy a car or go to college. Now they’re jobs for adults who are not only trying to support families on them, they’re trying to send remittances home on top of that. Unionization is no solution for raising the wages of people without skills or limited command of English. There are plenty more where they came from.

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