Press criticism of labor unions — is such a thing possible?
Over the years, commentators have given much thought to the news media’s “liberal bias.” But one issue has been overlooked — press criticism of labor unions. That is because it is hard to spot something that doesn’t appear in print. The media just don’t publish criticism of unions (or they didn’t until very recently — and I shall come to that later). The main reason, I believe, is that newspaper reporters are themselves largely unionized. Their operating principle is solidarity: unionized workers don’t criticize other unionized workers. Which means they don’t criticize labor unions.
As unions are on the left in almost every respect, this issue alone could account for much of the liberal tilt of the news media. Yet it is rarely brought up.
The Washington Post, New York Times, and many other newspapers are union shops, with many of their reporters represented by the Newspaper Guild. The guild in turn is a subset of the Communications Workers of America, which is a division of the AFL-CIO. When he died, the Washington Post’s left-wing cartoonist Herblock left $100,000 in his will to the Newspaper Guild.
Union members in general tend to be so self-righteous about their cause — monopolizing the supply of labor to a given company, and the restraint of its trade — that they are disposed to keep on doing their thing out of habit even if it threatens to put their own company out of business. To be sure, major newspapers are not closed shops, and a reporter hired by the Post has the option of joining the Guild or not. The Guild is moderate, as unions go.
Union ownership of a company is no guarantee that the unions won’t bankrupt it. The United Airlines employee stock ownership plan meant that UAL was eventually owned by its unions, but that didn’t stop them from driving it into Chapter 11. A federal bailout for United was on the verge of approval, but one union held out against guaranteeing that loan, when all the other unions had approved it. With bankruptcy, in December 2002, the employee stock was worthless.
Having run General Motors and Chrysler into the ground, the United Auto Workers now owns a sizable chunk of both companies — after President Obama bailed them out and made sure the UAW was taken care of first. Does this mean that the union will now look out for the profitability of those companies? Don’t count on it.
Ford, meanwhile, needed no bailout, and Mickey Kaus of Slate recently argued that the UAW now has a conflict of interest; it will be inclined to drive a harder bargain in its contract negotiations with Ford than it did with GM and Chrysler. It already seems to be doing so. As I write, the proposed contract is being voted down by union locals all over Detroit. The union represents 41,000 Ford workers.
Kaus makes an interesting point, but my suspicion is that the UAW will continue to press GM (Government Motors) for every possible advantage, and to hell with any fears of bankruptcy. With Obama in the White House, the UAW may well be confident that the initial government bail-out will legitimize a second. And if Ford goes bankrupt, too, Obama will be expected to come to its rescue, just as he did with its competitors.
Why are unions inclined to behave irrationally? Because they are fanatical organizations with no fear that the media will blow the whistle. Dissenters within a union who believe that a job at a reasonable wage is better than no job at a high wage can easily be intimidated. A punctured tire when leaving the plant in the evening is likely to be just the beginning.
THE DEFINING EVENT for industrial unions was the “battle of the overpass,” in 1937. Labor organizers led by Walter Reuther fought Ford security guards at Detroit’s River Rouge complex. In effect, one set of thugs took on another. Reuther and fellow strikers were kicked to the ground and a Detroit News photographer was on hand to immortalize the event. That’s how the Pulitzer Prize for photography got started. The UAW was still in its infancy
The essential feature of this melee is usually overlooked, however. Unemployed workers were willing to go to work for the pay that Henry Ford was offering. In response to this threat of labor competition, fledgling UAW strikers had a few months earlier organized sit-down strikes inside GM plants elsewhere in Detroit. This shut down all their assembly lines, and made it impossible to hire replacement workers.
A labor union should be thought of as an organization whose activities appear to be directed against the company but are really directed against other workers — non-organized ones. The UAW insisted on an hourly rate that was about 60 percent higher than what Ford was then paying and that unemployed men were willing to accept. In effect, unionization gave the green light to activists to coerce companies into paying wages well above the going rate. Walter Reuther has been viewed as a national hero ever since.
Labor unions should have been found illegal long ago. But once the Wagner Act was passed (1935), exempting them from antitrust laws, they were home free. Supreme Court rulings in the 1940s strengthened their hand, as did the hatred of capitalism by intellectuals (although based on consent, it deprives them of power). Corruption of state officials by union funds has rendered state laws against union coercion more or less powerless.
The recent management at General Motors has been spineless in its dealings with the UAW, allowing the union to build unsustainable wage increases and benefits into their contracts. There we come to what has been a big part of the problem. Management for some time had been paying itself too much money and probably knew it. So they didn’t feel they could drive even a reasonable bargain with their workers. Sauce for the goose, etc.
If there is one aspect of Obama’s policies that I agree with it’s the crackdown on executive pay. Remuneration has already been reined in at GM. But why do Wall Street’s wizards of finance feel entitled to $10 million a year when their approval or ignorance of irresponsible loans had become a way of life and they couldn’t see the crisis coming? Boards are to blame, but I’m with Obama on this one.
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