The Daily Beast declares that “the right has good reason to keep organized labor alive.” They are correct, which is surprising, but they miss a few things worth thinking about, which is perhaps less surprising.
Responding to the Harris v. Quinn Supreme Court decision, James Poulos argues that Justice Kagan’s dissent points to the imminent issue in labor politics: the purpose of unions’ existence.
The ravine separating the reasoning leading Justice Alito and the rest of the majority to see mandated public union dues for partial public employees as a restriction of their freedom of speech from Poulos’s conclusion that this requires a revisiting of the rationale behind unions altogether is not so large as one might think. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study, the rate of union membership for public-sector workers is five times that of private-sector workers, 35.3 percent compared to 6.7 percent. A change in the legal methods of public union operations is a change for the majority of unions. While I’m more than happy to see public unions stripped of their arbitrary power, there is a conservative case for organized labor.
I agree wholeheartedly with Poulos’s declamation of the politicization of labor unions—how they’ve grown into self-perpetuating entities more concerned with their own strength and wealth than their members. And Poulos is absolutely right when he says that crony capitalism and a corporation-focused Republican Party push workers to unions and unions to Democrats. But while Poulos sees the balancing effect unions can have with big business as the base for the conservative case for unions, I’d argue that fixing crony capitalism and supporting member-centered unions call for different, though perhaps complementary, solutions.
The elimination of government bureaucracy would eliminate the need for the massive and massively powerful public unions America has today. Public employment is still in post-recession decline from its peak in 2010, a trend that would be good if the jobs it represented were replaced by private-sector positions. But employment, or unemployment as the case may be, is still sticky. As for private-sector unions, they are less a problem than the crony capitalism that allows businesses to take advantage of individuals. If loopholes and protectionism were eliminated, further freeing the market and driving competition, collective bargaining would cease to be the only option for workers and competitive employment would force fairer treatment.
I appreciate Poulos’s call for “functional, principled, vibrant, and truly local unions.” Marx has too often been the source of those principles, and I’d submit the nineteenth-century English social critic John Ruskin for consideration as inspiration for future conservative collective labor. Unions arose out of the Industrial Revolution, the very phenomenon Ruskin felt compelled to address, and his humane vision for workers’ and employers’ relationships remains relevant today. Conservatives care for individuals and for communities, not the abstracted masses of the social scientist. Unions and union politics are changing, with Harris as the most recent example, and conservatives need to be guiding that change, rather than ignoring collective labor’s role in society.
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