I regularly fail in my attempts to not write polemics, so what follows is another such failure. I have been working in the private sector for almost 5 years now, in a very red (read: conservative) part of the Midwest that is just a stone’s throw from a very blue (read: liberal) city. My alignment tends to be pretty far left, but in my private sector industrial job, I have rarely opened the kimono (so to speak) enough to reveal my fairly progressive views. Recent talk at my workplace about the continuing disputes between the Pacific Maritime Association and the ILWU has hit a kind of crescendo, and it has tended to be polemical talk.
The basic party line assessment here at the industrial distributor where I work is that unions are corrupt, promote inefficiency, and are an obstacle to productivity and good business. It’s amazing how short-sighted this assessment is, and how much it misses the point. I say this for a few reasons.
First of all, I will make a concession. Perhaps some unions—or even a lot of them—battle corruption. But that is no different than nearly any other sector in the marketplace. I will merely gesture toward the financial sector and let you make the connections yourself.
Secondly, unions may promote inefficiency for certain businesses, but this is missing the point entirely. Efficiency can only be a meaningful metric based upon desired outcome or output. A union may not promote efficiency of your business’s desired output, but that is because they have an entirely (and indeed opposite) output. The desired output of your business, as it pertains to labor, is to get the most output from labor while incurring the lowest cost for labor. In other words, a company is efficient with regards to labor if it can pay less in wages while increasing or holding steady their output. A union has no interest in doing this; it’s interest is in getting its members the highest compensation and employment security package it can. In terms of doing that, unions tend to promote efficiency quite a bit.
Thirdly, and related to my second criticism, unions only stifle productivity of businesses because they do not share the goals that businesses (most businesses, at least) do. Unions are concerned with ensuring sustainable and well-paid employment for their members. They are private organizations, just as businesses are, but their goals are opposed to the goals of many of those businesses. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but the general implication is this: for a person to say that unions are useless because they don’t promote industry goals is like a soccer coach saying that the opposing team’s goalie is useless because he keeps stopping the ball from going in. Unions are not supposed to work for the benefit of businesses, so to criticize them for not doing so is to offer up a hollow criticism at best.
As a final point—more of a question, really—I wonder about the concept of productivity on a world macroeconomic scale. Why is it so important that every company continue to sell more and more of their product or service? Maybe it’s because we all know that as companies produce more stuff, there will be more stuff for everyone, and that’s good, right? Well, actually it’s technically not important that companies produce more stuff. What is important is revenue, and if a company can bring in more revenue by selling fewer products, it has every reason to do so. So productivity is a concern for each firm, and if that comes by way of decreasing the productivity of another firm, then so be it. When viewed this way, it becomes increasingly quixotic to argue that we as a whole world should be concerned with boosting the productivity of firms. At the end of the day, increased productivity just doesn’t translate into increased equitable wealth; it usually translates into increased unequally concentrated wealth—more and more each year in fact. That being the case, we can argue that unions getting in the way of increased productivity is hurting us, but without someone like them to ensure a fair an equitable distribution to workers, we are making a moot point.