March 09, 2007

Why Not Try to Approximate the Ideal?

by PG

Jonathan Chait argues in favor of card-checks for unionizing workplaces:

The conservative objections to a "card-check" plan certainly have some merit. In an ideal world, workers would decide whether to form a union by holding a free secret-ballot election. The workers would be able to listen to arguments from both sides, consider their choice and vote entirely on the merits of the arguments put forward.

The problem is that, in the real world, union elections bear little resemblance to this happy picture. Companies that face organizing drives have an enormous amount of control over the elections. They can hold mandatory meetings and barrage employees with anti-union propaganda. (Employees, obviously, can't call a halt to work for a mandatory pro-union propaganda session.) They can predict that a union will result in the shop closing and everybody losing their jobs.

And that's just the legal part.

This to me is an argument in favor of changing the law of union elections: ban mandatory meetings called by employers, or require that equal time be given to union organizers as to employers. (If the employers claim that a union will result in a shop's closing, I consider that free speech by the employer and not something that can be banned.) And as I've said before, stiffen enforcement and penalties for employers who violate labor laws. But I've still seen no good justification for ending the secret ballot.

Chait is the first person I've seen who's honestly admitted that card-check likely will tip the balance toward unions, and he says, "Unions are so weak that we have little to fear from a small uptick in membership. Suppose union membership was exploding and there was some danger the American economy was going the direction of France, where it's impossible to fire anybody. That might be a good reason to oppose the spread of unionism."

Eh, what? From what I understand, of the few unions we do have in the U.S., those few are pretty fierce about any losses in job, wages or benefits -- indeed, I've heard that some union contracts peg wages to multiples of the minimum wage, so workers can get increases even if there's been no negotiation for their wages to go up. Seems like what we need are not a small number of strong unions to create their own little Frances in a few industries, but widespread weak unions that will allow workers to combine their bargaining power without being able to wrest so many concessions that they end up helping to cripple their employer.

I'd be curious as to how the unions work in countries we hold up as models of thrift and hard work (unlike France*) -- for example, what is the Toyota union in Japan like? Toyota's success indicates that a union need not be inherently crippling, so we should look at what makes Japanese unions different. They have some obvious advantages, of course; in a nation with socialized medicine, the employer need not carry the burden of paying employees' and retirees' health care costs. But is this the only difference? I'm a semi-well read person who is interested in economics, and I have no idea whatsoever.

* I see very little that's made in France, but I noticed last summer that my toilet brush -- the cheapest I'd seen in the store -- was made in Germany. What's that about? why are the Germans undercutting our (or more likely, China's) toilet brush prices?

March 9, 2007 12:20 AM | TrackBack
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