The New Clarion

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In Defense of Unions — Against the Left

By Jim May · February 21st, 2011 7:01 pm · 9 Comments ·

The recent events in Wisconsin have brought about a sudden full-court press by the Left against Republican governor Scott Walker and his plan to rein in the state’s public sector unions.  This action is noteworthy in that it shows the same subtle desperation pattern we see deployed against certain other threats to the Left, Ayn Rand and the Tea Parties being two current and ongoing examples.

The particular pattern and degree of hyperbolic demonization, MSU (making sh#t up) and disregard of basic principles of conduct presented in both examples and in Wisconsin represents a “tell”, an indication that the Left is particularly spooked about something, something that they believe can do a great amount of damage to them and their causes.  Particularly noteworthy in this respect is that they are doing this so soon after their failed Tucson “civility” gambit — too soon for the memory of that particular bad-faith action to have faded from the mainstream memory.  Evidently, in their political calculation, they consider that particular damage to be worth it in comparison to whatever it is that has them scared in Wisconsin.  As well, there is the sharpening of anti-union sentiment across the country.

This seems odd, doesn’t it?  Why would the Left risk turning national sentiment further against one of their purported pillars — unions?  In the pursuit of what goal are they sacrificing unions per se, in favor of just the public ones?

To find the answer, one must begin by examining one of the key premises underlying unionism as the Left sees it: the notion of the “right” to bargain collectively.  Is there such a thing as the right to collective bargaining?  The answer is: yes, and no.

In the first sense, there is a right to bargain collectively.  Individuals have the right to be represented by other individuals of their own choosing, and they have the right to do this by whatever particular organizational model they choose — including that of forming a group and designating representatives who are empowered to speak on behalf of all individuals in that group.  This freedom is known as “freedom of association”.

Freedom of association is an individual right.  Strictly speaking, the “right” to bargain collectively is a derivative of that much more fundamental right, the right to bargain individually.  It is this right which is fundamental, and it is this right which sanctions and protects the right of individual workers to organize.  On this basis, I have no objection to unions as such, nor to any other form of freely organizing individuals.

However, upon examining the actual history of unionism, in America and worldwide, clearly something has gone horribly wrong.  We find that the road that the unions have permitted themselves to be led upon, actually leads *away* from freedom of association.  Rather than affirming the sovereignty of the individual, the practice of unionism around the world has invariably moved against individual rights.

Observe the hostility towards so-called “scabs” and “union busters” — i.e. individuals and employers who exercise their right to bargain individually.

Observe the sorry track record of laws, such as the Wagner Act and sundry state-level equivalents, which violate the right to bargain individually by various means, from dictating terms of private contracts to forcing workers and employers to join unions in order to conduct business.  Where the rubber meets the road, the unions and their Leftist handlers are unmistakeably hostile to the notion of freedom of association, even as they invoke it in support of organizing workers!

And now we have the “card check” goal, an effort to eliminate a shield of privacy for individual workers to exercise what is left of their First Amendment rights without the danger of intimidation.

Does anyone remember California Proposition 75, during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “special election” in 2005?  This proposition sought to give individual workers the right to control the use of their union dues for political purposes.  At the time, I was sorely disappointed in the Yes side for not describing Prop 75 in the correct terms: the Restoration of First Amendment Rights for Public Workers.  As Ayn Rand noted in The Establishing of an Establishmment, it is morally wrong to force men to support ideas which are diametrically opposed to their own.  Prop 75 failed, but I came away with a new understanding of how vitally important these coerced contributions from their own potential enemies, via public sector unions, were to the Left.

It should now be clear what the so-called “right” to bargain collectively really means, when it comes from the mouths of Leftists: it means the right to collectively intimidate, silence and loot dissenting individuals, violating their genuine rights to speak and to bargain individually, towards the political goal of establishing immovable blocs of captive workers — and loot.  In this sense, the answer is “no” — as there can be no such thing as the right to oppress, there is no “right” to collective bargaining; there is only the right to individual bargaining, as an expression of individual sovereignty.

The joke is on union supporters who go around saying that Hitler. Mao, Stalin etc. acted against unions.  Of course they did; having destroyed worker’s individual rights and bound them into helpless collectives, the unions’ function (as conceived by the Left) was complete.  The dictators simply thanked the union leaders for all their work, co-opted their organizational machines, and then eliminated them as competitors for power.  Same road, same destination.

As has occurred with every other genuine liberal movement co-opted by the Left, unions have been turned against the liberties from which they arose.  Even as the union goons dismiss their opponents as “corporate dupes”, the real dupes are those who, on the grounds of supporting the (valid) right of workers to organize, end up aiding and abetting the delivery of union workers, silenced and milked, into the yoke of Leftist political operatives.  To expand upon Peter Wehner:  Neither civility nor unions have any intrinsic worth for these individuals; they are both merely weapons in an endless political battle.

That is what the Left fears losing, in Wisconsin.  It isn’t about unions per se; the private sector unions have shrunk to the point of political disposability, and have largely been disposed of accordingly.  It isn’t about mere “greed” on the part of public sector workers, either — if only it were that innocuous!

As with all things Leftist, it’s about power.   The Left wants to preserve its grip on the large, affluent bloc of public worker votes, and their union dues.  Public sector unions are a direct lever of extra-democratic control upon the government, one that they rely upon whenever governments threaten to slip out of their grasp due to troublesome elections.  They serve as a key rearguard component of inertia against periods of anti-government sentiment, and as key parts of the ratchet when things swing their way.  Scott Walker threatens to set a precedent which could result in the unwinding of a huge part of the Left’s captive power base.

Notwithstanding the key role of ideas, as I outlined here, make no mistake: Wisconsin is a down-and-dirty knife fight to preserve a key part of the Leftist political machine.  They say that an animal is most dangerous when cornered, or when its meal is threatened; the Left has plainly telegraphed that they feel cornered *and* their sustenance threatened, by Scott Walker.

Those who support unions desperately need to wake up to the way they have been played, for decades, by the Left.  Trade unionism per se is not socialist; that cancer finds its origins entirely in the Left.  It needs to be excised, if unions are to be restored.

Unitl the day that happens, as much as I am saddened by the damage being done to the idea of unions, I still find myself drawn to support Scott Walker for tactical reasons.  With luck, aftr the Left has been defeated, unions can someday be re-constituted upon a proper understanding of what genuine freedom of association and of negotiation entail.

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mike // Feb 21, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    I heard once, and found it worth repeating, that the union is the natural enemy of the cartel. In a free market, a union could obviously function as such, and more importantly the mere POSSIBILITY that it might function as such would probably be enough to discourage cartel formation and/or belligerence.

    The requirements in law in states like Wisconsin that ONLY union workers get a ticket to the public dance puts the lie to any notion that those unions are operating in protection of anything but the pockets of their own organizers. The cartel is no threat; government operates under law that can be changed at the ballot box. And the day that stops being true, it will be shotgun-and-barbed-wire time, and the notion of organizing into unions will be moot.

  • 2 Scherie // Feb 22, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    I’m in 100% agreement with you on this. As soon as this mess started, I knew that this came straight from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. This is their last ditched effort to maintain their grip on political power.

    On a personal note, I want to give you an example of what these unions are from the experience of my mother. She is a public school teacher in Illinois( no explanation is needed about this state of affairs). I would give her information about how the pension plans are in a severe deficit. I suggested that she consider closing out her account. She thought about it and agreed to do so.

    She receives all the documents to fill out. Two weeks later, she gets a call from the school district in which she works. The woman was very concerned and asked why she did not want to work for their district anymore. Mom said she wanted to continue to work(Mom has been subsitituting since she lost for teaching position in 2009), she just wanted to close out her account; effectively no longer wanting to contribute to the pension.

    Mom was then told that in order for her to remain employed with the district she had to continue to contibute to the pension plan, since this is STATE LAW!!

    I was totally speechless. If this isn’t force then I don’t know what is! It’s like having a gun pointed at her head. After getting over the shock, I told her this is what the unions do to keep their power. And in Illinois, unions mean a voting block to ensure the status quo. You all can see the consequences right now. The state is flat broke!!!

  • 3 Link on Unions « Psycosmic Emanations // Feb 23, 2011 at 6:27 am

    […] posting a link about the Wisconsin state union scrimmage. Excellent analysis in my not entirely humble […]

  • 4 Mike N // Feb 23, 2011 at 9:11 am

    “Is collective bargaining a right of labor in a free economy?”

    “Yes, if it is free collective bargaining. If men want to organize into a union and bargain collectively with their employer, that is their right, provided they don’t force anyone to join, of force their employer to negotiate with them. Today’s labor legislation, however, is a violation of rights, because men are forced to join unions and employers are forced to negotiate with unions.” Ayn Rand Answers Pg 41.

    It is this power of force the unions don’t want to lose.

  • 5 Roxanne A. // Feb 23, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Excellent analysis! Thank you for illuminating how important it is for Wisconsin’s Governor Walker to triumph, for delineating out what the stakes are and why the Left is coming unglued over this.

    Paraphrasing Agatha Christie, history must be lived forward, but can only be understood looking backward… unless one has an excellent understanding of objective political principles, aka Objectivism, then history can be understood while it’s being made. And, because of that understanding, possibly guided to a more rational conclusion than might otherwise happen.

    Thanks also for discussing the benefit to be derived from unions. I’d become so disgusted with public union goon behaviour that I’d forgotten how useful a union can be, in an individual rights respecting society.

  • 6 Jim May // Feb 23, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Mike: unions as anti-cartel? That’s really ironic, given that one of the major obstacles to union organization prior to the Wagner Act was antitrust laws.

  • 7 Earl3d // Feb 23, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    Excellent article.

    I can’t seem to mentally connect the dots that would have unions as anti-cartel agents under laissez-faire.

    Would anyone care to help me out here?

  • 8 Mike // Feb 24, 2011 at 8:18 am

    Under a cartel scenario, the barrier to entry for new businesses often ends up being too high. The existing players overbuy on resources to keep supply low and overhire expertise to keep it out of the hands of new entrants. Such an arrangement leads to market stagnation and the eventual deterioration of salaries, benefits, and working conditions.

    While an individual stuck in such a situation can and probably would be willing to quit the cartel and lend his expertise to a new entrant, that exposes that individual to what might be dealbreaker-level risk: if the new entrant fails, the individual loses a reliable salary, however suboptimal, and there is a risk that the cartel would blackball the individual and not rehire him, leading to the potential end of his livelihood in the industry of his expertise.

    A union can either force the cartels to keep up a level of compensation that would be consistent with innovation and what would have been the arrival of new market entrants, or can strike so that the cartel is unable to sustain exclusionary operations and must desist to some degree from its efforts to block new entrants through manipulation of the barriers to entry.

    Under objective law, the government would prosecute the cartel for violating the individual rights of others to do business as they choose (disposal of property, etc), but the idea is that any cartel willing to spend to block new entrants would include in that spending governmental bribery, lobbying, etc, to ensure that they themselves are not prosecuted. An informed public could break the cycle at the ballot box, but how much damage is wrought in the meanwhile? It could take decades to untangle a powerful cartel. Many workers might die before it is ever resolved. To those workers, there is effectively no enforcement of the law, and the union is the better option because it may be the only play they have (that they’ll be around to see the effects of).

    Observations welcomed.

  • 9 madmax // Feb 25, 2011 at 12:33 am

    but the idea is that any cartel willing to spend to block new entrants would include in that spending governmental bribery, lobbying, etc, to ensure that they themselves are not prosecuted.

    How could this last any length of time under laissez-faire? It would be exposed immediately.

    Didn’t Branden deal with the scenario you outlined in his essay in CTUI?