Mandatory Labor Union Education?

There is new legislation that is being considered in Connecticut, suggesting that primary school should include a class on labor unions. At first glance, a history lesson on an important institution in America’s history does not seem harmful or ill-advised. However, labor unions are the primary supporters of this legislation and they want to see labor unions not be a one-week lesson in 10th grade, but rather integrated in a year-long course.


“They believe that one of the reasons young people are not organizing in unions is because they’re not taught in schools the benefits of being in a collective workforce,” Kevin Dayton, a policy consultant to non-union construction companies in California.

This is somewhat scary. It appears that this group actually wants to educate kids on the benefits of labor unions and show the power that they hold.  Most certainly, labor unions have power… but is it good power?

Labor unions started in 1866 with the National Labor Union in America.  In 1869, the Knights of Labor emerged to fight against child labor, depressed wages, eight-hour workdays and poor working conditions. Membership rose to 700,000 workers.Fast forward to today where 14 million people are a member in a labor union, roughly 37% of all public sector employees.

A friend of mine, who is in a labor union, gets 16 days off a year for holidays plus an additional 3 weeks of vacation, which he can accrue the more he works over-time. Further, if he is asked to do a job that is not in his job title, he is required to get paid over-time for the work. The health insurance plan is ridiculously good where there are minimum out of pocket pays and most prescriptions cost less than $5.00. Instead of getting a raise in the last five years, the labor union has been arguing over contracts requiring a 3% cost-of-living-increase (COLA) along with a yearly 1.5% raise. Inflation has only been going up approximately 2% per year over the last 5 years  and the economy has not been growing as fast as the proposed raise in this industry. With the newest report of a large GDP quarterly fall of -2.9% this seems hard to justify from the employer’s perspective. So, it is a partial COLA increase, partial raise and an additional raise the labor-union is asking for.  The company refuses this contract and the labor union refuses anything but this contract. Eventually, when the economy booms again, this will retroactively be passed. This labor union has power.

So, if labor union history is going to be taught. I assume it will be taught something like this…tout about the benefits only and never mention the costs. Examples of benefits: higher way for low-wage workers/middle-tier workers, better benefit packages, better work conditions, more picketing with you do not get your way, etc.

The costs that almost certainly outweigh the benefits of labor unions in today’s society may be twiddled down to a ‘hindrance’ or not mentioned altogether if this legislation passed. Examples of costs: less employment (unions raise the price of labor, so employers will purchase less of it), a shift of power to low-skilled or low-wage workers at the expense of the higher-wage or higher-skilled workers (note, I am not saying that low-wage workers have low-skill, however in a free market economy such that each worker is paid their marginal product a low-skill worker would only garnish a low-wage).  Further, bad employees are harder to fire in a labor union as they usually have high-powered lawyers supporting against bad working conditions or mean management.

EconLib explains this quite well:

“According to Harvard economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff, who look favorably on unions, ‘Most, if not all, unions have monopoly power, which they can use to raise wages above competitive levels’ (1984, p. 6). Unions’ power to fix high prices for their members’ labor rests on legal privileges and immunities that they get from government, both by statute and by nonenforcement of other laws. The purpose of these legal privileges is to restrict others from working for lower wages. As antiunion economist Ludwig von Mises wrote in 1922, ‘The long and short of trade union rights is in fact the right to proceed against the strikebreaker with primitive violence.’ Interestingly, those who are expected to enforce the laws evenhandedly, the police, are themselves heavily unionized.”

Some people are fearful of stepping out and debating on employment contracts on their own, so they want a collective group to do it for them. Labor unions are equally scared to wither away in existence as more people in society see them as a disgruntled employees always looking for a fight. No one wants to work with the mean guy or in this case, a group of mean employees. People like to be individuals and think freely, but they also like to be taken care of.  In the matter of public school education on labor unions, I think it would be a major win for labor union supporters and collectivism. It would be a major failure on the part of a free society for the economics (and thus the costs) behind labor unions not to be explained.



One thought on “Mandatory Labor Union Education?

  1. Modern day unions actually have little effect on both employment levels and wages. They were certainly much more of a useful tool in earlier decades (say, the late 19th century, early 20th century) when not all voters were enfranchised; this was a way to get that. However, union effectiveness have stagnated for a number of reasons. A primary reason to me would be the fact that union leaders no longer care about organized labor like they did in the early 20th century (eerily reminiscent of the decline in quality of politicians).

    Caring about their own unique interests instead of the wider labor diaspora has led them to become what they protected against; big businesses, who can negotiate down wages because we don’t live in a world that approximates perfect competition.

    However, von Mises thinks that unions were the cause of primitive violence against strikebreakers? If that’s the case, his agenda is blindingly obvious (and, unfortunately, leads me to question any of his beliefs on this subject). The history of, say, 1930’s America (not to say any European countries where the examples are stronger) is one where business owners colluded with governors to call forth the national guard to quell the uprising (that seems a bit beyond the ‘primitive violence’ espoused by unionists). Milder, but still above the violence directly attributed to unionists in the 1930’s were deaths caused by running battles between police and unionists (who typically fought back by throwing machinery parts; hardly the same as bullets).

    I don’t get it. von Mises is otherwise very smart; here, he’s what he rails against in others; a highly politicized viewpoint with no measure of nuance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s