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labor The Economy Hub - Are Unions Necessary?

One simply can't explain the decline of union representation without acknowledging the role of employer opposition and its empowerment by government policy, as outlined in a 2009 report from the Economic Policy Institute. The government role includes the expansion of "right to work" laws, and the enfeeblement of the National Labor Relations Board and its intimidation by members of Congress.

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Short answer: Yes.

The question is posed by an exchange launched by Evan Soltas at Bloomberg View, and answered by Michael Wasser of the workers rights organization Jobs for Justice. Soltas has defended himself against Wasser's response, so this could go on for a while. 

The discussion was inspired by the recent defeat of a United Auto Workers drive at the Chattanooga, Tenn., plant of Volkswagen, which we discuss here. The case has inspired lots of commentary about the long-term decline of industrial unions in the U.S. and the role of that trend in the increasing of income inequality. The two trends coincide, so there really is no question that the decline of workers' voice and worker rights resulting from the decline of unions has played an important role in the rising power of the shareholding and managerial class. 

One hates to say of a writer as fluent as Soltas that his analysis lacks the depth that would come from experience, but Wasser is certainly correct in arguing that Soltas' argument that the U.S. is better off without unions and "unions can't be saved" reflects the limitations of textbook-learning. A few specific issues:

To think that federal labor law has had "little to do" with union decline, as Soltas puts it, is hopelessly naive. He's misled by the fact that union membership has fallen even though we have laws guaranteeing the right to collective bargaining, and by the failure to recognize how inadequately those laws are enforced. 

"Soltas doesn’t even consider the ramifications of broken labor law," Wasser observes, and he's right. "Without any real penalties to fear, employers have an economic incentive to violate federal labor law. Research shows that indeed they regularly do, using a variety of often unlawful tactics to coerce and intimidate workers during union organizing campaigns."

When the employers don't do so, political representatives of the capital-holding class will, as was seen in Chattanooga, where politicians used the threat of the withdrawal of government subsidies, and the impact that would have on the workforce, as a weapon against the union.

Over the years, employers have developed an exquisite arsenal against union organizing. For a succinct description of how the war is waged, Soltas needs to examine "Confessions of a Union Buster," the heartfelt memoir Martin Jay Levitt published in 1993.