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Let Unions Operate in a 'Free Market'

August 13, 2003|David Macaray | Dave Macaray was president and chief contract negotiator of Local 672 of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers for nine terms.

Established in 1894 during Grover Cleveland's second administration, Labor Day was originally intended not only to honor American working men and women but to formally acknowledge the growing stature of the burgeoning U.S. labor movement. Considering the nation's subsequent disillusionment with labor unions and the ability of powerful special-interest groups to mobilize legislative opposition, it's highly doubtful that Congress could get the same holiday passed today; more to the point, it's unlikely its members would even try.

During the last 30 years, unions have not only lost what remained of the luck, charm and political utility that once sustained them, they've broken their ideological bonds to the intellectual left. Today, Palestinian suicide bombers receive more sympathy from American academics than do the Teamsters.

According to myth, unions were more or less "legislated" into existence, not arriving on the scene until after a New Deal Congress passed a series of benevolent laws to ease the way. The first law came in 1935; the National Labor Relations Act -- popularly known as the Wagner Act -- established the National Labor Relations Board and guaranteed unions the right to organize, strike and collectively bargain. It was followed by the Fair Labor Standards (1938), Taft-Hartley (1947) and Landrum-Griffin (1959) acts.

In truth, however, unions had been taking their cow to market -- actively organizing and bargaining -- for more than 100 years before any major legislation. Boston carpenters had gone on strike for a 10-hour day as far back as 1825. In 1835, mill workers in Paterson, N.J., successfully struck for the 11-hour-day/six-day week.

In fact, the decades of the 1880s and 1900s witnessed tremendous surges in union membership (particularly in mining, textiles and trade crafts), including, interestingly, the establishment in 1885 of the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players.

But the government's "protective" legislation did leave its indelible mark. In one swift stroke, the Wagner Act co-opted the labor movement, placing its holy trinity (organizing, bargaining, striking) under federal statutory control for the first time in history.

One doesn't need an AFL-CIO decoder ring to recognize that by removing labor disputes from the factory floor and placing them in the venue of the courts, the NLRB shifted advantage to the side with the most resources and most to gain by using stalling tactics. Nothing has been the same since.

Today, although Canadian and European workers are free to join unions simply by signing membership cards, American workers, astonishingly, must petition their government for permission. The bureaucratic thicket created by Taft-Hartley (passed by a Republican Congress over President Truman's veto) -- with applications, hearings and company challenges requiring as long as a year to process -- has made becoming a union member nearly as difficult as becoming a U.S. citizen.

In 1913, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, "Labor cannot on any terms surrender its right to strike."

If Congress were committed to leveling the playing field, we would already have laws on the books, like those in Canada and Europe, making it illegal for striking workers to be permanently replaced by scabs. Realistically, what economic leverage do workers have when voting to go on strike is tantamount to giving up their jobs?

A bold proposal: Let us repeal Taft-Hartley and the minimum wage and allow labor to compete in a "free market." If joining (or withdrawing from) a union makes sense, then workers should be permitted to make that decision without government interference.

Conversely, if unions are exposed as the obsolete, parasitic institutions they're portrayed to be, then so be it; allow them to follow the dinosaur and Model T into extinction. But it should be the American worker -- not Big Brother -- who decides.

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