It’s no accident that unions have shrunk. The clumsy, legalistic mechanism of the Wagner Act–where seniority rules and firing incompetents requires elaborate negotiation–turns out to be a good way to fail to keep up in modern, technology-driven capitalism. President Clinton’s Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, once famously said that “The jury is still out on whether the traditional union is necessary for the new workplace.” But the jury has been coming back ever since. Look at automaking–where all the UAW firms with their elaborate work rules are in big trouble and all the non-UAW import firms are succeeding. Look at high-tech industries, where unions barely exist. The only reason unions are still a power to be reckoned with at all is their success in organizing government workers, and in using government to cut themselves favorable deals (like the Davis-Bacon Act’s guarantee of union wages in government construction.) Everywhere outside of government, unions are a declining force; the union organizing campaigns trumpeted by the press each year inevitably fail to increase organized labor’s share. Yglesias is the one hoping for a utopia. In the real world, if we want worker protections, unions are an increasingly obsolete way of delivering them; it’s generally better to guarantee worker safety through OSHA, for example, than unions (which now represent less than 8% of the private sector workforce).
If you found Robert Reich and asked him his rhetorical question, “Is the traditional union necessary for the new workplace?”, I am sure he would answer yes. Most everything that Robert Reich says I disagree with. An establishment liberal questioning the value of unions would be quickly ostracized.
But the quote above is interesting because as best I can gather Mickey Kaus is a liberal. One thing truly great about the blogosphere is that people are freer to take politically incorrect positions.
Long live the blogosphere.