Letter to the Editor: unions

Just sent this out to the Detroit Free Press. Though I live in Michigan and the anti-union bill is for Michigan, I think that my opinion is geared towards this issue at large–and all Americans. By the way, I’m politically an independant, but if you pushed me to run for office, and I mean really twisted my arm… I would run as… “The Median Voter.” Just sayin’:

Dear Editor,

The right unionize is fundamentally as American as small business entrepreneurship. The American idea of the free market means that the government’s responsibility is to protect the entrepreneur—the worker. This naturally calls for the strict protection of private property. What seems to have been forgotten, unfortunately, is that people have an equal right to sell their labor—to enter into a contract with an employer. Truly free enterprise means that workers are free to unionize. A free market means that the workers may collaborate, collectively bargain, and strike. But Michigan SB 971 by Randy Richardville deems that “…A Graduate Research Assistant…is not a public employee entitled to representation or collective bargaining rights under this act.” This bill won’t last in America. Americans won’t stand for it—for one reason: it’s un-American. Bills like SB 971 violate American political culture.  

Sincerely,

My research is most geared towards political culture and political languages, so anyone looking for clarification–a conversation–feel free to comment and I’ll get back to you.

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13 thoughts on “Letter to the Editor: unions

  1. Why does the free market mean that the government must protect the worker? To me, that seems off. The underlying notion of a free market is people can make their own decisions and protect themselves. Second, if employees and employers are free to enter a contract together, why are both parties not free to dissolve that when they want (i.e., employer firing employees trying to unionize)?

    Thanks bro!

  2. Hi Cato, great question! Even the wisest libertarian must constantly remember that “the government” represents the legitimate enforcer of the social contract between people. Basically, the “first entrepreneur” will, by nature, create a product through his/her work. Unfortunately, without a social contract between all the people recognizing that the “first entrepreneur” owns that work-that the other people cannot steal it, or kill him/her for it–it would actually be in the interest of the entrepreneur to NOT create that useful product. For why would an entrepreneur–a worker–create a product in order for people to steal it? So, you can’t have a “free market” without someone enforcing the “free market rules.” And with 7 billion people on the planet, these rules–humanity’s social contract–must be written down and enforced.

    So I think we can agree that a government is necessary.

    Now we just have to figure out which rules and regulations promote the free market–and which do not. Of course, Cato, we should remember that ’tis our granddaughters’ and grandsons’ Earth these rules should be made for… if we can agree on that–then I’m sure the rest will be easy.

    My point isn’t that unions should protect workers that should be fired…I know a few union workers that should be fired… but the root of this topic is that workers should be free to unionize in a free market.

  3. As Jefferson pointed out, the present belongs to the current generation. I fully trust that my grandchildren can make their own rules. So I do not think we will agree on that point.

    I’ll buy the stuff about the social contract, but I do not see where that connects to the right to unionize. If the government is the only legitimate enforcer of the social contract, why do we need unions to protect workers? It would seem that a union would be an illegitimate enforcement of the social contract!

    I think you misunderstood my final point. It is not about unions protecting people who deserve to be fired (and to be honest, I have no idea how you read it that way!). It is about the right to contract. If employees and employers have the right to enter a contract, the inverse must also be true: that they have a right to exit that contract. Thus, if an employer does not want their employees to unionize, why can they not just exit the contract (in essence fire the employees)?

    • To be fair–you have so far brilliantly avoided my main point: in a free market, people are free to unionize. After all, the whole point of the original post was to point out that the government is attempting to make a law whereby it is illegal for people to hire someone to negotiate their contract! [to unionize]. Laws such as that favor one side–and weaken the “free market.” I further that point by suggesting that a government that outlaws the right to unionize is culturally enacting an un-American law (and we’ll just have to let history decide that one).

      We need the government to protect the marketplace–not the Unions Unions may in fact protect the dues-paying members, but overall their purpose is to negotiate a fair contract for the workers. Our generation has witnessed countless of cases of employers paying employees the least amount possible. In a free market, workers are able to come together to hire someone to negotiate a better contract for them. Why shouldn’t they?

      I think you realize that I was playing dumb about your last point. Obviously, an employer has no interest whatsoever in letting someone negotiate a better contract for the employees. It’s in the employer’s interest to hire the lowest paid person possible–without healthcare–below the poverty level.

      So again: in a free market, people are free to unionize.

  4. I do not think I have avoided that point. I have stated that in a free market employers are free to hire and fire (enter contracts and subsequently void them) as they please. Thus if employees start to unionize–and if that is not something the employer is interested in them doing–in the free market the employer has ever right to fire those employees. To prevent employers from doing this would make the market not free since they are not longer free to enter/void contracts as they see fit.

    In your post you to not provide any argument of why there exists a right to unionize in a free market. You just state it as plain fact. So why is it in a free market employees are free to unionize and what prevents the employer from firing employees who attempt to unionize?

  5. I am separating these responses for clarity…

    What prevents an employer from firing employees who attempt to unionize?
    The answer is: the more specialized and skilled the labor force–the less likely the “employer” will be able to quickly “replace” that worker.

    over.

  6. I do agree that the government should not be able to ban unions. But on the same token, I do believe–in a free market economy– employers are free to the fire employees who attempt to unionize. So if the University of Michigan does not want their research assistants to unionize, I feel they have a right to not recognize that union and even go as far to fire the research assistants if they feel so inclined. (I am sure there are many high quality graduate students that would love to serve as research assistants at the University of Michigan and will agree not to join a union to do so). So I believe you are incorrect to state that in a free market, employees are free to unionize because this fails to see the rights of the employer to enter contract as they see fit.

    Your second comment does not really make sense. Employees have the right to quit because they are free to enter and exit contracts as they see fit. Perhaps you think employees have a right to enter a contract to with their cohorts to form a union, but the employer should not be forced to enter into that contract or acknowledge the union if they do not wish. So I do not see how your comment makes sense (perhaps you are just playing dumb again?).

    What is over?

    You pointed out one situation (and a very rare situation. there are not many specialized and skilled profession unions) where an employer might not want to fire employees for unionizing. That says nothing to their ability to do it if they wish. So while they may not want to, they still can.

    The fact is that most unions represent unskilled labor (think the auto unions and the food, service and commercial employees unions). It is probably the case that the employer would want to get rid of these employees and their union and hire in other workers who are more than willing to work without a union. In a free market what sort of thing can prevent this? I do not think there is anything. If you do something to prevent this, the market is no longer free.

  7. Your comments are very insightful! 1st, you take a stance: that the government should NOT be able to ban unions. That really is my entire argument, and you agree with it (even if you have not told me your reasons). You, on the other hand, have many other arguments that you seem to believe I have confused or left unanswered (to which you finally recommend no answer). Primarily, you think that the employer can fire workers that attempt to unionize and nothing can stop them from doing so.

    Now that you’ve agreed with my main argument, let me try to understand yours by making a few observations. First, fundamentally in a free market sphere, people can hire skilled bargainers to represent them–to get them a fair contract–all the time. You may underestimate this as a part of our culture and day-to-day business-institutional structure. Think “agent” (e.g., all professional athletes, movie stars, etc). Think about the businesses aplenty that perform this same service–that of getting a fair contract for person F–fundamentally, day-to-day (e.g., real estate agent, lawyer). So why single out unions? Why single out one paid professional that gets person F a better wage/benefits for their work? I mean, the whole business community is filled with these types of people!

    So let me move on to your entire argument–the owner doesn’t need to negotiate with the help. That’s your argument, right? If so:

    First and foremost, slavery/servitude is illegal, though your type of owner seems to miss those days… This comment may seem over-the-top, but I think that you may underestimate that the help, indeed, is an entrepreneur in their own right–whomever they work for. This is not unimportant. This leads us quickly to the realization that person F will desire to gain the fairest contract possible from owner G. They will do so by bargaining–such as looking up relatively similar job wages on the internet and demanding more. However, hiring a person that is an expert in bargaining and knows all the information to argue on their behalf–well sign that expert up!

    Owner G clearly wants to stop person F from hiring an expert bargainer–which is really what we’re talking about. Owner G also want to withhold all information from person F–so that they don’t know they’re getting screwed. Am I wrong?

    Please remember that my original argument is about the American culture too. What Americans will or will not stand for. Like ’em or love ’em, Americans are infatuated with fairness.

    By the way, when I said “over” it meant that I was done typing and would wait for you… or someone else… to respond. 10/4 good buddy?

  8. Your comments are very insightful! 1st, you take a stance: that the government should NOT be able to ban unions. That really is my entire argument, and you agree with it (even if you have not told me your reasons). You, on the other hand, have many other arguments that you seem to believe I have confused or left unanswered (to which you finally recommend no answer). Primarily, you think that the employer can fire workers that attempt to unionize and nothing can stop them from doing so.

    —-I believe the government cannot ban labor unions because employees have a First Amendment right to association. Thus, the government cannot prevent employees from coming together collectively to form an association. But private employers may prevent associations they do not want to be affiliated or bargain with. Yes I can that employers– in a truly free market society– should be able to fire workers when they see fit.

    Now that you’ve agreed with my main argument, let me try to understand yours by making a few observations. First, fundamentally in a free market sphere, people can hire skilled bargainers to represent them–to get them a fair contract–all the time. You may underestimate this as a part of our culture and day-to-day business-institutional structure. Think “agent” (e.g., all professional athletes, movie stars, etc). Think about the businesses aplenty that perform this same service–that of getting a fair contract for person F–fundamentally, day-to-day (e.g., real estate agent, lawyer). So why single out unions? Why single out one paid professional that gets person F a better wage/benefits for their work? I mean, the whole business community is filled with these types of people!

    —-An employee can hire an agent, but that does not mean that the employer has to accept that agent. In many cases where we think of agent (say sports, you know for example Scott Borris?), the employer accepts the agent because they know they cannot get the particular skill they are looking for. But in terms of unions, the employer is often able to get the particular skill they are looking for elsewhere and with greater benefit to them (say paying lower wages and not providing health care). So in a truly free market society they should not be forced to accept the union (whether the government can ban unions or not is not really part of the question. It is why should the employers be forced (by the government) to accept a union.

    Owner G clearly wants to stop person F from hiring an expert bargainer–which is really what we’re talking about. Owner G also want to withhold all information from person F–so that they don’t know they’re getting screwed. Am I wrong?

    —-I do not think you are wrong. I think that’s just a problem with a free market. In the free market– unless you are a skilled laborer– the employer holds all the cards. Perhaps that is a reason to lessen the freedom of the market, but speaking in terms of a truly free market, it is what is required.

    Please remember that my original argument is about the American culture too. What Americans will or will not stand for. Like ‘em or love ‘em, Americans are infatuated with fairness.

    —–Then that is probably why the American people have such negative attitudes toward unions then, right? http://www.politico.com/blogs/bensmith/0211/Poll_Public_unions_a_hard_sell.html

  9. You pick a blog to tell me the facts about union attitudes, which cites a poll that it admits is biased….nice. I’ll pass on that.

    I personally hate it when unions protect people that should be fired. Oh yea, I mentioned that already…but I think that this is a point that the unions need to take to heart too.

    On the other hand, I also think that unions get a better contract for the person that hired them… “The econometric model is estimated separately for five skill groups using a large panel data set formed from the U.S. Current Population Survey. The results suggest that unions raise wages more for workers with lower levels of observed skills….” I found this on JSTOR. Or, look at teachers salaries at a glance in southern [non-union states] and northern [union] states.

    I disagree with you that the “employer holds all the cards” part. First, the point of a worker hiring someone to bargain a better contract is to LOOK at those cards! Second, the market is the dealer–and the everyone gets cards. The point of the worker hiring someone to professionally bargain a fair contract for him/her is to try to be treated as an equal at the poker table.

    The Effect of Unions on the Structure of Wages: A Longitudinal Analysis
    David Card. Econometrica , Vol. 64, No. 4 (Jul., 1996), pp. 957-979

  10. All American Cato, thanks for an engaging conversation. Just a few points worth clarifying.

    We both agree that the government should not ban unions in our free market.

    You said that the ability of the employer to fire the help at will is a market failure. I agree.
    For market failure corrections, you may want to check out my collective dilemmas post.
    The answer to correcting market failures in a free market is an entrepreneur (hire a union to collectively bargain for the employees). Employers won’t deal with anyone else–though maybe some crafty entrepreneur will start a company to individually bargain for people?!

    Finally, public opinion about unions is not coterminous or synonymous with what the government should do. I mean, if 60 percent of Americans have a negative attitude about unions–that in no way measures how many people think the government should ban unions.

    So I think we’ve come full circle. Right?

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