Evan Soltas
Mar 5, 2014

Unions, an Intersection


I'm posting Michael Hiltzik's second response because it seems like the right thing to do for people who are following the labor-unions debate via this blog, even though he isn't exactly civil in his own post. Also, Michael Wasser had another entry.

I thought I would share what I wrote to Wasser on Twitter, as it's a good spot for me to finish my part of the debate.

I would admit that there were other factors governing the rise and fall of unions than just economics, both in the United States and beyond. The data, as Matt Bruenig shows, is pretty clear on that one. And this is a good place for me to note that Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist at University of Washington, has a new book out called "What Unions No Longer Do" which is obviously of great relevance to this conversation. Rosenfeld sent me an email that argued all of these factors are at play, and I think that's fair enough.

My own sense, however, is that the effect of changes in labor law in the United States was comparatively small. It seems that most of the change in unionization was, as I've argued throughout the debate, primarily driven by the competitive disadvantage of unionized businesses -- and the fact that, in the U.S., businesses live or die by that advantage or disadvantage.

To keep unions strong, Europe made policy choices that were well beyond the scope of anything we've talked about in the U.S. It's not a question of uprooting "right-to-work" laws, in other words. It's a question of institutionalizing collective bargaining at the industry level through union-coverage laws, or creating a Ghent system as in several Scandinavian countries.

I happen to think that neither of those would be good ideas. But you're allowed to, that's fine. I'm happy with where the debate went and where it ended up. I don't think unions are the answer to labor's problems -- the last few decades have been, in my view, sufficient to show that -- and pretending they are, or realistically could be, is unhelpful.