Making Sense of the Labor vs. Business Conflict

I recently read an article about how labor unions are working hard to re-elect President Barack Obama, something I obviously applaud them for. The link to the article can be found here: (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-57446117/unions-get-out-their-ground-game-for-obama/)

Since at least the time of the New Deal, organized labor has served as a pillar of the Democratic Party with mixed results. I should preface this with my personal bias: As most of you know, I am a gay rights activist. The AFL-CIO has been in recent years strongly supportive of gay rights. So has much of the business community. So it is my opinion that both big business and big labor should be commemorated for their support and that the Gay Rights Movement should work with both camps but avoid getting in the middle of their conflict. What do I believe that the policy of the federal government should be in this debate? Thus, I think it is high time for me to write an editorial articulating my views on this issue. Other than the bias listed above, I feel that I am in a position to be objective in this piece. My father owns a business, and I have an uncle who was at one time in a union, but I do not own a business myself and am not a union member. I confess that two of my three greatest heroes are Wendell Phillips and Bayard Rustin, and both of these men supported the labor movement. But should anyone think that this will cloud my judgment, remember that both of these men were also Socialists, and I am in no way, shape, or form a Socialist. As I stated in an earlier post, I admire these men for their contributions to minority rights, not their economic philosophy. That said, it is my view that both business and labor have tried to enlarge the role of the government in the economy past the point which it should go. During the 1800s, it was often illegal for workers to strike in the United States. Among the many bad decisions that win Andrew Jackson the distinction of being our nation’s worst president ever was his decision to unreasonably tamper with the market by sending troops to break up a canal construction workers’ strike in 1834. More recently, business leaders have pushed for right to work laws in an attempt to prevent union bosses from setting up “closed shops” where employees must join unions. For instance, in 1947 Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which among other things prohibited closed shops and forbade workers from striking without approval from union officials. Of course, this violates the principle of laissez faire. If this economic system were truly at work, governments would allow employers, employees, and union officials to negotiate for themselves, within the parameters of public safety, whether or not individual businesses would be open or closed shop. The market would then decide who emerged victorious. To be fair, I am not a complete supporter of laissez faire, as I will explain later. Still, it is interesting that big business leaders who do claim to be proponents of pure capitalism also request that government intervene to “protect” them from the Labor Movement. Why should the government actively favor businesses over workers? Do we believe that people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but that government should safeguard once they reach the top of the ladder? Unions, on the other hand, want the government to intervene and support them. One of the earliest examples of big labor getting the government to intervene on their behalf came when the Knights of Labor supported the Chinese Exclusion Act in order to protect their workers from job competition. The bill was intended to prevent Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. Nowadays, I am sure that many union leaders would like for the government to actively support them when they lead strikes and prevent business owners from replacing them with new workers. This, I would submit, is wrong as well. For one thing, the more power that unions give to the government, the more likely they are to fall under government control and thereby lose autonomy. When Adolph Hitler initially led the Nazi Party, he talked about tightening control over big business to help the working man. Once he came to power, however, he disbanded all independent labor unions. From then on, workers could only join government-sanctioned unions. Furthermore, when unions continually persuade the government to take their side in labor disputes, they make businesses more likely to shut down or outsource jobs, which I will get to later on. This is not to say that unions do not serve an important purpose. I am merely saying that they would be better served to try and fight some of the battles through the market. There are, however, certain regulations that should be imposed on big business. While I have mixed feelings about the Progressive Era and the New Deal, I believe that significant accomplishments of these political epochs included the forty-hour work week, child labor laws, the minimum wage, workers’ compensation, and workplace safety regulations. The Glenn Becks of the world can rightfully criticize Woodrow Wilson’s presidency for having elements of fascism and proto-Nazism and FDR’s presidency for setting a precedent for huge national debt. However, they would all be well served to acknowledge two things. First of all, they should recognize that practices such as having children work in dangerous, disease-ridden factories or tossing a worker onto the street without any compensation after getting injured on the job are inhumane and should be regulated by government for the greater good. And secondly, they should realize that progressive presidents like Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt made reforms that, while increasing regulation of the economy, also arguably helped prevent the country from turning Socialist due to public revulsion against unfettered capitalism[1]. Any attempt by big business to bring back the practices referenced above should be fought by labor unions. I would also be inclined to side with unions wanting extra pay for overtime work Wanting the government to force businesses to sit idle in the middle of a strike and lose millions of dollars is another story. There is at least one more major issue, however, in which I believe that the government should side with labor: outsourcing. Unfortunately, the last twenty years has seen an increase in free trade policies with bipartisan support that have cost many workers their jobs. Replacing a worker who strikes is one thing. Firing a loyal twenty-year employee in order to save money by moving to Mexico, however, is a situation best avoided. While outsourcing cannot be banned, government policy should not encourage it. The fact that many conservative opponents of free trade like Pat Buchanan are racist lunatics does not change the fact that such policies do unjustly harm workers and should be overhauled. I believe that by adopting a more non-interventionist stance in labor disputes while also opposing right to work laws and free trade agreements will help the Democratic Party retain the support of unions and their members while also attracting more votes from corporate America.


[1] There are valid criticisms that can be made about the social and economic policies of FDR. Still, it must also be remembered that had it not been for his handling of the Great Depression, the country could have gone the route of Germany and responded to the bad economy by becoming a dictatorship.

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