The general perception within Conservatism, Inc. and libertarian circles is that collective bargaining is a violation of the right of the individual to seek work without being compelled to join a union. That sounds good in principle, but there’s much more to the story.
A few years ago, the workers at a local grocery store chain in California went on strike. The reason they voted to strike was that management had implemented a new policy whereby most of the employees, including full-time career workers, had their hours reduced to fewer than 25 hours per week. At the same time, these employees had their health coverage taken away.
It’s easy enough here to simply proclaim that this is the free market working for the greater good. After all, consider the Walmart chain. By sourcing most of its merchandise from overseas, exploiting economies of scale, and offering minimal pay and benefits, consumers are able to purchase food and other goods at prices far lower than a local, unionized grocery store chain could possibly achieve. Survival of the fittest. Economic Darwinism. Creative destruction. What could possibly go wrong?
But when you talk with the people who decided to go on strike, the other side of the story becomes obvious. Not everybody is a freelance gig whiz who can move to a low-cost city while writing code at $100+ per hour to service clients all over the world. Some people just want to do an honest day’s work, earn enough to support a family, and live with dignity. And if they’ve put 30 years into a job, with a decade to go before retirement, and all of a sudden their hours are cut and their benefits are gone, who is going to stand up for them?
More than a century ago, the need for unions was more obvious. The industrial revolution had spawned a manufacturing economy where there were no protections for workers. Adults and children worked long hours in appalling conditions. The emergence of unions in those years was a necessary reaction. Unions played a vital role in securing the rights that workers today take for granted.
While it’s much easier today to adhere to pure free-market orthodoxy, the reality is that America is a mixed economy. The debate over how much government and how many regulations are appropriate is better served by recognizing that neither extreme—pure libertarian capitalism or pure state communism—is a desirable outcome.
Unions in America today come in many varieties. Public-sector unions, which elect the politicians who supposedly manage them, and live on the taxes we pay, may be more problematic than private-sector unions. But in either case, it would be a mistake for right-of-center political movements to not consider many of their members as potential allies.
Unions Don’t Need to Have Wings
The general perception of unions, backed up by plenty of evidence, is that they are invariably committed to left-wing politics. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Union membership, even in some of the most notoriously left-wing unions, is often right-of-center.
As reported in the Orange County Register in 2018, the California Teachers Association president admitted that about 35 percent of his membership is Republican. This is in a state where only 24 percent of voters are registered Republicans. The National Education Association teachers union study in 2006 found that 55 percent of public school teachers “leaned conservative.”
The politics of California’s teachers’ unions are unambiguous. Their campaign contributions favor Democratic candidates by a ratio that typically exceeds 20 to 1. Why isn’t it 2 to 1, or less, if you take into account independent voters? Wouldn’t that better represent the membership? And what if NEA spending represented its national membership? Instead of spending 5 to 1 in favor of Democrats in 2020, what if they had spent 55 percent of their money on Republicans? Wouldn’t that more accurately reflect the political sentiments of their members?
In California, up until the rise of the social media mega-billionaires, public-sector unions ran the show. Collecting and spending roughly $1 billion per year, California’s public-sector unions have perennial financial power dwarfing that of any other special interest group. But what if their spending reflected the sentiments of their membership instead of their leadership?
Why, for example, did the firefighters union leaders agree to send their members onto the streets of Los Angeles to march in solidarity with the United Teachers of Los Angeles? Does the ideological agenda of the teachers’ union actually align with the typical political leanings of the average firefighter in California? Probably not.
One may rightly ask why public-sector unions have made it their business to influence politics at all, rather than just concerning themselves with pay, benefits, and issues of job safety. But if they’re going to be politically active, might they at least focus on issues where they have expertise? Why aren’t California’s firefighting unions lobbying to bring back California’s decimated timber industry? Restoring California’s timber industry would create jobs, pay for forest thinning and clearing around the powerlines, fire roads, and fire breaks, and Californians would no longer have to import lumber from British Columbia.
When right-of-center pragmatic American activists are looking for allies to join their movement, it would be hard to find more powerful potential allies than, for example, the firefighters’ union. But who is asking? Why aren’t firefighters themselves demanding that their union focus on changing the regulatory environment so private timber companies can thin the forests, saving lives and the forests themselves? Why aren’t activists going to these union leaders and saying “help us, only you have the political power to stand up to the extreme environmentalists who have brought us to this point.”
Some public-sector unions have already moved right-of-center. This is exemplified in California by the police unions striking back politically against the new lunatic district attorneys who took office thanks to mega-billionaire campaign contributions and dirty campaigns that relied on attacking the incumbent while disguising the motives of the challengers. Crime-friendly idiots like George Gascón in Los Angeles and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco are the result, and police unions have had enough. Nationally, this move to the Right on the part of police organizations was demonstrated by their almost universal support for the reelection of President Trump.
Private-Sector Unions Can Offer Powerful Support to the Right
A fundamental conflict exists between conservatives and private-sector unions: Conservatives support right-to-work laws and private-sector unions see those laws as an existential threat. It’s hard to get past a disagreement that big, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a try.
The approach would go something like this: We’re going to keep on fighting each other over the appropriate level of regulation to apply to private-sector unions, but meanwhile, we’re going to recognize together that America’s left-leaning establishment—co-opted by multinational corporations, mega-billionaires, and extreme environmentalists—is destroying the upward mobility of every working family in America.
This sort of rapprochement was evident in the long battle to open the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines. After unions lobbied for years in support of these pipelines, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was merely “unhappy” when Joe Biden killed it. Was that the best he could do? America’s union leaders need to conduct a serious assessment of what kind of infrastructure is going to truly help the American worker. Not just the workers who get jobs to build the infrastructure, but the rest of America’s workers whose ability to pay their bills is enhanced when the right infrastructure is built.
Here is where unions can save America. Enabling infrastructure that socializes the cost of basic necessities—transportation, energy, and water—is a use of public funds and union workmanship that lowers the cost of living for everyone. When that happens, no matter how much they make, workers can do more with their money. All workers.
Union leaders must ask themselves, what is going to help everyone more: High-speed rail or wider and safer freeways? Wind turbines and solar farms, or clean natural gas power and safe nuclear power? Dead trees and water rationing, or water recycling, desalination plants, and new reservoirs?
The coalition that is currently running America into the ground is too powerful to be stopped without help from America’s powerful unions. If they want to save America for its middle class and aspiring low-income communities, right-of-center pragmatists and union leaders need to put aside their differences and fight together for the greater good.