Laboring Over Labor Unions

In mid-July, a major national railroad strike almost occurred in the United States. A potentially devastating strike, with far-flung negative consequences to an already shaky American economy, may still take place. If it does, it will shock Americans who are largely oblivious to the possibility of a pending disaster, despite the recent story of the massive rail strike in the UK that affected millions.

American ignorance, while dangerous, is understandable; few legacy media outlets have given appropriate coverage to this important story. Sadly, too many news outlets have become the tools of politicians and the handmaids of ideology instead of the purveyors of “news you can use.”

In covering the labor strife in the rail industry, the New York Times, for example, focused on the alleged “resurgence” of America’s private labor unions instead of the crux of the matter: how the railroad labor dispute might be resolved, and the implications to average Americans if it is not. 

Resurgence, in any case, is a bold claim considering the extent to which open shop and right to work laws in many states, as well as the Supreme Court’s 2021 decision in Cedar Point Nursery, have greatly diminished the power and scope of private sector labor unions. Independent truckers recently shut down the port of Oakland to protest a California law that would force them to be employees instead of independent contractors, thus exposing them to union rules. 

Unions now mostly thrive, ironically enough, in the public sector although some potent private sector holdouts, like The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen currently threatening to snarl the nation’s freight rail network, remain.

To understand America’s labor situation, one must turn to small-scale, independent journalists, like those on Substack and at Legal Insurrection. Amazingly, an independent journalist who died in 1986, Wilma Soss, offers more insight into America’s labor situation than most mainstream media outlets today, a fact explained in our forthcoming Fearless: Wilma Soss and America’s Forgotten Investor Movement.

As an advocate for small shareholders who rose to fame during the Cold War, Soss had much to say about labor conditions and unions. In her weekly nationally syndicated radio show on NBC, “Pocketbook News,” she stressed to millions of listeners that she was “pro-stockholder,” not “ANTI-management nor labor.” Although she recognized that every dollar executives paid to themselves, or to workers, was a dollar not available for stock dividends, she was too smart to fall into the trap of zero-sum thinking. Bargains could and should be struck benefitting all parties, necessitating serious negotiation. Deals forced from the Oval Office would prove tenuous and, if too hard on labor or capital, could strengthen the “siren call of Statism” or disinvestment from key industries. Either outcome would strengthen America’s communist foes. 

Although all major labor strikes caught her attention—and there were many in the steel and auto industries in the postwar period—train worker strikes Soss found particularly disconcerting. Beyond recognizing how critical trains were to the nation’s transportation structure, Soss had a life-long love affair with trains. As a young girl, she traveled regularly via rail between San Francisco and New York and between New York and Detroit, and New York and Philadelphia, for her PR business during World War II. The trips to Philadelphia she found especially great as she traveled the rails to help publicize a passenger train car manufacturer called Budd Company. 

In the 1950s, Soss supported Robert R. Young’s hostile takeover of New York Central Railroad and his nonprofit Federation for Railway Progress, which railed against closed shop labor unions. Young and Soss believed that workers should be able to unionize but should not be forced to. After all, union officials often acted in their own best interests rather than those of the workers they nominally represented. 

Soss would say union voting, like corporate voting, should be done via secret ballot. She would also say that the government should stay out of labor-management disputes and concentrate on its core functions, like providing national defense and a stable dollar. In most industries and places, labor markets are competitive and fluid and workers and employers can settle disputes on their own. 

The national economy is not a game and the livelihoods of workers, managers, and stockholders are all important. Like Soss, who graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism in 1925, journalists should seek primarily to keep Americans apprised of crucial developments, like pending labor strife, and only then speculate on larger issues, preferably independent of political ideology or advertising dollars.

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