Right to work

Freddie wants me to talk about the human costs of not having the auto bailout.  That's easy:  they're terrible.  Lots of people will lose their jobs.  Those that don't will have their expectations for an upper-middle class life crushed.

Am I glad to see this?  No.  Am I rooting for the demise of the UAW?  No.  I don't buy American cars.  I don't work for an American car company.  I could care less about the UAW.

I do think that the UAW is perhaps the grossest example of something toxic about what a lot of American unions have turned into.  I don't care, particularly, whether unions use their power to wrest higher wages and benefits from companies.  Even if they kill the company with excessive demands--hell, they're the majority of the workforce, they can destroy their jobs if they want.   I feel bad for the non-union workers.  But I don't want to, say, legally prevent unions from forming or negotiating.  (I don't want to legally encourage it, either.  I think the government should be neutral, unless companies use physical force.)

What bothers me is twofold.  First, after the unions have put companies into an untenable position, they come to the rest of us looking for a handout to continue the unsustainable levels of pay and benefits.  Almost everyone I know makes less than an autoworker, and has a whole lot less job security.  Why should they pay autoworkers for the privilege of making cars no one wants?

I also really loathe and despise the way the unions use work rules and featherbedding to make their companies and industries less productive than they otherwise would be.  Salary and benefit negotiations seem to me to be neutral; there's a zone of possible agreement, and I don't care if the unions claim all or most of the value in that zone.  But the way economic growth happens--the way we become a richer, more productive society--is to produce more stuff with the same amount of people.  The union goal is to keep the number of people at least even, and if possible increase it, regardless of the level of production.  Hence the fight between the west coast port operators and their unions, who wanted to keep exactly as many jobs loading ships as they'd ever had, even when there were vastly more productive ways to do things.  I don't think any thinking liberal should support this.

Nor am I a fan of seniority rules and job protection.  Most of us function perfectly well without these, and I don't think that advancement solely by time-in-grade, or protecting everyone who does not actually set the plant on fire from being sacked, is either reasonable, or economically desireable.  I understand that people want these things, but I would also like to be able to force other people to buy me dinner at will; this does not mean that I should be given that right.  I too, would enjoy being protected from ever losing my job no matter what, and having all my raises based on my ability to keep my butt in a chair.  But I don't think this would be good for my employers, my readers, or for that matter, me.

But that doesn't mean I don't understand how awful and terrifying it is to have expected a certain life, and have it stolen away from you by a fate you do not very well control.  In June 2001 when I graduated from business school, I had a management consulting gig that was scheduled to pay over $100,000 a year and had just moved back to New York.  Two months later, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, killing a number of people I knew and leaving the rest of us traumatized.  Four days after that, I was working at the World Trade Center disaster recovery site, trying to come to grips with what had happened.  Four months after that, the consulting firm, having pushed back my start date twice, called my associate class and told all of us that our services would not be required. 

For the next eighteen months, I struggled to find a job, in the teeth of a recession that kicked MBAs especially hard.  It was awful in a way that is difficult to describe to anyone who hasn't been unemployed long term; the thing makes you question everything about your life.  I remember going to see Avenue Q on a date, and writhing in humiliation, thinking that my date must be identifying me with the aimless failures on stage. I was 29 years old, and living at home.  I had money--I always managed to work.  But as far as I could tell, I had no future.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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