Toward a more perfect union

By Daniel Akst

I have no idea what's going to happen at the Boston Globe now that the Newspaper Guild has rejected givebacks demanded by New York Times Co., which owns the joint, but the ongoing mess got me thinking about the essential dilemma facing organized labor.

Despite their traditional association with progressive change, unions in fact are profoundly conservative organizations which depend more than anything on maintaining the status quo. Disruptive technologies, evolving social and political arrangements, changing consumer tastes, a shrinking planet--these forces are beating the hell out of the traditional union model, which depends on cartelizing the labor force and codifying every aspect of work. The result is that unions in America are associated with our most hidebound and beleaguered sectors: big city newspapers, auto companies, and public schools, to name just three egregious examples. Nobody looks for the union label; on the contrary, people prefer cars from non-union companies and education from private (non-union) schools. What can be the future of a movement that practically repels brains and investment?

One big problem is that the inability of the traditional labor model to accommodate change helps ossify the industries in which unions predominate. Unions today represent less than 8 percent of private sector workers, down from a peak of around 35 percent in the 1950s. Their challenge is to find a new model that can improve the welfare of workers without suppressing change, which is necessary and inevitable. The alternative is that you end up like the United Auto Workers, owning a business no one else wants after watching your membership decimated.

It's not encouraging that unions are mainly thriving in the public sector, where there are no profits to share in but where pliant legislators, ignorant voters and something like a natural monopoly have insulated organized labor from forces which, in the private sector, yield no quarter.

I don't have the answers, but one plausible approach might be to shift the focus of union efforts to government. Instead of taxing individual businesses on an ad hoc basis (that's essentially what unions do), why not aim higher--say, for a more progressive national tax system and universal health insurance, among other things? There is a danger, I suppose, of just taking the same problem and writing it larger (ossifying the entire society instead of just some key sectors), and there are some big contradictions (better education, which is crucial, probably means less powerful teachers' unions). But I think we can figure those things out, and meanwhile working people have the worst of both worlds: government that does little to meet their needs, and unions that pretend to do so by strangling their employers.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/06/toward-a-more-perfect-union/18981/