Why Labor Unions Are Immoral
Corporations are the least responsible for the plight of the poor
Let’s say a nation is concerned about poverty. So it passes a law that says the rich will have some of their money redistributed to the poor. But instead of a progressive income tax used to fund cash payments to the unfortunate, the government decides that wealthy people who happened to be born in the spring will give their money to poor people whose birthdays are in the summer. Moreover, this redistribution won’t go to anyone who is too poor. You have to already have a job to qualify, and a certain kind of job at that. In fact, you are going to make the poorest of the poor worse off through the policy. Finally, instead of cash payments that they can spend on whatever they actually need, the recipients of aid get gift cards to Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
I think, regardless of how they feel about the redistribution of wealth, most people would find this to be a pretty stupid policy for reasons that are self-evident. Yet this is similar to how laws protecting organized labor function, which in effect involve the “right” of workers in an industry to form a cartel that prevents other people from being hired by an employer. Bosses in a certain industry and of a certain size are to redistribute resources to their employees. Organized labor doesn’t simply ask for money, but also negotiates things like the length of breaks and working conditions.
People look at Jeff Bezos and see he lives a much better life than Amazon warehouse workers or delivery drivers. So they think, let’s cut into Bezos’ profits to make his employees better off. But while “redistribute money from the rich to the poor” can be a defensible policy, “redistribute resources from Bezos to people who work for Bezos, also at the expense of other poor people” is at least as stupid and arbitrary as “redistribute resources from rich people born in spring to people who are poor but not too poor and born in summer.” One might set a higher minimum wage for employees, which would make Amazon less likely to hire the least productive workers, and also hurt consumers, many of them no better off than those who deliver their packages.
Organized labor is even worse when it tries to set working conditions instead of wages. A few years ago, the media went crazy with stories about how some Amazon delivery drivers had to pee in bottles. Categorical rules like “no one should ever pee in a bottle” is not how you run an economy. For the right price, many people would pee in a bottle. I’ve done it before, it’s not exactly torture, and certainly better than using many male public restrooms. How do you trade off not having bathroom breaks against everything else people value in the world? Through the price system, of course. People differ in the size of their bladders. Imagine you’ve got a company that has good enough logistics to have figured out how to make two-day shipping affordable and bring it to the masses. This might mean having a system where the 80% of people with the largest bladders never have to pee in a bottle, but the 20% with the smallest bladders do. How should public policy respond to this state of the world? Should it make this new two-day shipping system illegal because someone might have to pee in a bottle? On what basis? Some people have small bladders and really hate peeing in a bottle, and I’d expect them not to take delivery jobs with this company, which is, unlike preventing Amazon from being as efficient as possible, no loss for humanity or something we should care about. Or they may apply for delivery jobs but only in urban instead of rural areas (or vice versa, whatever). The point is that human needs and desires are complex and the price system is the only realistic method we have to aggregate them. It’s certainly better than government regulation through media headlines based on what sounds good or bad.
When people worry about the relationship between employers and employees, they worry about asymmetric bargaining power. But asymmetric power is a product of disparities in wealth — workers that have more resources demand better conditions. This is why firms can treat employees in the third world worse than Americans, and explains why working conditions get better as society gets wealthier. If this is a concern, the solution is again to just redistribute wealth, which would make poor people better off, meaning they can enter the labor market on whatever terms the economy will allow, taking into account their own needs and preferences, along with those of the rest of society. They can choose either a job that pays $15 an hour with the stipulation they will never pee in a bottle, or get $18 and take the risk of having to do so every now and then. Human progress in the field of logistics isn’t held hostage to the smallest bladder. The same goes for things like overtime pay requirements, the length and frequency of breaks, and other things. Perhaps in the area of worker safety there may be asymmetric information, and potential workers can’t make informed decisions about what’s likely to give them cancer twenty years down the line. In such cases I’d be open to targeted regulations that pass a cost-benefit test. But most things that fall into the category of “workers’ rights” are nothing like this, and collective bargaining over them, or government setting the relevant terms of employment contracts, therefore cannot be justified.
Thus far, I’ve explained why supporting labor unions is bad policy. But what makes it immoral? To me, it’s morally outrageous to scapegoat individuals for things that aren’t their fault, and even worse to do so when the target not only isn’t blameworthy, but actually deserves praise for what they’ve done. Let’s go back to the plight of the Amazon delivery worker, and grant that he lives a terrible life. Who should you blame for this? If you were going to make a list of the eight billion people in the world from the most to least blameworthy, Jeff Bezos should literally be number eight billion. After all, he gave the person a job that they thought was a better opportunity than anything else they could have gotten. If Bezos is only paying them $15 an hour, and you think that’s insufficient to live a good life, why be mad at him instead of anyone else in the world, who was apparently unwilling to offer at least that much?
I started this essay by saying that organized labor involves arbitrary redistribution. But it’s actually worse than that. It targets the entrepreneurs and businesses who have done the most to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Instead of season-of-birth-based redistribution, it would be as if those who donated to charity were held uniquely responsible for any harms that befall those they give their money to. If you hand a poor person a dollar and they buy a sandwich and choke on it, you’re on the hook for their medical bills. Being pro-organized labor reflects an anti-capitalist attitude, which leads to an inverted understanding of human progress and a demonization of the members of society we should feel most grateful towards.
The flip side of the demonization of capitalists is the way in which support for organized labor translates into the valorization of socially destructive behavior. Unions believe that they have a God-given right to shut down schools or let garbage pile up in the streets if they don’t get their way. This is despite the fact that there are other people out there who would be willing to do their jobs for them, if they didn’t use government power or physical violence to stop them. Organized labor calls this being a “scab.” Imagine if other areas of life were like this. You and your girlfriend have differences, and she believes that she has the right to prevent you from getting a new one in order to force you to meet her conditions. Marriage sort of works like that in most times and places, which is why there are restrictions on divorce, but employers have never swore to God that they would forever love and cherish the people who happen to be their current employees, and the state should definitely not be doing so with its own public servants. Direct redistribution does not seem to inspire this kind of entitlement among its beneficiaries, and is therefore less harmful. Parasitism plus moral certitude is a dangerous combination.
Note here that I’m just using Amazon as an example because it’s always being attacked. In the real world, the company is extremely popular among all Americans and most of its employees express a high degree of job satisfaction. Not that surveys are the best measure of these things — the fact that the company is able to find workers should be all the evidence you need of how good or bad the job is, when compared to other options people have. But I simply note the survey results to make clear that there are other kinds of data if you don’t trust people’s own decisions as reflecting anything important, which is a common mistake of anti-market types. The hostility of the intelligentsia towards the company seems to simply reflect the stupidity of anti-capitalism more generally. By pointing out the moral outrageousness of the labor unions, we hopefully nudge those on the left towards being free marketers, or at the very least supporting income-based government assistance programs, the least bad kind of redistribution.
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I'm sympathetic, but I think this essay wants for a distinction between private- and public-sector unions. The immoral behavior you cite (garbage piling up, schools closing) seems so bad precisely because in these cases unions are standing in the way of the delivery of public goods that, in lots of places though not all, it's government's responsibility to provide.
Public sector unions, of course, clash with the entire concept of a union, and a lot of fair-minded liberals and progressives seem to have been snowed into making a category error here. The government is not a capitalist enterprise expropriating surplus value provided by public-sector workers. In a democracy, organized labor in the public sector is organizing against.... their fellow citizens.
This essay is a classic example of why libertarianism is a stupid immoral historically illiterate ideology.
The reason we have labor unions was explained centuries ago by Adam Smith: Employers have far more leverage in the employment transaction to the degree that wages will fall well below subsistence levels for many workers absent countervailing pressure. Unions are one force that supplies that countervailing pressures.