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.

Expand full comment

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.

Expand full comment

"Direct redistribution does not seem to inspire this kind of entitlement among its beneficiaries"

Dude, you need to get out and meet some welfare recipients.

Expand full comment

You might be familiar with Glassdoor, a website that collects anonymous employee reviews about tech companies. If I'm a software engineer interviewing for a job, I can open Glassdoor and read about the working conditions in the company for which I'm interviewing.

Let's say that according to Glassdoor, managers at this company tend to yell at employees. Now I can try to assign a numeric cost to this working condition. Perhaps, the salary is $10k higher, and perhaps I'm not too sensitive to people yelling at me. So I take the job, and everyone benefits.

In fact, a system like this creates incentives that benefit all of society. Employers improve working conditions, because it allows them to pay less for talent. And employees can find higher-paying jobs if they are willing to accept certain "problematic" working conditions (e.g. peeing in a bottle).

But if you take away Glassdoor, this system just doesn't work - because it's very hard to tell the working conditions at a company without working there (unless you happen to have friends already there). If you join a company, later to discover bad working conditions, you're unlikely to switch immediately, because of the cost associated with switching jobs. Sadly, the job market is just not very efficient in this regard.

I say this because I think your entire article assumes the job market is efficient. But it is not. So employers lack incentives to improve working conditions. And employees don't have tools to translate worse working conditions to a numeric cost.

Expand full comment

This is intellectual dishonesty.

Amazon workers aren't in dire need of an effective union because a driver or warehouse worker needed to pee in a bottle, they're in dire need of a union because Amazon intentionally sets working conditions so as to be so dehumanizing that it can get away with systematic wage theft. It breaks people who are already desperate enough to work at its notoriously unpleasant warehouses or drive for its contractors down so they don't have the heart to file complaints with regulators--or form a union that would do that kind of thing for them, which is precisely the point of unions.

Come on, Richard.

Expand full comment

Even if one accepts all your arguments, you are still arguing from a dishonest alternative. Just outlaw unions (so much for freedom of assembly) and instead pass a law forcing redistribution of income directly. Which you know is extremely unlikely, in the USA, at least in the magnitude of dollars that would be required to make any material difference. I am sure there is terminology for this, somewhere in the long list of rhetorical tricks and maneuvers: argue against A by holding up B as an alternative, while knowing B is not viable.

Expand full comment
Mar 20·edited Mar 20

Unions can get currupt like any other public or private organization but the basic principle of unions are no different than a professional athlete's agent. We see in the past what things where like for workers, horrible working conditions and pay. The market does a lot of wonderful things but just doesn't regulate this properly on its own unfortunately. The American dream became a reality because unions helped to change all that. Ordinary people where then able to make a decent living and rise into the middle class and then able to retire comfortably even on jobs that we would not consider high skill jobs. That would be bascially impossible before the era of unions. Without well functioning unions the American dream becomes a nightmare for ordinary Americans but definitely becomes a dream for the owners of corporations lol

Expand full comment

I'm betting that a lot of your readers are part of unions.

I don't mean a grubby working class union with a Shop Stewart of Local 191. I mean I wouldn't surprise me if many belonged to some professional guild that regulates and certifies employment in their industry.

All of medicine is like that for instance. Law and finance to some extent. All those tenured professors. There are others.

My profession requires membership dues, certifies people based on exams, and requires a certain code of conduct. Legally the government requires companies to have people from my guild certify any products in my industry regularly to prevent fraud or failure. While technically its pretty rare for someone for my industry to have to certify something themselves, the ones that do usually rely on out work and they feel a lot more comfortable knowing it was done by people who passed those exams.

Whether that is more or less invasive then the grubby working class union is open to interpretation. My guess is my situation is less invasive but that things in say the medical industry are more invasive.

As far as what unions do they do two things:

1) The increase bargaining power so that more of the economic surplus goes to labor instead of capital.

In every single job I've been in my bargaining power, not my productivity, determined my compensation. Productivity is useful but without bargaining power it's worthless.

P.S. Most companies try to get people to sign non competes, which have all the anti competitive problems you have with unions but worse.

2) They ensure that employers have to be honest with employees and not break the rules.

My father was in a union and got sick. Per the contract the company wasn't allowed to fire him and cut off his health insurance, but they tried to do it anyway. Some guys from the union showed up at the bosses house and persuaded him that trying to skirt the law and leave my father to die wasn't going to happen. That's why my father and I are alive.

Could my father technically try to use the legal system to enforce his rights. Maybe, but the odds that a sick worker by himself is going to take on and beat a big corporation in court are pretty darn low, even if it would be fair.

Now, there is a union that I do despite, public unions. Private unions like my fathers at least need to keep their demands in line with what a profit making business needs to thrive. To the extend they get greedy they die, which is why they have declined over the last several decades.

Public unions by contrast just take advantage of the government because the government doesn't care.

Expand full comment
Mar 20·edited Mar 20

A few objections:

1. Regarding the 80%/20% pee in a bottle scenario:

Is there any percentage at which you would say it's unacceptable? What if 100% of the people who worked there had to pee in a bottle because there were no bathroom breaks? They could always just get another job that pays slightly worse, and maybe Amazon would be forced to change their work model if they couldn't find anyone willing to do that, but if they offered high enough pay that might never happen, and should we as a society ever say "No, that's just not something we should allow people to require of their workers, even if they pay well"? There is something touching on human dignity here that makes me inherently oppose a business that works this way, and though "dignity" is a very fuzzy word that could be used to justify all sorts of stupid regulations, I still think we need to set some minimum standards that every business should have to meet.

2. Related to my point above:

Minimum standards allow people to make the choices you're claiming they would make if they could. In a time before breaks were mandated for many businesses, many workers didn't even have an option to get a job where they had breaks. A lot of jobs just didn't offer them a century ago. Now they're everywhere. So you can say "Well if unions didn't bargain for break times, people could just choose to go to a job where they had breaks but were paid less, or were paid more but didn't have breaks", but I feel like if organized labor had never bargained for them in the first place, they just wouldn't even be offered at many places of employment. In that case, nobody gets them, its just not an option, so you would choose your job entirely based on a pay and not the accompanying benefits, which don't exist. This applies to the 8 hour work day, weekends, job safety, paid time off, sick leave, etc. etc. If unions hadn't forced these things on companies I think they would be much scarcer than they are in the modern world, and workers would have less choice, not more. They might have more money, but in a world where they didn't think these benefits were even options they wouldn't even think to value them in the first place.

3. Regarding the morality aspect:

In a world where all other companies don't make enough money to offer more than $15 an hour, and Amazon does, then they are the only ones who could make the choice to better their workers lives. You should praise them for running a company that can offer better terms, that's a moral good, but if they choose not to offer better wages despite being able to do so, and offer only what is competitive with other company's wages and keep the rest for themselves, I find that morally objectionable. If you could make a choice which would dramatically improve other people's lives at little cost to yourself, and you choose not to, I don't think you should receive praise for that, regardless of what other people are doing. Now companies have limits on what they can do. Presumably Amazon could offer $100 an hour for a year and then go bankrupt, and I'm not advocating for that. But if they could offer $18 and continue to be a highly profitable and functional company, and instead offer $15 only because that's the market rate, I'm not going to call that a good thing. I'm sympathetic to the idea that it isn't a morally "bad" thing, but to act as if Jeff Bezos offering that same $15 an hour is praiseworthy doesn't seem right to me either.

4. The sandwich example:

This seems like not a good analogy. If you give someone a dollar, a good thing, you're not controlling what the buy or putting strings on it. But the employer is more "I give you a dollar, and in direct exchange, you give me this in its place", and what they have to give you in exchange is directly under your control. Sure, they have to give you something, but if that something is ruining their spine from repetitive movements all day at a frequency/weight that would be a burden on almost anyone's body and eventually ruins their back and gives them chronic pain, well, I would call that an unfair exchange. The employer controls the terms of the agreement, it's not just charity.

Expand full comment
Mar 20·edited Mar 20

Richard has once again written a piece that exposes the readers' unacknowledged priors and thereby enrages them. Excellent work. I'm personally too skeptical to believe that the only point being made here is the surface-level libertarian one, but Richard probably won't tell us.

As for the argument itself, it's airtight as long as one accepts contracts as a human right, which is of course downstream from accepting the concept of human rights. Nobody leading a labor strike or organizing to beat scabs with sticks believes that the common man is capable of negotiating meaningfully, or that he should have the right to pretend that he can. The whole point of using violence (the state's, if you can get control of it) to prevent people overgrazing the commons is that the sheep aren't smart enough to make the right decision.

Expand full comment


What’s more immoral: this formulation of this sentence or yours?

Expand full comment

This post does a good job emphasizing you point about Bezos being the least blameworthy for the underpaid warehouse worker’s plight. It even gives it a cool name.


Expand full comment

If I had to make a steelman case for labor unions it's that they are mass-based "accountable membership organization" seeking real benefits for their own members, which means they have the incentive to actually care about the value of those benefits more than donor-driven activist groups (staffed by the upper-middle class) acting on behalf of helpless others:




Expand full comment

There is one type of market where labor unions make sense, though the only industry it realistically still applies to is professional sports.

Labor unions are helpful in labor monopsonies (markets with only one employer) because workers don’t have any choice but to work for the one employer meaning collective bargaining can “even the playing field” by effectively disallowing workers from negotiating on their own behalf and bidding down wages (and working conditions etc.) individually.

Historically, geographically isolated labor markets (e.g. mining towns) were essentially monopsonies, but those are mostly gone now. Amazon is certainly not a monopsony, as you point out by indicating that their employees have other options.

The sports leagues, on the other hand, are monopsonies, which is why each of them has a functioning union. If you’re a top tier basketball player, say, you either have the NBA or nothing (weird European leagues maybe?). Because there’s only one NBA, it makes sense to have a collective bargaining apparatus so LeBron James isn’t negotiating against Anthony Davis for the right to play for the Lakers. Notice, by the way, that the only reason that sports leagues are monopsonies is because they’re enforced by government policy, and that even in this case unions create problems in the form of intermittent strikes and lockouts.

Expand full comment

You're not helping your argument by conflating the right of workers to collaborate on witholding their labor with their ability to get government to help them to deprive their employer of the ability to hire replacement labor.

Expand full comment

The post assumes that the price system is an efficient and fair way to determine wages and working conditions. However, market failures, such as information asymmetry, can lead to undesirable outcomes, including the exploitation of workers. Unions can help correct these failures by providing collective bargaining power, ensuring that workers have a voice in negotiating wages, benefits, and working conditions. In addition, while labor unions contribute to income inequality by benefiting those who are already employed, unions have historically played a significant role in reducing income inequality by advocating for higher wages and better working conditions for all workers, not just union members. The post also downplays the role of power imbalances between employers and employees. Unions can help address these imbalances by giving workers a collective voice and the ability to negotiate for fair compensation and working conditions. Without unions, individual workers are at a disadvantage when negotiating with large corporations that have significantly more bargaining power. Finally, this post focuses on the potential inefficiencies created by unions, but there are positive externalities associated with unions, such as increased worker safety and improved community welfare. Strong unions can lead to better working conditions, reduced workplace accidents, and higher overall standards of living for workers and their families.

Expand full comment