Today is labor day. Throughout most of the developed world, organized labor is celebrated on May 1st, May Day. But when the federal holiday was first created in 1894, President Grover Cleveland was concerned about annual union celebration so near the anniversary of the Haymarket bombing (as well as by the Communist associations of International Workers Day). And so, the first Monday in September.
These days, of course, Labor Day is less a chance to reflect on the labor movement than it is a commemoration of the end of summer, a chance to barbecue and (weather permitting) make one last trek out to the beach. This is perhaps not so surprising when one considers the current state of American labor unions. It is no surprise that the U.S. labor movement has not been thriving in recent decades. In fact, union membership has been declining as a percentage of the American workforce for more than half a century.
Similar declines have been seen throughout most of the developed world (although the decline has been steeper than average in the United States), and the causes of the decline are complicated. The situation is so bleak, that strong pro-labor voices like Richard Yeselson have proposed a strategy of Fortress Unionism, whereby labor gives up major attempts to organize new industries in favor of trying to hold on to what it still has.
I confess to being personally ambivalent about this trend. On the one hand, as a good right-winger I am skeptical of many of the claimed economic benefits of unions, and politically unions in the contemporary U.S. seem to mainly function as an impediment to needed reforms in education and other areas. On the other hand, as Catholic I am mindful of my Church's longstanding support for the right to organize.
My own thoughts on this subject are influenced by this paper by Kevin Carson, which suggests that labor unions might be better off under a regime of pure laissez-faire than they are in the current system. Carson's main idea is that the formalized and routinized structure of modern labor law has tended over time to favor employers, while prohibiting many of the labor tactics that historically have proven most effective:
The AFL-CIO's Lane Kirkland, at one point, half-heartedly suggested that things would be easier if Congress repealed all labor laws, and let labor and management go at it "mano a mano."It's time to take up Kirkland's half-hearted suggestion, not just as a throwaway line, but as a challenge to the bosses:We'll gladly forgo federal certification of unions, and legal protections against punitive firing of union organizers, if you'll forgo the court injunctions and cooling-off periods and arbitration. We'll leave you free to fire organizers at will, to bring back the yellow dog contract, if you leave us free to engage in sympathy and boycott strikes all the way up and down the production chain, to boycott retailers, and to strike against the hauling of scab cargo, etc., effectively turning every strike into a general strike. We give up Wagner (such as it is), and you give up Taft-Hartley and the Railway Labor Relations Act.
As with a lot of libertarian ideas, this proposal probably doesn't have a prayer of actually being enacted. Nor is it clear that unions would in fact come out on top in a no holds barred fight. Instead of revivifying a moribund movement, it might simply hasten its death. But it's not as if unions have a lot of better options right now. And to the extent that such a move would pressure unions to reinvent themselves as a structure for increasing worker productivity and security, it is certainly a movement I could get behind.