Opinion: Fall of labor unions was inevitable

December 15, 2012


— For all the fury and fistfights outside the Lansing Capitol, what happened in Michigan this week was a simple accommodation to reality. The most famously unionized state, birthplace of the United Auto Workers, royalty of the American working class, became right-to-work.

It’s shocking, except that it was inevitable. Indiana went that way earlier this year. The entire Rust Belt will eventually follow because the heyday of the sovereign private-sector union is gone. Globalization has made splendid isolation impossible.

The nostalgics look back to the immediate postwar years when the UAW was all-powerful, the auto companies were highly profitable and the world was flooded with American cars. In that Golden Age, the UAW won wages, benefits and protections that were the envy of the world.

Today’s angry protesters demand a return to that norm. Except that it was not a norm but a historical anomaly. America, alone among the great industrial powers, emerged unscathed from World War II. Japan was a cinder, Germany rubble, and the allies — beginning with Britain and France — an exhausted shell of their former imperial selves.

For a generation, America had the run of the world. Then the others recovered. Soon global competition — from Volkswagen to Samsung — began to overtake American industry that was saddled with protected, inflated, relatively uncompetitive wages, benefits and work rules.

There’s a reason Detroit went bankrupt while the southern auto transplants did not. This is not to exonerate incompetent overpaid management that contributed to the fall. But clearly the wage, benefit and work-rule gap between the unionized North and the right-to-work South was a major factor.

President Obama railed against the Michigan legislation, calling right-to-work “giving you the right to work for less money.” Well, there is a principle at stake here: A free country should allow its workers to choose whether or not to join a union. Moreover, it is more than slightly ironic that Democrats, the fiercely pro-choice party, reserve free choice for aborting a fetus, while denying it for such matters as choosing your child’s school or joining a union.

Principle and hypocrisy aside, however, the president’s statement has some validity. Let’s be honest: Right-to-work laws do weaken unions. And de-unionization can lead to lower wages.

But there is another factor at play: having a job in the first place. In right-to-work states, the average wage is about 10 percent lower. But in right-to-work states, unemployment also is about 10 percent lower.

Higher wages or lower unemployment? It is a wrenching choice. Although, you would think that liberals would be more inclined to spread the wealth — i.e., the jobs — around, preferring somewhat lower pay in order to leave fewer fellow workers mired in unemployment.

Think of the moral calculus. Lower wages cause an incremental decline in one’s well-being. No doubt. But for the unemployed, the decline is categorical, sometimes catastrophic — a loss not just of income but of independence and dignity.

Nor does protectionism offer escape from this dilemma. Shutting out China and the others deprives less well-off Americans of access to the kinds of goods once reserved for the upper classes: quality clothing, furnishings, electronics, durable goods — from the Taiwanese-manufactured smartphone to the affordable, highly functional Kia.

Globalization taketh away. But it giveth more. The net benefit of free trade has been known since, oh, 1817. (See David Ricardo and the Law of Comparative Advantage.) There is no easy parachute from reality.

Obama calls this a race to the bottom. No, it’s a race to a new equilibrium that tries to maintain employment levels, albeit at the price of some modest wage decline. It is a choice not to be despised.

I have great admiration for the dignity and protections trade unionism has brought to American workers. I have no great desire to see the private-sector unions defenestrated. (Like FDR, Fiorello La Guardia and George Meany, however, I don’t extend that sympathy to public-sector unions.)

But rigidity and nostalgia have a price. The industrial Midwest is littered with the resulting wreckage. Michigan most notably, where its formerly great metropolis of Detroit is reduced to boarded-up bankruptcy by its inability and unwillingness to adapt to global change.

It’s easy to understand why a state such as Michigan would seek to recover its competitiveness by emulating the success of neighboring Indiana. One can sympathize with those who pine for the union glory days, while at the same time welcoming the new realism that promises not an impossible restoration, but desperately needed — and doable — recalibration and recovery.

— Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

Krauthammer is a cheerleader in the global race to the bottom (for everyone but the plutocracy whose team he cheers for.) Who'd a thunk it?

rwwilly 5 years, 4 months ago

Do you seriously not understand the ramifications of competing on a global scale? Globalization is killing the unions. Not the Republicans. The author is correct, bozo. Lament all you want but unions will probably not make a comeback until such time as the US again dominates world trade. I don't see that happening too soon. Do you?

Trumbull 5 years, 4 months ago

Actually agree with Krauthammer here unfortunately. So the unions used to be the envy of the world. What will be the next to go for American workers in this globalization? Jobs.....already happening and it is not just union jobs. Professional, service, IT, etc are being outsourced. Wages and benefits will also trend down to the global average or standard of living. At some point we will have to accept this or start to consider protecting our industries.

jafs 5 years, 4 months ago

Actually, that's not true here. Wages have stagnated and benefits have been lost, but the cost of living continues to increase.

Trumbull 5 years, 4 months ago

Same here. One thing is the unions were and are blamed for the US being unable to be competitve in the global labor market. I think we now see that it is the American worker in general due to the higher than global wages and benefits.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

Globalization as currently structured is NOT ordained by anyone but the corporate elites who are about the only net beneficiaries of it.

Current trade agreements were not ordained by God. They can be changed in any number of ways that will not only put Americans back to work producing most of what they need and use, but can also end the exploitation of the working poor throughout the world. All that's required is the political will to make it happen, but the plutocrats who benefit greatly from the race to the bottom will do everything they can to keep that from happening, including but not limited to the destruction of unions of all kinds.

Trumbull 5 years, 4 months ago

Indeed. As fundamental as this sounds....Isn't this the reason why we have countries? You take care of your own country 1st. This does not mean you can't be peacful and trade for things that the US cannot produce. Taking care of the US should be priority. Exporting and importing should be down on the list.

ThePilgrim 5 years, 4 months ago

It is ordained by YOU - every time you shop at Wal-mart or use your iPhone.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

There is some truth in what you say, as there is a disconnect between the everyday choices people make from seemingly unrelated effects of those choices, such as rising unemployment and a lowering standard of living for the majority of Americans.

But companies like Wal-Mart, in particular, spend $billions to entice people to make these choices, and to make alternative choices unavailable.

Armstrong 5 years, 4 months ago

The moral of this story boys and girls - Elections have consequences

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

Yes, the consequence of the latest Michigan elections was that Republicans knew they didn't have the votes to do this when the new legislature was seated in January, so they rammed this thru in a lame-duck session.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

Republicans also knew that if they campaigned on passing corporate servitude laws, they'd lose big. They lost seats anyway, so now they're doing what they were too chickensheeite to campaign openly and honestly for.

Armstrong 5 years, 4 months ago

Lesson learned. Never underestimate the stupidity of America

JayhawkFan1985 5 years, 4 months ago

The problem with Charles krauthammer is that he believes all the worlds problems were caused by hardworking teachers, firefighters, policemen, autoworkers, etc. Don't blame the "job creators...look over there." Place the blame of all societies woes on the police officers and teachers...yeah that makes sense...NOT!!!

John Hamm 5 years, 4 months ago

No, he places much of the blame exactly where it belongs - on the Unions. Three people to do the work of One or Two. "What are you doing cleaning your work area? We have people to do that!" "You can't go back to work early from a break or I'll transfer you to another location." High wages, high benefits, low work output > Unions!

JayhawkFan1985 5 years, 4 months ago

What are you smoking? I only ask because you're blowing smoke out your !!!!

JayhawkFan1985 5 years, 4 months ago

Unions gave us the 40 hour work week, worker safety laws, etc. Unions have done a lot of good in the US including preventing the rise of communism here in response to the same evil from the robber barons we are seeing now. Mammon is the root of all evil. The Koch brothers are modern day robber barons.

Armstrong 5 years, 4 months ago

Obviously you have never watched forklift operators at GM sleeping on the job at $25/hr

Liberty275 5 years, 4 months ago

"reserve free choice for aborting a fetus, while denying it for such matters as choosing your child’s school or joining a union."

Krauthammer discovers the hypocrisy of the left. Congrats, Mr Krauthammer.

jafs 5 years, 4 months ago

There may be some of that, but his characterization is off a bit.

Nobody on the left wants to take away parents' choices, which they have currently. They just want to protect public education.

And, most agree that if union benefits aren't granted to non-union members, that voluntary membership is a fine idea.

The problem they have is that when non union members benefit from union activity, it seems unfair that they wouldn't have to contribute.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

Suppose the union contributes to a politician who then advocates for better and stronger unions. I, as a union member, benefit from that. But that politician is also pro-choice while I am pro-life. Or that politician is pro war in Afghanistan while I'm opposed. Or maybe that politician is twice divorced, children by each marriage, has a DUI and admits to smoking pot sometimes, while I'm opposed to all those things. Yet my union continues to contribute my dues to his campaign and yes, I continue to receive a benefit from that. It has the potential to get complicated in a hurry.

jafs 5 years, 4 months ago

That's why union members are allowed to withhold a portion of their dues that go towards political activity like that.

The benefits I'm referring to have to do with wages, working conditions, hours, benefits, etc.

Liberty275 5 years, 4 months ago

"Nobody on the left wants to take away parents' choices, which they have currently. They just want to protect public education."

They want to protect teacher's unions.

"if union benefits aren't granted to non-union members, that voluntary membership is a fine idea."

I didn't see that sign in the Michigan footage... :-)

Pal 5 years, 4 months ago

Democrats will have to figure out another way to launder money in Michigan. Using the working class as their party's cash cow is coming to a slow merciful death.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

There is no "money laundering" involved, but you are right. The Citizen's United ruling opened the floodgates for corporate and union money into the political process. So now the Koch Bros., et al, are busy making sure that the only money in political campaigns is theirs. (and they can cut wages and benefits to their workers and eliminate pesky regulations on workplace safety and pollution, to boot.)

Welcome to the land of unchallenged Corporate Big Brotherhood.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

We heard all the gloom and doom about Citizens United prior to this election. And Super PACs that supported Romney did in fact far outspend the Super PACs that supported Obama. I forget, how'd that turn out?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

The money allowed a weak candidate to make what probably would have been a landslide into a relatively close election. And many of the same big-money donors were also playing both sides of this election, expecting that it'll gain them some favor in Obama's governance over the next four years, just as it clearly did in the first four.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 4 months ago

While I agree Romney was a very weak challenger, Obama should have been a very weak incumbent, considering the record he had to run on. There is no evidence money played any part at all on this election, Citizens United or not.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

The candidate having the most money doesn't win every election in this country. But it's been proven time and again that with very few exceptions unless a candidate is very well-funded, and finds those funds primarily from sources seeking to maintain the plutocratic status quo, they won't be even the slightest bit competitive. It's enshrined in the current duopolistic system of the Democratic and Republican parties that locks out any competing third parties from gaining any electoral traction at all. Citizens United just made that all the more true.

Tony Kisner 5 years, 4 months ago

Slaves have work, room and board. Why would they want more?

Richard Heckler 5 years, 4 months ago

Don't blame the Unions! Put the blame in the right place such as Reaganomics and risky financed leveraged buyouts. The fraud and money trail leads back to the reckless new GOP party.

What Fiscal Cliff? Ben Bernanke came up with "Fiscal Cliff' nonsense.

--- Fiscal Cliff... fact or radical GOP hoax from Ben Bernanke

Much information .... YOU decide http://www.motherjones.com/search/apachesolr_search/Fiscal%20Cliff

--- Killing Social Security Insurance Is Not An Option. http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2010/0111orr.html

--- Killing Medicare Insurance is simply not an option. http://www.thenation.com/article/159769/paul-ryans-plan-destroy-medicare

Armstrong 5 years, 4 months ago

Like your tactic merrill, blame the other guy !

Armstrong 5 years, 4 months ago

Please remeber the quote above. Gotta look at the bright side, the next four years of agony I will get to sit back and say I told you so.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 4 months ago

Looks like a general statement about trolls to me. Do you consider yourself a troll?

Pal 5 years, 4 months ago

Unions are so 50's. Union man needs to evolve from the Union mentality to modern, world wide sustainability constructs of work.

Obama needs to evolve with them.

Stuart Sweeney 5 years, 4 months ago

The people who burned to death in Bangladesh had no unions, were locked into the plant and were working for 18 cents an hour. Union have fought for decent pay and working conditions, do you really want to have working conditions like that? The unions fought for safety as well and when they are gone who is to look out for the working man? Washington and the chamber of commerce are not going to do it because it cost money to operate with a keen eye toward safety!

JW1945 5 years, 4 months ago

It is true that after WWII America had the corner on about every market that existed.As our competitors' entire countries lay in ruins, so what did we do? We re-built their countries with the "Marshall Plan." We GAVE them plenty of OUR money & OUR material just so they can build up their big businesses & come over here & take all our damn jobs? Excuse me!! Say What!! Hundreds of thousands of American boys got there heads blown off in Europe & in the Pacific not to mention getting their legs blown off, their arms blown off, their eyesight blown out, all so we could just give it all back to the same people that tried to kill us & take over OUR nation? They bombed Pearl Harbor, killed 2500 of our innocent boys - Would Hitler have followed this same path had he become the victor of the world? Are we just pansies or are we really this stupid? So yes, The once mighty U.S. auot industry that unions helped build the middle class is now gone. Our steel factories gone, (unions out) power plants being closed (unions out), So where do we go from here? We don't go ANYWHERE!! We gave it all away to the very people who declared war on us & we beat them on the battlefield & then we gave it all away to the very people who swore to kill us. Sure we can all get a job at McDonalds making $7 an hour. Thats about $1100 a month. Take away taxes thats about $900 a month. Go ahead! Try it! Get out a calculator & plug in $600 a month for your rent - $200 a month for utilities & now you've got $100 left to make a car payment, buy groceries, buy some shoes & clothes, buy gas (thats about $40 for a fill up), pay Dr bills & Dentist bills - are we starting to see the light yet? So now go tell an auto maker working on the assembly line at 4:00 in the morning on the graveyard shift why he's losing his union job? - Our leaders are Idiots!

msezdsit 5 years, 4 months ago

"Opinion: Fall of labor unions was inevitable"

Firstly, krutzy's eulogy of the unions is a little premature and wishful thinking. The pendulum on the war on unions will begin to swing back the other way when worker abuses and deaths and fires low wages from greedy corporate mongers start to take over the media. What klutzy is really saying is " the death of the middle class was inevitable" on krutzy's wish list.

William Weissbeck 5 years, 4 months ago

The issue is does the business owner have complete autonomy within his/her business or do the workers have some rights, too? Is the workplace really a dictatorship regulated only by the influence of free market competition? Do we really believe that the individual worker's freedom to quit a job and find another is a sufficient counter weight to potential abuses by an employer? Does the worker's contributions of mind and labor to his/her employer's profit entitle them to only the wage the employer chooses to pay?

William Weissbeck 5 years, 4 months ago

So then, do a group of workers have the right to collectively contract with their employer? And, in order for the contract to have any impact, to bind the minority who did not want to collectively contract? Does the individual's rights in the workplace trump the group's, or is there a better balance than depriving the group of it's resources to conduct its functions?

William Weissbeck 5 years, 4 months ago

Strange, but Romney's 47 percent still has to recognize that other guy as their duly elected president. Freedom of association is pretty toothless when the employer can thin the ranks of your group. It is clear that you believe that the individual's right to negotiate trumps the practical need for the group to exercise leverage through numbers. You would call that extortion, because the group has no right to exercise leverage, Even though the employer has the right to exercise leverage through money.

William Weissbeck 5 years, 4 months ago

But the association shouldn't have to spend every day convincing new members about the benefits of the association. You are likening the practical needs of the work place to membership in AARP or AAA. Contracts are negotiated on a long term basis. Work rules and safety standards have meaning to the employees who negotiated them, but may mean much less to the new hire who never experienced to old work place. Again, it appears that you do not want to recognize the rights of a democratically organized group within a work place to ask new members (new citizens) to abide by the same rules until such time as there is a new union election. The real downside of RTW is that the employer can actively recruit new hires who oppose the union and "dispose" of employees who favor organizing. It's really hard to assert a right that your employer can fire you for asserting.

William Weissbeck 5 years, 4 months ago

Just trying to balance the autocratic nature of the business enterprise. Because the employer can fire a worker for simply asking co-workers what they are paid, it's an uneven information playing field. Some of us find it better for society as a whole that the workers have certain individual and collective rights. Yes, it does alter the idea of private ownership of property (the business owner owning his or her business - but it's hardly so radical as state ownership or state run workers' unions. It's called balancing to achieve the best results for society.

msezdsit 5 years, 4 months ago

You've never run a business, I take it?

26 successful years and counting.

msezdsit 5 years, 4 months ago

What you buy or don't buy is of no significance. A 26 year history of owning and operating a successful business is of great significance. Part of that success is my belief system. I pay my employees well, they have insurance, and I truly care about their well being. My business and my employees are a team that looks out for each others best interests. If everybody operated their business this way there would be no need for unions. Unfortunately, the free market and capitalism you fantasize about is very predatory and greedy and that creates the need for unions and preservation of workers rights. Sorry liberty, can't buy your story. full of holes.

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