All Commentary
Sunday, February 1, 1981

Book Review: Black America and Organized Labor: A Fair Deal? by Walter E. Williams, Loren A. Smith and Wendell W. Gunn

(The Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, 1735 DeSales, N.W., Suite 500, Washington, D.C. 20036)
60 pages • $5.00 paper

The importance of this slim volume is not to be measured by the number of pages it contains, but by the potency of the ideas it releases. The sponsor of this study, The Lincoln Institute, was set up in 1978, to assess the impact of public policy issues on the black community. Two of the authors are black, and all three offer persuasive arguments for the thesis that the free market economy provides the best hope for bringing minorities into the nation’s economic mainstream. Their case against welfarism and unions is devastating, and marks one more bit of evidence of the growing disillusionment of black Americans with the liberal establishment.

Unions have all but eliminated competition in the labor market, locking those at the bottom—mainly members of minority groups—into a situation of hopelessness. Organized labor, pursuing its narrow interests by means of the powers conferred upon it by government, has the power, in many parts of the country, to determine who shall be employed and who shall be denied work. This unpleasant truth is emphasized by Senator Hayakawa in the Preface he contributes to this book. “Racial exclusion is not simply a part of union history but remains a reality today. In 1967, for example, statistics on black membership in some major craft unions were as follows: electricians, 1.6 per cent; ironworkers, 1.7 per cent; plumbers, 0.2 per cent; and sheetmetal workers, 0.2 per cent. In 1979, 58 per cent of local unions reporting to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had no black members at all.”

Professor Williams, one of the nation’s keenest economists, furnishes other considerations: “A considerable part of the activities of the labor movement . . . has been that of attempting to thwart competition among workers. One of the ways this has been done is through the use of union political power to lobby for laws that confer monopoly power on labor unions.”

He continues: “To the extent the union is successful in negotiating wages that are higher than those which employees would obtain in the absence of monopoly power, unions must also devise means of entry restrictions. The reason is simple: the higher wages will attract entry by workers from other sectors of the economy. If others were permitted freely to enter the unionized labor markets, the increased supply of labor would mean less employment and downward pressure on wages . . . Whatever the purpose for granting unions the sort of monopoly power they now possess, the result is weak minority participation.”

Labor unions support programs such as welfare, food stamps, unemployment benefits and a host of other “maintenance” devices, Dr. Williams argues, so that those who are unemployed as a result of market restriction policies will remain docile: “If the alternative to not working were starvation, it would present a socially volatile climate. Thus it is very probable that labor unions will lead the support for income subsidy programs which represent a redistribution of income from society at large to those who have restricted the labor market in the first place. They disguise the true effects of market entry restrictions caused by unions and other economic agents by casting a few crumbs to those denied jobs in order to keep them quiet, thereby creating a permanent welfare class.”

Wendell Gunn does not condemn union officials, most of whom are sincere; but he does criticize union policies, which bring about unforeseen consequences. “For black workers, who have been denied their basic right to work in many fields by the actions of labor unions over the years, to be forced to join unions against their will . . . is to make a mockery of the civil rights which have, we are repeatedly told, been achieved. Compulsion and coercion are alien to a free society.”

Everyone has a stake in the free society, rich as well as poor. But as these essays make clear, the “disadvantaged” have the greatest stake of all.

  • Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.