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Friday, October 3, 2014

Can Unions Really Raise Wages?

What Labor Unions Can and Cannot Do


[FEE is now hosting the complete text of Economics in One Lesson, the classic by Henry Hazlitt that might be the best-selling economics book of all time. In this section, he discusses labor unions and their effects on wages. The topic is of continuing relevance given the demands for workers in fast-food, big-box, and peer-to-peer (P2P) businesses to unionize. Hazlitt makes a case for situations where unions can help to overcome market uncertainties but points out that unions cannot raise wages overall and can seriously harm workers in other ways.]

The power of labor unions to raise wages over the long run and for the whole working population has been enormously exaggerated. This exaggeration is mainly the result of failure to recognize that wages are basically determined by labor productivity. It is for this reason, for example, that wages in the United States were incomparably higher than wages in England and Germany all during the decades when the “labor movement” in the latter two countries was far more advanced.

In spite of the overwhelming evidence that labor productivity is the fundamental determinant of wages, the conclusion is usually forgotten or derided by labor union leaders and by that large group of economic writers who seek a reputation as “liberals” by parroting them.

But this conclusion does not rest on the assumption, as they suppose, that employers are uniformly kind and generous men eager to do what is right. It rests on the very different assumption that the individual employer is eager to increase his own profits to the maximum.

If people are willing to work for less than they are really worth to him, why should he not take the fullest advantage of this? Why should he not prefer, for example, to make $1 a week out of a workman rather than see some other employer make $2 a week out of him? And as long as this situation exists, there will be a tendency for employers to bid workers up to their full economic worth.

All this does not mean that unions can serve no useful or legitimate function. The central function they can serve is to assure that all of their members get the true market value of their services.

For the competition of workers for jobs, and of employers for workers, does not work perfectly. Neither individual workers nor individual employers are likely to be fully informed concerning the conditions of the labor market. An individual worker, without the help of a union or a knowledge of “union rates,” may not know the true market value of his services to an employer. And he is, individually, in a much weaker bargaining position.

Mistakes of judgment are far more costly to him than to an employer. If an employer mistakenly refuses to hire a man from whose services he might have profited, he merely loses the net profit he might have made from employing that one man; and he may employ a hundred or a thousand men. But if a worker mistakenly refuses a job in the belief that he can easily get another that will pay him more, the error may cost him dearly. His whole means of livelihood is involved. Not only may he fail promptly to find another job offering more; he may fail for a time to find another job offering remotely as much. And time may be the essence of his problem, because he and his family must eat. So he may be tempted to take a wage that he knows to be below his “real worth” rather than face these risks.

When an employer’s workers deal with him as a body, however, and set a known “standard wage” for a given class of work, they may help to equalize bargaining power and the risks involved in mistakes.

But it is easy, as experience has proved, for unions, particularly with the help of one-sided labor legislation which puts compulsions solely on employers, to go beyond their legitimate functions, to act irresponsibly, and to embrace shortsighted and anti-social policies. They do this, for example, whenever they seek to fix the wages of their members above their real market worth. Such an attempt always brings about unemployment. The arrangement can be made to stick, in fact, only by some form of intimidation or coercion.

One device consists in restricting the membership of the union on some other basis than that of proved competence or skill. This restriction may take many forms: it may consist in charging new workers excessive initiation fees; in arbitrary membership qualifications; in discrimination, open or concealed, on grounds of religion, race, or sex; in some absolute limitation on the number of members; or in exclusion, by force if necessary, not only of the products of non-union labor, but of the products even of affiliated unions in other states or cities.

The most obvious case in which intimidation and force are used to put or keep the wages of a particular union above the real market worth of its members’ services is that of a strike. A peaceful strike is possible. To the extent that it remains peaceful, it is a legitimate labor weapon, even though it is one that should be used rarely and as a last resort. If his workers as a body withhold their labor, they may bring a stubborn employer, who has been underpaying them, to his senses. He may find that he is unable to replace these workers by workers equally good who are willing to accept the wage that the former have now rejected.

But the moment workers have to use intimidation or violence to enforce their demands — the moment they use pickets to prevent any of the old workers from continuing at their jobs, or to prevent the employer from hiring new permanent workers to take their places — their case becomes questionable.

For the pickets are really being used, not primarily against the employer, but against other workers. These other workers are willing to take the jobs that the old employees have vacated, and at the wages that the old employees now reject. The fact proves that the other alternatives open to the new workers are not as good as those that the old employees have refused. If, therefore, the old employees succeed by force in preventing new workers from taking their place, they prevent these new workers from choosing the best alternative open to them, and force them to take something worse. The strikers are therefore insisting on a position of privilege, and are using force to maintain this privileged position against other workers.

If the foregoing analysis is correct, the indiscriminate hatred of the “strikebreaker” is not justified. If the strikebreakers consist merely of professional thugs who themselves threaten violence, or who cannot in fact do the work, or if they are being paid a temporarily higher rate solely for the purpose of making a pretense of carrying on until the old workers are frightened back to work at the old rates, the hatred may be warranted.

But if they are in fact merely men and women who are looking for permanent jobs and willing to accept them at the old rate, then they are workers who would be shoved into worse jobs than these in order to enable the striking workers to enjoy better ones. And this superior position for the old employees could continue to be maintained, in fact, only by the ever-present threat of force.


  • Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) was the great economic journalist of the 20th century. He is the author of Economics in One Lesson among 20 other books. See his complete bibliography. He was chief editorial writer for the New York Times, and wrote weekly for Newsweek. He served in an editorial capacity at The Freeman and was a board member of the Foundation for Economic Education.