Labor Unions Create Unemployment: It’s a Feature, Not a Bug

The Los Angeles minimum wage fiasco was no accident

Did the labor unions goof, or did they get exactly what they want?

Los Angeles has approved a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour. Some of the biggest supporters of that increase were the labor unions. But now that the increase has been approved, the unions are fighting to exempt union labor from that wage hike.

Over at Anything Peaceful, Dan Bier has nicely explained why the unions would do something that seems, at first glance, so nonsensical. But what I want to point out is that this kind of hijinks is not a new invention of 21st century organized labor. Instead, it’s pretty much what labor was organized to do. It’s a feature, not a bug.

Part of the early reasoning for the minimum wage — which originated as a “family wage” or “living wage” — was its intent to allow a worker to “keep his wife and children out of competition with himself” and presumably to keep all other women out of the workforce as well.

Similarly, the labor movement, from the very beginning, meant to protect organized white male labor from competition against black labor, immigrant labor, female labor, and nonunion labor. There are subtleties to this generalization, of course, and labor historian Ruth Milkman identifies four historical waves of the labor movement that have differing commitments (and a lack thereof) to a more diverse vision of labor rights. But unions — like so many other institutions — work on the “get up and bar the door” principle. Get up as high as you can, and then bar the door behind you against any further entrants who might cut into the goodies you have grabbed for yourself.

Labor union expert Charles Baird notes,

Unions depend on capture. They try to capture employers by cutting them off from alternative sources of labor; they try to capture workers by eliminating union-free employment alternatives; and they try to capture customers by eliminating union-free producers. Successful capture generates monopoly gains for unions.

Protection is the name of the game.

Unsurprisingly, the unions made sure to be involved when, about 50 years before the 1970s push for an equal rights amendment, there was another push for an ERA in the United States. Written by suffragist leader Alice Paul, the amendment was an attempt to leverage the newly recognized voting power of women into a policy that guaranteed men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place under its jurisdiction.” This amendment would have prevented various gender-based inequities that the courts supported at the time — like hugely different hourly wages for male and female workers, limits on the number of hours women could work, limits on when women could work (night shifts were seen as particularly dangerous for women’s health and welfare), and limits on the kinds of work women could do.

Reporting on the debates over the ERA in 1924, Doris Stevens noted three main objections to the amendment:

First, there was the familiar plea for gradual, rather than sweeping change.

Second, there were concerns over lost pensions for widows and mothers.

And in Stevens’s words,

The final objection says: Grant political, social, and civil equality to women, but do not give equality to women in industry.… Here lies the heart of the whole controversy. It is not astonishing, but very intelligent indeed, that the battle should center on the point of woman’s right to sell her labor on the same terms as man. For unless she is able equally to compete, to earn, to control, and to invest her money, unless in short woman’s economic position is made more secure, certainly she cannot establish equality in fact. She will have won merely the shadow of power without essential and authentic substance.

Suffragist Rheta Childe Dorr (in Good Housekeeping, of all places. How the mighty have fallen!) pointed out again the logic behind labor’s opposition to the equal rights amendment:

The labor unions are most opposed to this law, for few unions want women to advance in skilled trades. The Women’s Trade Union League, controlled and to a large extent supported by the men’s unions, opposes it. Of course, the welfare organizations oppose it, for it frees women wage earners from the police power of the old laws. But I pray that public opinion, especially that of the club women, will support it. It’s the first law yet proposed that gives working women a man’s chance industrially. “No men’s labor unions, no leisure class women, no uniformed legislators have a right to govern our lives without our consent,” the women declare, and I think they are dead right about it.

Organized labor — founded to ensure the collective right to contract — refused to stand up for the right of individual women to contract. From their point of view, it was only sensible. And, perhaps most importantly, women in organized labor refused to stand up for the women outside the unions.

Organized male and female labor’s fight against the ERA was at least as much about protectionism as it was about sexism. Maybe more. Women’s rights and union activist Ethel M. Smith attended the debates on the ERA to report on it for the Life and Labor Bulletin, and found that union workers did not even attempt to gloss over their protectionist agenda:

Miss Mary Goff of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, emphasized the seriousness of the effect upon organized establishments were legal restrictions upon hours of labor removed from the unorganized. “The organized women workers,” she said, “need the labor laws to protect them from the competition of the unorganized. Where my union, for instance, may have secured for me a 44-hour week, how long could they maintain it if there were unlimited hours for other workers? Unfortunately, there are hundreds of thousands of unorganized working women in New York who would undoubtedly be working 10 hours a day but for the 9-hour law of New York.”

So labor unions excluded women as long as they could, then let in a privileged few and barred the doors behind them. And they continue to use the same tactics today in LA and elsewhere.

How long can they keep it up?

Further Reading

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