All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1984

Unionism Revisited

Dr. Carson specializes in American intellectual history. He has written a number of books, including the one here discussed: Organized Against Whom? The Labor Union in America.

His most recent book, published by Western Goals, is the first in a 5-volume series, A Basic History of the United States. This first volume deals with The Colonial Experience.

In 1980-1981, several articles of mine on unionism were published in The Freeman. They were not published serially, but rather as separate articles from time to time. This past year, these articles, plus an introductory and concluding chapter, were published by Western Goals as a paperback book—Organized Against Whom? The Labor Union in America.

Since the time when I wrote most of this book, a major change has occurred, or become more obvious, in the status of unionism. Labor unions have been declining: declining in the proportion of the number of their members to the work force, declining in the clout they can exercise over employers, and declining in popularity. Indeed, the proportion of union to non-union workers had been declining for a good many years. Unions were still entrenched in heavy industries such as steel, coal, and automobile, but they had not gained much among service personnel or in lighter industries, as more workers were employed in these. In the late 1960s and in the 1970s, unions made up for some of their losses by organizing government employees, but that has tailed off in recent years.

As much as I might delight in taking the credit, I doubt that the publication of either the articles or the book had any appreciable impact on the decline of unionism. Although the sun does come up after the rooster crows, we are reasonably sure the rooster’s crowing has no causal effect on the sun. There are other more probable and direct causes for the decline of unionism. The economic climate has not been favorable for unions.

Unions Grow in Prosperous Times

Historically, unions have usually had their periods of greatest growth in membership in periods when the money supply was rapidly increasing, with an aura of prosperity prevailing. On the other hand, membership has usually declined, sometimes drastically, in periods of monetary deflation, or, as these are often called, depressions. This phenomenon is quite understandable. When money is plentiful and prices are rising and employment is general, unions are much more easily organized and can more readily obtain such things as higher wages for their members. On the other hand, when money is tight and prices are falling and unemployment spreads, unions cannot obtain higher wages, many members are unemployed, and employers turn to the market for workers when they can; union membership usually declines.

The United States had what amounts to a monetary deflation in the late 1970s and early 1980s—a depression, if you will. It was not so much caused by any actual reduction in the money supply as it was by high discount rates by the Federal Reserve accompanied by government competition for the available money to make up for high Federal deficits. But the results were much the same as a large reduction in the money supply: tight money, high interest rates, widespread un employment, increasing bankruptcies, greatly reduced business activity. The market adjustment to this situation is to reduce prices, including wages, in order to shift production to meet changing demand and to attract customers. There is resistance to reducing wages at all times, and resistance is especially strong by labor unions. In consequence, many unionized factories and other businesses have closed or drastically reduced their operations in the last few years. Unions are under heavy pressure to yield on work rules and restrictions as well as wages in order to reopen factories and increase work forces. In any case, all this has contributed to the current low and declining status of labor unions.

The Great Exception

There has been one major exception in our history to the decline of labor unions in a depression. It occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the midst of that depression, in 1936-1937, there was a major increase in union membership. Whole industries were success fully organized. This occurred mainly because there was a major change in the political climate. After a faltering effort in the first year of the New Deal, Congress had succeeded in passing a law which empowered unions to organize and use their tactics with government support and little let or hindrance from anyone. This was done by the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 and the subsequent setting up of a National Labor Relations Board, manned by pro-union appointees. Thereafter, for the remainder of the 1930s, union organization proceeded vigorously and with considerable success.

This exception serves also as an introduction to a broader and more general point. The growth and decline of labor unions is not necessarily dependent upon inflation-deflation cycles. It may also depend upon the political climate. That, in turn, may depend upon public attitudes toward unions. In any case, the growth or decline of unions depends in some considerable measure upon worker attitudes and beliefs about unions. Ultimately, I suspect, the large scale existence of labor unions depends upon both public and worker acceptance of them as a normal part of an economy. If they are not so accepted they will tend to be at most occasional and temporary organizations, usually secret in character, and will not muster political or legal support.

A Changing Climate

Which brings me back to my little book, Organized Against Whom? The book was written as an effort to make some contribution to the public understanding of unionism. The present decline of labor unions may have some further explanation than the fact that the recent depression has taken its toll. There has been some change also in the political climate. The most dramatic indication of this was in the Reagan Administration’s handling of the air traffic controllers’ strike. When the striking controllers who refused to return to work were replaced, there was surely a message in the action at least to government employees who are forbidden by law to strike. There are also indications, as reported both in the public media and elsewhere, that public sympathy and support for labor unions is at a low ebb.

Polls do not reveal, of course, how well or ill informed either proponents or opponents of labor unions are. Much of the opinion is almost certainly on the level of remarks most of us have probably heard over the years. For example, proponents of labor unions may say that they are in favor of the working man. Or, opponents may say that unions have performed a valuable service but that they have grown too powerful and gone too far. In any case, I take it that if opinion about unions is not going to shift much as the money supply does under the auspices of the Federal Reserve it needs a deeper and better informed basis than is indicated by such remarks.

Against Whom?

Organized Against Whom? focuses on certain central aspects of unionism and explores them both historically and analytically. The most obvious aspect involved is the answer to the question posed in the title: Who are unions organized against? The answer to this question is crucial both to our understanding of and sympathy toward unions. Union rhetoric claims that they are organized primarily against capital, in Marxist terms, or—in the contemporary formulations—management or employers. Union rhetoric also claims that they are organized for and represent labor generally, or “the worker.” On the contrary, my conclusion, supported by both reason and evidence, is that unions are most basically organized against other workers, that when a union is recognized by an employer he is in tacit alliance with it, and that the most direct results of unionism are unemployment and underutilization of workers. If this thesis is correct and acceptable, the person who declares that he is in favor of unions because he is on the side of the working man is confronted with yet another question: Which working man?

Organized Against Whom? also focuses upon the nature and character of the union over the years. It does so not only to clarify who unions are organized against but also where they fit, if they do, within the economy and other institutions of society. Labor unions have an impact on—are organized against—more than other workers. Over the years, they have contested with governments, management, other unions (in what are called jurisdictional disputes), and related industries to those in which they are organized. Beyond that, of course, they have made living more expensive for consumers generally. As for the contemporary opponent of unions who gives as his reason the fact that they have become too powerful, the historical record indicates that unions from the early 19th century down to the present have been basically organized to exclude other workers from competition with them for jobs. Whether they are powerful or not, that is the nature of their undertaking.

Unions Are an Enigma

It is no easy matter to get at the nature of labor unions. At the ontological level, it may be impossible to determine exactly what sort of beings they are. They are an enigma: they are neither simply voluntary associations of persons nor political organizations. They are neither fish nor fowl, so to speak, though they resemble in some of their features a variety of other organizations. Though they frequently rely on some measure of coercion, they are not governments. Though they operate within an economy, they are not economical in character. They resemble in important ways some sort of sect, a pseudo-religious sect because of their ideological underpinnings, and because of the government support they receive and the manner of their operations they are analogous to an established church.

It is, I say, quite difficult, if not impossible, to get at the full nature of labor unions. Yet it is, in my judgment, very important to try to do so, because it is in these terms that we must decide whether labor unions can be fitted into a peaceful society, a free economy, and a political sys-tern in which established religions are prohibited. Granted, I have cast my net more broadly than is common in dealing with labor unions, but I believe the subject warrants the treatment.

Some Differences

In an essay called “On Labor” in The Freeman (December, 1983), Percy Greaves has discussed Organized Against Whom?, and challenged some of my central points about the nature of labor unions. Since I believe that his challenges are based mainly on a misreading of what I was saying by lifting statements out of context or some differences about premises, I would like to examine both his challenges and the context of my points.

Mr. Greaves says that there “are some unfortunate contradictions in the book, as when we read, ‘Let me confess at the outset that I do not know what labor unions are.’ Then the author proceeds in chapter after chapter to tell what they are and what they do.” But the statement quoted from Organized Against Whom? is a topic sentence, and it is immediately followed by qualifying and clarifying remarks. To wit: “I know many of the claims about them, know something of their tactics and methods, have a fairly clear idea of how they originated and developed, but beyond that I am stymied. I know that they are some sort of organization, but the kind, nature, and character of the organization is in doubt. More, I do not understand how and where labor unions fit into American society.” The broader context is that the statement is made in the midst of an introductory chapter dealing with the enigmatic character of labor unions and the difficulties involved in determining the nature of some things. I fail to see the contradiction in saying that I do not know the nature of something fully and then proceeding to get as near an approximation of a grasp of its nature as I can. Learning begins quite often by becoming aware of the fact that we do not know something, and I was inviting the reader to join me in the quest.

Mr. Greaves misreads my meaning entirely when he takes me to task for saying that “Violence is not essential to unionism.” I used the word “violence” in its common signification, as my dictionary defines it, “rough force in action,” for example, “a violent blow, explosion, . . . etc.” In short, I had in mind assaults on per sons and property by unions. Now to the context. The preceding paragraph describes a violent confrontation between contending groups often cited as early union activity. The questioned sentence appears in this paragraph:

It should be emphasized, however, that violence is not essential to unionism. It is sporadic and temporary, like the contentions between union and management. What is essential to unionism is the limitation of the supply of labor available and some means to induce employers not to avail themselves of the general supply. Some sort of coercion or intimidation is necessary, however . . . .

And I go on to explain why. Yet Mr. Greaves comments on this as if I had failed to recognize the role of coercion in unionism. My point was otherwise.

Economic or Political?

His following objections go very nearly to the heart of my thesis. He quotes me to the effect that labor unions “are not economic organizations,” “Nor is the labor union primarily a political organization.” On this matter of whether or not labor unions are economic organizations, I think he and I are using different definitions or premises. Mr. Greaves says, “If economics is the science of human actions to attain selected goals, then attaining union goals by boycotts, strikes and stopping others from working are certainly economic actions.” Perhaps, and so is the Mafia.

But I prefer my own explanation of my statement, which is “If economy be understood as comprising those actions which are aimed at making available the greatest quantity of goods and services that are most wanted with the least expenditure of the means of production . . . . then labor unions do not fit into it. Their thrust is in the opposite direction, to raise the price of labor, to restrict the ways in which the means of production may be employed, and thus to increase the cost of production . . . ; they produce nothing; they transport nothing; and they sell nothing. They are dis-economic organizations.” None of this is meant to suggest that unions do not have an impact on economics or that they have not depended upon government support. Mr. Greaves appears to believe that it does. He says further, “This book presents many incidents illustrating how labor unions have used both economic and political means to attain their present position of power.” I can only repeat that I was making judgments about labor unions as organizations, not denying or minimizing their economic and political connections.


But that does not dispose of the question of the economic character of unionism, at least not for Mr. Greaves, for his above objections were only a prelude. He follows them by observing that perhaps his “greatest disagreement is with the author’s assertion that ‘Labor unions are religious, or religion-like organizations. Their immediate goals are ethical in character; their ultimate goals are religious. Their economic claims are ethical in character; [this is so whether they are pressing for higher pay or dealing with particular grievances of their members.]‘” Mr. Greaves left out that last dependent clause without indicating that he had done so, though that may have been an oversight. In any case, contrary to Mr. Greaves’ description, I did not merely “assert” the above, and that is important. The quoted statements come at the end of a fairly lengthy presentation of evidence and are intended as a summary of the import of this evidence. Moreover, there is an earlier chapter in the book which bears upon and provides some of the evidence for these conclusions.

Even so, it does not surprise me to learn that Mr. Greaves, or anyone else, might raise some questions about my conclusions. They are not the usual terms within which labor unions are discussed, and the conclusions are in some measure original, I suppose. If they were simply assertions they probably should be dismissed out of hand. But they are not that at all. They are the crux of an extended effort to do two things. One is to make an historical explanation of the framework within which labor unions became accepted and received political support for their undertaking. The other is to get as near as I can to discovering the nature of the labor union as an organization.

In partial rebuttal of my position, Mr. Greaves says, “The aims and actions of labor unions are certainly neither heavenly nor irrational. They are earthy and concrete. Labor unions seek more for their members.” That labor unions often are earthy and concrete and seek more for their members I would not for one moment contest. Their desire for a greater return for their labor most, if not all, of us can understand. Nor do we have difficulty in understanding how people may organize to use extortion and intimidation to get more by excluding others from competition with them.

Ethical Claims

The difficulty comes in understanding how such activities may become socially and legally acceptable, and how government may lend its support to them. The difficulty further is in grasping what sort of organization would result from this recognition and where it would fit among social institutions. My reading of the situation is this. Labor unions offer ethical justifications for their strange behavior. They claim that their members have been wronged—an ethical question—and that they can only receive justice—an ethical matter—by banding together and obtaining it. That the alleged injustice occurred in the economic realm does not alter the ethical character of their complaint. People side with them and union members find their justification in the belief that they have been or are being wronged.

Rooted in Socialism

Both the ethical claims and the justification of unionism are rooted in an ideology, the ideology most commonly called socialism. In its deeper dimensions, socialism is both a substitute for religion and religion-like itself. It is religion-like in that it establishes as its goal a kind of heaven on earth; that is, it is utopian. This becomes an article of faith, that as men follow collective modes they are acting toward the realization of that goal. It becomes the main purpose of life. Labor unions are offshoots of the socialist movement, both historically and theoretically. They are a sect, if you will, within socialism. Unions claim special political immunities and privileges on the basis that they are right and justice requires their activities, and they are accepted by those who presumably believe their claims. There is much evidence, too, that they are more nearly a religion-like organization, than any other kind, but I will forgo the occasion to present it again, for it is somewhat lengthy.

Mr. Greaves did not deal with or concede the existence of the evidence and the reasons by which it is linked. Instead, he appears at first to misunderstand my point and then resorts to a definition to dispose of my position. He says that “there is nothing ethical or religious about the use of coercion, be it legal or illegal.” If he means that ethics and religion are different categories of being than coercion, I agree, though I fail to see the relevance of the statement. If he means that coercion is in all circumstances unethical and contrary to religion, I disagree. Or if, as I had supposed, he thinks that I was somehow legitimizing unions by referring to their claims as ethical and their organization as religion-like, he is mistaken. An ethical claim may or may not be valid, and a religion may be false.

This last, however, Mr. Greaves does not concede. He says that religions “deal with matters that cannot be logically proved or disproved. Religions are concerned with the irrational aspects of life.” His argument can be syllogistically summarized this way. Major premise: religions are irrational. Minor premise: unions are rational, or have rational goals. Ergo: unions are not religious or religion-like. It happens that I disagree with both his major and minor premise and do not, therefore, accept his conclusion, but the important thing is that none of that is germane to my position. I did not conclude that unions are religion-like because they are irrational whether they are or not. Rather, I based that conclusion on their connection with socialism, on the point that it deals with such things as the purpose of life, the end toward which things move, and that unions are sectarian-like in their behavior, among other things. Nor did I attempt to prove that unionism is a false religion. Rather, I propose that its political immunities and privileges be withdrawn on the grounds that they are in violation of the First Amendment prohibition against an established religion. That is, for me at least, an interesting idea and one, I hope, worthy of consideration.

Lawlessness Defined

The other objections by Mr. Greaves can be dealt with summarily. He says that “lawlessness is referred to as the ‘state of nature’” in my book. I have been unable to discover any statement resembling that in the book. I did refer to a state of nature, and described it as “a condition that would exist if there were no government.” “Obviously,” I also said, “in such circumstances every man becomes a law unto himself.” I stand by that. Mr. Greaves questioned my view that “An ancient union complaint could certainly be disposed of if governments neither recognized, gave status to, taxed or otherwise noticed private organizations, except as they might disturb the peace.” He thought that would in effect “repeal the First Amendment.” I do not understand him. The First Amendment is a prohibition on the federal government, not a licensing of organizations. It provides for the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, press, assembly, and the right of petition. No government recognition is required for men to associate in whatever way they will for peaceful activities.

He takes me to task for writing that “Congress is empowered to make laws regulating commerce.” In his view, I should have made it clear that “The Constitution carefully limited that power to ‘interstate commerce’,” . . . The context of my statement may help to explain why I did not do so. I was summarizing the grounds on which Congress passed a law empowering unions. As I remember it, I was paraphrasing the preamble to an act. In so doing, I was trying to reproduce with as much fidelity to the original as possible in a summary, neither approving or disapproving what they had said, nor offering advice on how they should have said it. If I had been describing the powers of the government myself, I would most certainly have noted the limitations, and anyone who doubts it may consult any number of my essays in which I have done so.

Now allow me to back off a bit. It is not for a writer to determine how well or how ill he has conveyed what he has to say. That is for the readers and reviewers. It takes two to tango, as the song says, and the two in this case are the writer and the reader. If Mr. Greaves, or anyone else, has misunderstood me, the fault may have been mine. It seemed to me in the above that in most instances what I had written had been misconstrued to some extent, either because of my ineptness or because of differences in understanding of the matters under consideration. In any case, I welcome the opportunity to try to clarify some questions that arose. I do so because I believe that on the central points, or most of them, Mr. Greaves and I are in agreement, and I would not want any potential readers to be turned away because of any possible misconstructions of the material in the book.

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.