It’s Time to Rethink Some Unions

It’s Time to Rethink Some Unions
UAW strikers rally for the restoration of cost-of-living adjustments in downtown Detroit on Sept. 15, 2023. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)
Jeffrey A. Tucker

Fans and defenders of free markets have never been fans of labor unions. They seem forever to be kvetching about not getting enough money but they undertake activities that harm the profitability of companies. They slow work, demand ridiculous benefits, resist market-driven change, and seem often to be threatening companies in a compulsory way.

They have historically been too short-term thinking, padding their own nests at the expense of the companies that employ them. It’s no wonder their share of the workforce has shrunk so much over the decades, down to 10 percent from 34 percent in the postwar period.

Now, they are mostly strong in the public sector. We saw how the teachers’ union behaved over the past several years, locking the kids out of class and taking vacations they hoped would last as long as possible.

Fewer companies are unionized today, which has been generally good for free enterprise.

Still, there are a few pockets of power remaining in the private sector. Musicians unions are still strong, and some service sectors in large cities such as New York and Las Vegas still have powerful unions. They are forever driving up the price of everything.

All of this remains true. However, these aren’t normal times. Even my own attitude toward their utility has been buffeted about in the past several years.

The United Auto Workers’ simultaneous strike against General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis—its first—is an amazing show of power, and we’ll see where it ends up. But have you noticed how strangely unsympathetic the mainstream media has been toward these strikes?

This is when I first smelled a rat. And then it occurred to me that the unthinkable might be: They could be on the right side this time.

Looking at the details of this strike, it’s really about the forced conversion of their factories to electric cars from making profitable gas-powered vehicles. This isn’t in the interest of either the companies or the workers. It’s a central plan being imposed on them by the Biden administration.

This is a conversion from “fossil fuels” (probably not the right name!) to “clean energy” (not the right name, either). It’s a forced switch from a profitable product line to an unprofitable one. The unions are demanding that their own companies stick to what they are good at.

This is a new role for unions in the United States. They are on the right side of this one.

“In many ways, this strike is made in Washington because of the Biden Administration’s policy mandating a rapid transition to electric vehicles. The UAW knows that EVs require fewer workers to make and will jeopardize union jobs making gas-powered cars. But the companies already lose money on EVs and worry about making too many concessions to the UAW that will cause them to lose even more as they are forced to build more EVs.”

“It’s hard to overstate the costs of this coerced EV transition. The Biden Administration, with California as its co-enforcer, is mandating that EVs make up an increasing share of auto-maker sales—two-thirds by 2032. California and other progressive states plan to ban all new gas-powered cars by 2035.”

“But last year, EVs made up less than 3 percent of Detroit auto maker sales. Auto makers are increasingly steering profits from their popular gas-powered pickups and SUVs into cranking up EV production and subsidizing their sales to meet the government mandates. ... Even with the Inflation Reduction Act’s generous subsidies for battery production and for EV buyers, the companies can’t accept the UAW’s demands without putting profitability at risk. Ford lost nearly $60,000 on each EV it sold in 2023’s first quarter.”

In other words, this story completely flips the script. The company big shots have acquiesced to White House demands in exchange for which they get huge subsidies. The decision-makers all have job protection and ridiculously high salaries. They pay no price at all for their decision to dramatically change what they do at the expense of the workers.

The post-lockdown economy is replete with these sorts of oddities.

I was at the symphony some months ago and the music union was handing out protest flyers. Their complaint was that they were forced for two years to go without income as the halls closed. Today, audiences are just barely coming back. But the musicians are only now getting a salary again. Meanwhile, the management had been declared “essential” by government and got paid the entire time.

It seems right in this case, too: The musicians are only demanding a market-based fairness. What has happened to them isn’t the market working but the very opposite. Like the autoworkers, their vocations were wrecked by the government itself with the approval of a management struggle that has very little regard for the workers themselves.

All of this has got me thinking, or rethinking, many features of union politics. Many of them over the past 10 years have changed their political allegiances away from the left toward the right. Many became Trump voters in 2016. These days, with Democrats as the main champions of the Green New Deal and the Great Reset generally, why should union workers support them?

Maybe some could become allies in the struggle against the administrative state and its wicked plans to convert the entire physical world into some kind of digital dystopia.

This wouldn’t be without precedent. Recall that the major protests against socialism in Eastern Europe in the 1980s really began with the unions in Poland. They were protesting for basic human rights in the face of a brutal system that robbed them of all freedoms. The Polish Solidarity movement caught fire, toppled central planning in Poland, and spread all over the region, eventually leading to the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps, I’ve not given the unions enough credit for this. As a free-market guy, I’ve generally regarded them as forces of inefficiency at best and under the influence of Marxian theory at worst. But this clearly isn’t always the case.

We are facing major decisions in this country and around the world, as the World Economic Forum (WEF) and other bad actors attempt to take away from us traditional sources of energy, impose on us cars that can’t drive long distances, cram us into high rises in 15-minute cities, and nudge us gradually into a surveillance state in which the elites rule everything and the rest of us rule nothing.

In this case, the real unions fighting for their rights can be important allies. Remember, too, that it was the truckers in Canada who supercharged the movements against lockdowns and vaccine mandates. They paid a heavy price but emboldened campaigns around the world. God bless them for that.

These are very odd times and we need to look for allies in places where we wouldn’t have looked in the past. Truckers, auto unions, rural country singers, religious “fundamentalists,” independent podcasters, and so many others who are regarded as mere “workers and peasants” might be all that stand between us and a World Economic Forum-imposed tyranny.

In addition, perhaps it’s time for us all to dispense with the caricatured categories of all ideological divisions and instead just look at the facts as they unfold before us. Hey, if this free market guy can find a way to cheer on the UAW in a labor strike, anything is possible.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Jeffrey A. Tucker is the founder and president of the Brownstone Institute and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press, as well as 10 books in five languages, most recently “Liberty or Lockdown.” He is also the editor of “The Best of Ludwig von Mises.” He writes a daily column on economics for The Epoch Times and speaks widely on the topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.
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