At first, I couldn’t put my finger on what bothered me. And then I read N. Gregory Mankiw’s blog, and it came to me. Professor Mankiw, once George W. Bush’s chief economic adviser, was taking to task his liberal colleagues for endorsing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Didn’t they understand that unions were cartels that “raise wages above the equilibrium level?” Second paragraph: Didn’t they realize that depriving workers of the secret ballot exposed them to “strong arm tactics” by union organizers? “As a matter of procedural fairness,” Mankiw wrote, “I cannot understand why one would oppose a secret ballot.” Well, how about you, Professor Mankiw? Do you really mean to be defending the right of workers to vote themselves into a cartel? It’s a precept of your guild that, in matters economic, everyone is a rational actor, and self-interest says: join a cartel if you can get away with it. That’s why we have anti-trust laws.
Mankiw’s foray into the EFCA debate brings neatly into focus the contradiction at the core of the anti-EFCA brief. On the one hand, the employer side–the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, if you can believe it–has been saying for many months that its only concern is that employees be protected from union intimidation and be free to choose in the privacy of the polling booth, which, I have to say, is persuasive with a great many well-informed people, and at any rate provides excellent cover to Democratic fence-sitters, including now Senator Arlen Specter, who are bowing to right-wing pressure and turning against the bill. On the other hand, the Coalition’s members are avowed practitioners of union avoidance. And now, with the economy in meltdown, they are in an absolute frenzy about the costs they say collective bargaining will inflict on the economy. Entrepreneurship will shrivel, small business will fail, jobs will migrate overseas, and so on. But, like Professor Mankiw, they can’t have it both ways. They can’t say that unions will raise wages and that workers will be forced to join unions.
Is there an answer to this conundrum? Of course there is, staring us right in the face. It’s our corrupted labor law, which says workers have rights but in fact is company-dominated. That’s why the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace is defending it so furiously against the remedial provisions of the Employee Free Choice Act. The business side likes the law just as it is.
No sooner had Mankiw’s blog appeared than the Heritage Foundation made it official. In a report on February’s dismal job numbers, WebMemo# 2330 warned that “forced” unionization under the Employee Free Choice Act would reduce job opportunities by an additional 765,000 in two years. This was because “unions are monopoly cartels. They intend to restrict the number of jobs in the economy to get higher wages for their members. In this they operate like any other cartel,” just like—to be specific–OPEC. “The economy overall weakens, but OPEC benefits.” So too with unions: “They win benefits for their members by raising prices and removing job opportunities for everyone else.”
My God, I thought, if that’s the case, what are we doing with a labor law that says its purpose is to encourage collective bargaining? There was a time when conservatives who took the Heritage Foundation’s view despised the labor law and called for its repeal. I suggest that the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace return to that position. They should call for repeal of the law. Then we can have an honest debate about whether or not Americans are serious about the right of workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining. As things stand, we’re having a false debate that dishonors the country.
David Brody is a professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Davis.