labor unions

Libertarians and Republicans tell me that they don't need a labor union because they work harder, smarter, and faster than the others in their shop and the boss knows it. This only works until the Libertarian converts the rest of the shop to his philosophy. Then we have a race to the bottom.

How does this come about? Everyone trying to work faster than the next guy? The shop a contract to make so many units a month. which is being met without anyone working overtime. The boss goes to a variable piece rate based on the median production rate and the desired production. When the month's production is done the boss closes the shop until the next month - or lays off the slowest worker.

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That's not the libertarian

That's not the libertarian argument against (certain beliefs about) labor unions. A more typical libertarian argument is that labor unions are successful in boosting wages and reducing workload only to the degree to which they succeed in establishing a union monopoly. One way to do this is to attack competing workers whose competition threatens the monopoly. The union name for these is "scabs". An example of this happening is the Homestead strike, in which Pinkerton agents were hired to protect replacement workers against union members. But the monopoly thereby established is limited to the particular business enterprise being monopolized. If the workers manage to monopolize one factory, there are still other factories which can compete against that factory. In order to be lastingly effective, then, unions need to monopolize an entire market sector. The UAW managed more or less to do this in the US, and therefore managed successfully to boost wages and reduce workload in the US auto industry. Of course, this amounts to increasing the price and reducing the quality of cars. When Japanese automakers started competing against the unionized American autoworkers the house of cards came tumbling down. Fortunately for the unionists, a Democrat was elected to the White House just in time for GM to implode, and the Democrat bailed out GM, and therefore the union, at taxpayer expense.

In a nutshell, unions are either superfluous or catastrophic.

Don't know about the US, but

Don't know about the US, but at least in France, employers cannot discriminate against union members or fire people if they join an union.

Theory vs. practice

Under the US National Labor Relations Act of 1934, the practice of discriminating against those who engage in "concerted job actions" -- including those who join or already belong to a union -- is illegal.

And common.

There is no libertarian problem with collective bargaining

The problem occurs when one of the parties invokes force rather than persuasion. This can be involve beating up scabs, but the preferred method these days is to lobby legislators to intercede on behalf of a party.

The fundamental problem is not that these parties buy political influence, the problem is that such influence is produced to be sold.

In a free market unions are fine and can sometimes be beneficial to members.

For a long time major league baseball clubs held salaries down by acting as a cartel. But actually the best ballplayers are the ones with a the closest thing to a natural monopoly because they are the ones the public will pay most to see. Through collective action they were on their way to defeating the cartel when the government intervened.

"In a nutshell, unions are

"In a nutshell, unions are either superfluous or catastrophic."

I think major league athletes are a counter-example. The case is muddied of course because government always puts it's big fat thumb on the scale but I think the best atheletes in the world have a kind of natural monopoly and they are entitely justified in exercising that monopoly through unionization.

Striking NFL players demonstrated to the satisfaction of team owners that they could not profitably be replaced by players outside the union, fans weren't sufficiently interested in the games produced with replacements.

NFL players were worth more to team owners than they were being compensated for and they proved it through a strike.

The catastrophe comes about

The catastrophe comes about through a monopolization/cartelization of a market sector. If the sector is already dominated by a cartel, then the catastrophe has already occurred. It was my understanding that the NFL is a cartel. So unionization of players would not be expected to be catastrophic.

I don't follow any sports, so I have no way of comparing cartelized with non-cartelized sports. Also it's hard to compare football as it is with football as it is not. So I am unable to perceive whether cartelized football is inferior to what it would have been. I am familiar with other cartelized sectors. Medicine and banking are cartelized. Just try to start practicing medicine or start issuing your own currency without jumping through the right hoops. I would judge the situation with both to be "catastrophic". Since sports are a pastime, I am not even sure how one would measure damage. Maybe the price of tickets? If it is significantly more expensive to attend a football game today compared to, say, twenty years ago, that would parallel one aspect of the medical catastrophe.

The catastrophe comes about

The catastrophe comes about through a monopolization/cartelization of a market sector. If the sector is already dominated by a cartel, then the catastrophe has already occurred. It was my understanding that the NFL is a cartel. So unionization of players would not be expected to be catastrophic.

But neither was the unionization superfluous. (Assuming my characterization of events is correct.) Did I misunderstand your assertion that it must be one or the other?

Even if the monopolization or cartelization of a market meets your definition of catastrophe, I dispute that there is any libertarian objection to it so long as it is accomplished by voluntary transaction.

To beat up scabs or invoke state force obviously violates libertarian principles. Need we really go further than this?

But neither was the

But neither was the unionization superfluous. (Assuming my characterization of events is correct.) Did I misunderstand your assertion that it must be one or the other?

I acknowledge that you gave an exception. I tried to figure out how it fit into the scheme of my argument. In particular, I noticed that my argument had presupposed a competitive market sector.

Even if the monopolization or cartelization of a market meets your definition of catastrophe, I dispute that there is any libertarian objection to it so long as it is accomplished by voluntary transaction.

My conclusion wasn't moral. I concluded, "unions are either superfluous or catastrophic." This is not a moral assessment. "Catastrophic" isn't a word one would use to attack something morally. One would say, "criminal", "unconscionable", "heinous", etc.

To beat up scabs or invoke state force obviously violates libertarian principles. Need we really go further than this?

We need to go further if we are talking to anyone for whom libertarian principles are not enough reason.

We need to go further if we

We need to go further if we are talking to anyone for whom libertarian principles are not enough reason.

Go where? What is the libertarian remedy if a cartel or monopoly is formed through voluntary transactions?

Common arguments used by

Common arguments used by libertarians to answer non-libertarians who bring up natural monopolies:

a) Argue that natural monopolies are few, that supposed natural monopolies are usually state-created, and so the problem of natural monopolies is overblown.

b) Argue that the cure (state regulation or outright socialism) is worse than the disease. The state itself is, after all, an even greater monopoly, so what sort of fix to a small monopoly is state intervention? That would be like treating your daughter's fever by feeding her to a hungry lion.

The libertarian (?) case for unions

I largely share Constant_’s understanding of the economics of unionization. The problems billwald identifies arise from an excess of labor relative to employment; the solution of unionization tends to work only when it succeeds in limiting the labor supply. The most libertarian rejoinder to billwald's concerns is to suggest that when the cost of labor becomes sufficiently low, employees themselves can opt to become employers and compete with their former bosses.

That said, I largely share billwald’s sympathies.

I’m acquainted with two types of libertarians that countenance unions:

The Hard-Core Theory: Some libertarians focus exclusively on the individual and regard all efforts to focus on group dynamics as illusory or worse. They believe in each individual’s absolute right to transact business on whatever terms they can agree to without resorting to violence – as well as the right to refrain from doing business. They resist efforts to focus on the dynamics of market power or group prejudice (racism, etc.) If an individual just happens to act in the same manner as other individuals in withholding his services from any employer, or in withholding places of public accommodation from black people, or in withholding oil from western nations – hey, no problem. And if this results in higher prices and lower quantities than “free market” theories suggest is optimal, so what? Those theories focus on social benefits – and the concept of society itself is merely an illusion.

The Second Best (or Countervailing Force) Theory: Other libertarians do not feel quite so constrained to ignore group dynamics. A subsection of these libertarians conclude that power dynamics matter. And a subsection of these resign themselves to the conclusion that an ideal libertarian society is unstable because it leaves no person or group with both sufficient self-interest and sufficient power to maintain the society against competing forces. These libertarians fret about how often societies with the least regulation are also societies dominated by a small elite of “crony capitalists” living in gated communities amidst a sea of poverty.

In contrast, they observe the so-called “developed” economies of Europe and North America – with a large middle class that has managed to implement all kinds of rules designed to bolster its position in society – and they find those societies relatively appealing. While this middle class is no less rapacious than the crony capitalists, its membership is larger so it manages to defray the benefits of society more broadly.

Consequently this group of libertarians – hardly libertarians any more, really – resign themselves to looking for the most efficient/least burdensome ways to structure society to maintain a middle class as a countervailing force against the crony capitalists. Legal supports for unions is merely one of a number of such methods.

Constant_ makes a fair point that, whatever you many think of the goal of unionization, it is proving less effective in the context of global competition. Not coincidentally, the middle class of developed nations has been shrinking; the US is increasingly coming to have the income distributions associated with the world of crony capitalists.

Thus, perhaps unionization is a tool that has passed its prime. Arguably the appropriate response is to find a new tool.

Pragmatically, people with arts/crafts/business abilities

are in the minority. Pragmatically, the international corporations control the majority of the jobs and the cash flow.

Historically, the AFofL was a craft union for people with special training and abilities who organized to limit entry into their field. This was the historical purpose of the guilds. The CIO was organized to unite all (general) laborers working for a single employer - people without the specialization and training of a guild craft.

Libertarians and Republicans preach as if each and every one (of them) had above average training and ability thus should be able to negotiate a better contract with their employer than a union team can negotiate for the run of the mill worker. If this be true then one would think that it could be demonstrated statistically. Does the median Libertarian have a higher than national median income? Higher than the median for unionized workers? Are Libertarians over represented on corporate boards?

Me, I was smart enough to soon learn that I did not have management abilities or the psychological profile to be a manager. I was pleased to be able to work for 30 years under a union contract. I think I would have ended up in the loony bin if I had to continually personally negotiate for a job and for compensation.

"I would have ended up in

"I would have ended up in the loony bin if I had to continually personally negotiate for a job and for compensation."

People who don't belong to unions typically do not go insane. You may be underestimating yourself.

Alternatively....

Maybe you're both right. Perhaps billwald would have ended up in a loony bin without union representation. And maybe he ended up in a loony bin with union representation. That is, perhaps the whole union thing is irrelevant to the state of his sanity.

Just exploring all the possibilities....

Now that I have a good state pension

It doesn't matter if I am a little nuts.