Biden to organized labor: “Let’s dance”

March 9, 2009

Tim Canon
[email protected]

“You know, you go home with them that brung you to the dance.”

Yes, that was vice president Joe Biden speaking to AFL-CIO leaders last week in Miami Beach. Badly butchered maxim aside, Biden made his point: He intends to cooperate with unions in their latest crusade into government policy. Specifically, as Labor Secretary Solis mentioned earlier in the week, Obama and Biden will support the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which, despite failing in 2007, is back for a new legislative session.

If passed, this policy would end union elections, making it easier for unions to form and consequently increasing their power. Democrats are strong proponents of the bill, claiming it will lead to better employment outcomes for workers. Republicans, meanwhile, oppose the bill, claiming it will lead to lower productivity. Both contentions are wrong. But the Republicans are right about one thing: This bill is bad news.

As a practical matter, the act itself will probably lead to few economic changes. Sure, some poor people will lose jobs as union demands lead to higher wages and costs, contrary to Democratic claims. Republican charges of decreasing productivity, meanwhile, are doubtful: Companies faced with high union wages will simply use more capital and hire fewer workers, which is unfortunate for workers but not for productivity, necessarily.

No, the real problem with this bill is it increases the power of unions and consequently their influence over U.S. economic policy. Popular myths of the heroic union aside, increasing union power is a recipe for political disaster and, in a time of already rising government corruption, the last thing this nation needs.

Labor unions have a history of entanglement with government and its policies. In fact, their very existence is an outcome of government force: Labor unions did not exist in any significant form until the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, when the federal government began to forcibly organize workers that, without government coercion, likely would not have organized in the first place. Unions are, and always have been, a creation of government, not American workers; as such, their interests and those of American workers rarely align.

Case in point: the federal minimum wage. This policy, historically supported by labor unions, fails miserably in its stated goal of helping American workers – but it helps union workers. After all, what happens when employers are forced to pay $7.25 per hour to a worker whose services are only worth $5? Simple: That worker, who is likely uneducated and poor, gets laid off, and can’t find a job anywhere else.

That, sadly, is exactly the point. By causing these poorer, uneducated workers to lose jobs, the minimum wage shrinks the demanded labor pool, while artificially inflating the wages of those lucky enough to keep their jobs – union workers. No wonder unions support it – it makes their members richer, nets them more revenue and increases their power, all at the expense of the nation’s poor.

Unions as a rule rarely support policies that help workers in general. It is more useful to think of the EFCA, then, as attending not to the interests of American workers, as Democrats claim, but those of unions alone – a point made all the more evident by recent trends in union numbers. Union membership has nearly halved since 1983. The EFCA is just an attempt to reverse this trend by using government force to increase union membership and, thus, power. This bill is not about protecting workers: It’s about preventing unions from dying a long overdue death.

It is counterintuitive – but fathomable – that Obama and Biden, whose rhetoric suggests such strong desire to help the poor, support the inefficient political conglomerate that is organized labor. After all, unions contribute big-time to their campaigns. As Biden told labor leaders in Miami Beach last Thursday, “you all brought me to the dance a long time ago. And it’s time we start dancing, man. It’s time we start dancing.”

Let’s hope Biden’s dancing is as bad as his memory for maxims.