We’re seeing some stinky chestnuts popping out of a scuffle over labor laws in Michigan, which is about to become the 24th right-to-work state. Some of the words, phrasing, and even the body-language of those who are involved in the fracas on the organized-labor side, are very telling and very educational.
I was drawn in particular to this one:
“Young people don’t know the history of labor relations,” said Diane Petryk, a union member from Lansing. “They have an eight-hour day, a weekend, vacation and more because of labor unions.
“Their grandparents died on the picket lines in Flint, Detroit and other places so that we could have a middle class.”
Uh, YEAH. About that. Let’s get our hooks into this piece before the savage quicksand of forgotten Google queries and Internet time, swallows it up again. Lacking any good way to excerpt from it, I’ll just grab the whole thing:
Economic Myths: The 5 Day Work Week And The 8 Hour Day
How many times have you been in an economic discussion with someone, discussing the benefits of competition, the power of markets, and the overall benefits of capitalism when someone blurts out that in any competitive system, unions and regulations are necessary, for without them, without their interference, we wouldn’t have a middle class, we wouldn’t have a five day work week or eight hour work days? I hear this all the time, I see it on bumper stickers, and it is so often repeated that I thought I’d blog on it and give the readers of my blog an edge on what really happened, and how to respond if they encounter the same topic.
So, who gave us the 5 day, 8 hours per day, work week? Was it really the unions, was it really higher regulations? No, the historical answer is that it was Heny Ford who gave us the 5 day, 8 hours per day, work week. Ford was tired of continuously losing good employees, he was trying to increase employee retention and at the same time increase profits, so he basically doubled wages and implemented a 5-day work week, and in the process effectively invented the modern weekend. It is Henry Ford who is widely credited with contributing to the creation of a middle class in the United States.
In addition, if you look at why Henry Ford did this, you will see that his reasons had nothing to do with charity, and everything to do with increasing profits and dealing with the forces of competition.
What makes those who believe it was unions look even more ridiculous is the fact that Henry Ford despised unions. The tensions were so strong, that Ford hired a former Navy boxer to help him stop the unions from unionizing Ford Motor Company.
Many of those who hold the view that it was unions – or regulations – who gave us the middle class, often hold outdated fears against ‘unfettered markets’, still repeating the now fully debunked Karl Marx view that capitalism, through competition, will bring exploitation of workers, will be a ‘race to the bottom’, and will eventually, [at least] according to Marx, result in class warfare blah blah blah blah. However, if you come back to the real world, you will see that competition does the exact opposite, it increases the standard of living, it increases working standards, it increases pay, and it is overall the working person’s best weapon, not its enemy. This is why unions and the minimum wage have the opposite result, since by reducing competition they don’t make the working person’s standard of living better; on net balance, they make it worse.
So in conclusion, it wasn’t because of unions or regulations that we have a middle class, it was in spite of them that we do, and the next time you hear otherwise, correct them immediately, the working class will thank you.
This event in Michigan is a worthy thing for us to inspect, when we think about chestnuts that are past their prime. To illustrate why, I would ask the reader to think hard about what a chestnut is: In the final analysis, it is simply a message to be conveyed from those who are personally motivated, toward the low-information voter (or participant in the movement). It is a message from those who understand the deleterious consequences involved in bad left-wing public policy, but don’t give a rat’s ass about it, to those who would be more interested in these consequences but are unaware of them; a message from the apathetic to the ignorant. We see this all the time with organized labor. “Give us what we want, or else you will lose, or fail to gain, X.” It is their default strategy.
In this case, the issue is right to work, which puts them in an awkward fighting stance since the rotten chestnut becomes one of: “You are going to suffer some kind of injury if you have the right to work,” meaning, if you have the option of not paying dues to a union. Which means: You aren’t going to come out of this in one piece unless you are forced to give us money. Okay, so that’s the stanza of every crooked salesman there’s ever been, but still. How do you polish that turd? It’s quite a challenge, and it is only met by way of — spin, spin, and spin away. Lots and lots of idle babbling about nothing, and when that fails, resort to the “it just works out like that because I know something you don’t know” posturing. You young people with your 40 hour work weeks, you don’t understand the history of unions!
Well I agree with them in this much: Yes, we should understand the history of unions better than we do. And as is the case with many other progressive arguments, at core it is quite legitimate: When people share a common interest, it is to their benefit to organize and conduct their negotiations as one, for they gain a lot of power in that configuration that they’re missing otherwise. But when the final history is written on the labor union movement…assuming it is recorded at all in any useful way, which with all these chestnuts flying around today I have to question…this is going to be the jump-the-shark moment where the labor unions lost their usefulness, and it actually took place generations ago. Now that we have all this power to use against the boss, how do we make the most of it, and how do we get more? But the wealth that makes all this labor possible is created only by way of the projects and missions and tasks you manage to complete with the boss. He’s on your side, or to put it more accurately, you’re supposed to be on his. If “work” comes to be nothing more than a daily routine in which the two of you conspire to get more and more things at the expense of one another, it’s an unavoidable consequence that less work is going to get done. To put it another way, the business exists because “collective bargaining” is already taking place, and it’s the bargaining the management does partnered up with the labor, with the customer, who is also not an enemy. Sure, everyone’s got their separate financial interests. That doesn’t automatically make someone an inimical force. If it does, then ultimately no trade is possible, anywhere.
And regrettably, there are some nuggets of observed fact in that labor union history, that suggest rather strongly that at times, that might have been the goal.
Cross-posted at House of Eratosthenes.