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The sad demise of unions

The 1984 miners' strike in Britain, which signalled the beginning of the end

The 1984 miners’ strike signalled the beginning of the end for organised labour in the UK

The passage of a right-to-work law in Michigan has stirred up controversy in the US, but for all the wrong reasons.

Frankly, I’ve never really understood the modern labour movement. The typical rationale for unions is to constrain the power of greedy capital owners by giving workers the power to bargain collectively. Without this power, it is too easy for owners to exploit the workers.

People tend to accept this idea without much thinking, but it is a completely inaccurate description for most unions in the world — and pretty much all of the prominent ones. For the most part, today’s unions comprise civil servants negotiating with taxpayers. Nurses, teachers, police officers, firemen.

As valuable as these jobs certainly are, I don’t understand why they need the ability to organise. The government is not the same as a private employer. It is already accountable to the people through the ballot, so I see no reason for civil servants to be given bargaining power in negotiations with a democratically elected government. There is no imbalance to redress, and any attempts to do so involve shifting power from an accountable body to an unaccountable one.

These civil servants are the least at-risk category of workers in the country, at least in terms of exploitation by their employer, but their domination of the labour movement drowns out the voices of real workers.

Stroppy civil servants also give workers a bad name. Most of the union scare stories that make it into the media involve public-sector workers — teachers who can’t be fired, firemen on six-figure salaries, cops with lavish pensions and entire communities bankrupted by the burden of paying out all this pork.

As far as I can tell, public-sector unions exist for no other reason than to bankroll political parties — the Democrats in the US, Labour in the UK. As such, they have forced workers into a hyper-partisan position and, quite understandably, have led Republicans and Conservatives to undermine their power by weakening collective bargaining rights.

This happened in the 1980s in the UK, but is only now happening in the US.

The specific issue in the right-to-work debate is similar to what are called closed shops in the UK — the right of a union to force all workers to pay dues (or, in the UK, to force them to join the union as a condition of employment). The idea behind this is that all workers benefit from collective bargaining, so all should pay the cost of it. (Union dues are typically just a few bucks a month.)

I doubt forced dues would be nearly so controversial if unions weren’t such big political donors, and I doubt that unions would be such big donors if they weren’t dominated by government employees.

In the UK, it was almost entirely public-sector workers who brought about the downfall of the unions. Their endless strikes were utterly pointless and stupid. Government workers don’t have a right to veto government policy just because they don’t like it. If that were the case it would be impossible for the government to ever get anything done.

The sad result is that real workers, who face real exploitation by real employers, have lost many of their rights. The demise of private-sector unions may also partly explain the widening gap between rich and poor.

Or this is how it all seems to me. I often wonder if there’s something more to it, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this discussed as an issue. It just seems to be accepted that public-sector workers have a right to organise. Perhaps I’m missing something.

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