Books / Digital Text

10. Monopoly and Competition > 4. Labor Unions > B. Some Arguments for Unions: A Critique

(1) Indeterminacy

A favorite reply of union advocates69 to the above analysis is this: “Oh, that is all very well, but you are overlooking the indeterminacy of wage rates. Wage rates are determined by marginal productivity in a zone rather than at a point; and within that zone unions have an opportunity to bargain collectively for increased wages without the admittedly unpleasant effects of unemployment or displacement of workers to poorer jobs.” It is curious that many writers move smoothly through rigorous price analysis until they come to wage rates, when suddenly they lay heavy stress on indeterminacy, the huge zones within which the price makes no difference, etc.

In the first place, the scope of indeterminacy is very small in the modern world. We have seen above that, in a two-person barter situation, there is likely to be a large zone of indeterminacy between the buyer's maximum demand price and the seller's minimum supply price for a quantity of a good. Within this zone, we can only leave the determination of the price to bargaining. However, it is precisely the characteristic of an advanced monetary economy that these zones are ever and ever narrowed and lose their importance. The zone is only between the “marginal pairs” of buyers and sellers, and this zone is constantly dwindling as the number of people and alternatives in the market increase. Growing civilization, therefore, is always narrowing the importance of indeterminacies.

Secondly, there is no reason whatever why a zone of indeterminacy should be more important for the labor market than for the market for the price of any other good.

Thirdly, suppose that there is a zone of indeterminacy for a labor market, and let us assume that no union is present. This means that there is a certain zone, the length of which can be said to equal a zone of the discounted marginal value product of the factor. This, parenthetically, is far less likely than the existence of a zone for a consumers’ good, since in the former case there is a specific amount, a DMVP, to be estimated. But the maximum of the supposed zone is the highest point at which the wage equals the DMVP. Now, competition among employers will tend to raise factor prices to precisely that height at which profits will be wiped out. In other words, wages will tend to be raised to the maximum of any zone of the DMVP.

Rather than wages being habitually at the bottom of a zone, presenting unions with a golden opportunity to raise wages to the top, the truth is quite the reverse. Assuming the highly unlikely case that any zone exists at all, wages will tend to be at the top, so that the only remaining indeterminacy is downward. Unions would have no room for increasing wages within that zone.

  • 69. See the excellent critique by Hutt, Theory of Collective Bargaining, passim.