Mises Wire

Should We Uncritically Support Organized Labor?

People celebrating Labor Day often do so by attending a regional Labor Day celebration, usually organized by labor unions. One undoubtedly hears the phrase “support all labor” being thrown around at these gatherings.

A Google search will reveal the most recent example of this phrase being used. In light of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) strike, a film festival released the following statement:

HollyShorts supports both the WGA and SAG/AFTRA strikes. In fact, we support all Labor, including the many people who work so hard behind the scenes to make films, especially independent films which are difficult to get funding for and finish. We owe it to our filmmakers to showcase their wonderful work. HollyShorts 2023 will go forward in this spirit.

HollyShorts is referring specifically to the film industry, but their use of the phrase “support all labor” is in the same spirit as many of the progressive advocates one comes across online or at left-wing events.

The problem is that this phrase is a hollow one because it is almost never consistently applied. Let’s look at a particular kind of union: police unions.

Police unions tend to prevent justice from being served against abusive police officers. This is not a design flaw, but an intended feature. Unions are intended to protect the worker—in this case, the police officer—and actions to protect officers from criticism and lawsuits are part and parcel of the purpose of police labor unions. Any supporter of labor unions who makes exceptions for these policies does not abide by their guiding principle of “support all labor.”

They are selective in their support for labor, and if they were not so adamant about this phrase, I would not blame them. What left-winger in their right mind would support the labor union members that killed George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or the unionized Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents that destroyed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, killing twenty-five children. However, many on the left are very antipolice (at least explicitly) while at the same time being unwilling to admit that their phrase “support all labor” has exceptions.

Stepping away from police, what of public employees in general? These bureaucrats are living off the taxpayer’s money. Their attempts to unionize are attempts to fleece the taxpayer further. Their jobs are entirely incompatible with a free society, so why should anyone be obligated to support them? Thus, “support all labor” has another problem. It sometimes contradicts other ethical standards, such as the nonaggression principle, the guiding star for libertarians.

Libertarians, defenders of the free market, as well as progressives would do well to heed the words of former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint when he said, “Collective bargaining has no place in representative democracy.”

In this quote, DeMint is invoking the position of the Tea Party, a movement he was a part of. Essentially, giving government protections to public unions or simply allowing public unions to form at all entrenches bureaucrats and thus acts as a barrier to shrinking the size of government. This is completely antithetical to the free market. These unions should be stripped of their privileges and busted not just because government grants of privilege are “inefficient,” but because their privilege protects bureaucrats, thus fostering the growth of government, an affront to justice.

Furthermore, building on the selectiveness of their slogan, labor union advocates are explicitly not for all labor. The labor of the entrepreneur, the manager, or the capitalist are entirely illegitimate to them, unworthy of support.

These groups do engage in labor, just a different kind than the labor the “working man” engages in that progressive union advocates have in mind. The entrepreneur employs foresight to organize production for the satisfaction of future consumer demands. The manager does just as the name suggests—manages. The manager, according to Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, “is essential for coordinating people, resources, and tasks.” (For more on why managers matter, check out Foss and Klein’s book Why Managers Matter.) Managers mitigate opportunism in workers by observing and coordinating them.

Capitalists, the much-disparaged group at the forefront of left-wing hate, engage in labor as well. What are saving and investing if not actions taken under the condition of scarcity? Do capitalists not bear the cost and expend mental effort to do so? Are those actions not beneficial? Of course capitalists bear a cost and expend effort, and of course their actions are beneficial to a vast swath of people. Their role is vital for economic development. The savings and investments they undertake allow for more roundabout methods of production, therefore expanding the stock of consumer goods available for the satisfaction of ends. If that is not a labor we should celebrate, I don’t know what is.

So, why shouldn’t these groups of unconventional laborers be supported? The answer the labor union advocates would give is that it is either not labor at all or it simply does not matter. The first claim is just nonsensical. (How does one define labor? Expending effort? The entrepreneur and manager do just that—expend effort.) The second claim is an exception to their rule of “support all labor.” It challenges the slogan’s universal applicability. They are trapped in a contradiction.

Where does this hollow principle of “support all labor” come from? It comes from the archaic labor theory of value. Questioning socialists, progressives, and union advocates presents the following justification for this principle: every good comes from labor; therefore, all labor must be supported.

However, it simply does not follow that putting labor into something makes the labor worthy of support. It is also not in the best interest of the consumer to support all labor. Supporting labor means increasing the cost of production in consumer goods and therefore harming consumer welfare. Labor union advocates may retort that a better work environment will lead to the production of a higher-quality good or higher output; however, if such a thing were desirable from the perspective of the consumer, then the entrepreneur would be encouraged to organize production so as to bring about that result in the absence of any compulsion exerted by labor unions and their political power.

This can be similarly applied to the slogan “don’t be a scab.” Why not be a scab? Being a scab is beneficial to me and those who depend on me, so why should I prioritize the welfare of a laborer at the expense of my household? There is no moral obligation to do so. These principles of the prolabor left are merely asserted. There is no substantial defense of these statements, just assertion.

Finally, and perhaps a fatal blow to these arguments, labor is not a unified force. In fact, labor has internal competition. In a free market, the most eager sellers of labor set the market price for labor (the market wage). The more eager the seller(s), the lower the market wage. This is the competitive process in the labor market. At the expense of a higher wage for the less eager laborers, the more eager laborers bid down the market wage.

The interests of the workers are fundamentally opposed. It would suit the less eager laborers to have a government intervene to require the wages to be set at a certain price above the market wage to subsidize the less eager at the expense of the more eager. Many policies, such as minimum wages, are aimed at doing so and have historically been supported by labor unions; these policies have led to results that many, especially progressives, would find distasteful, such as blacks’ exclusion from the labor force.

Ultimately, the slogan “support all labor” is a hollow one. It is not applied consistently, and when it is, it inevitably is directed at one group of laborers at the expense of others, whether they be minorities or “scabs.” Instead of “supporting all labor” or not crossing the picket line, let’s enjoy products made by scabs and disregard the socialist, government-manufactured holiday misnamed Labor Day.

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