Kauthammer and Michigan’s Unions

I read Charles Krauthammer faithfully. Half the time, I want to vomit, but still I read him. It’s because he’s often correct in his analysis. And, I very often learn more from the people I disagree with than from my own tribal members.

So today’s column, The right-to-work dilemma, is instructive. Note that the interpretive title of his article is correct: this is a dilemma. It’s not a clear-cut, obvious decision, in spite of the fact that Michigan’s governor and his colleagues were more than a bit unscrupulous in their decision making.

Union protest
The best information in columns is usually in the middle—and the middle of the column is usually the writer’s agenda. Dead-center of the column, Krauthammer reminds us that Obama calls the right-to-work law a race to the bottom. Or, as another writer paraphrased Obama, the right-to-work law is the right for business to pay you a lower salary.

But Krauthammer is quite correct: It’s a race to a new equilibrium that tries to maintain employment levels, albeit at the price of some modest wage. It is a choice not to be despised.

But here is Krauthammer’s admission of truth, a truth rarely admitted by the hard-right: I have great admiration for the dignity and protections trade unionism has brought to American workers. I have no great desire to see the private-sector unions defenestrated. . . .

One of the more intriguing, though wrong, conclusions about the work of unions came from the Nobel Prize economist, Gary Becker, who opined that labor unions are slowing the US’ economic recovery and making it harder for the country to compete overseas. The fact of the matter, as economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff have calculated, is that in 1980, when a quarter of the work force was covered by collective bargaining agreements, organized labor reduced the gross national product by just one-fifth to two-fifths of one percent.

It should be obvious that the social and economic benefits of unions outweigh those costs. Unions equalize pay within companies. More importantly, they also improve pay outside their own workplaces. Furthermore, highly unionized states have higher minimum wages and more generous welfare benefits, and—uniquely—spend more money on education. That’s all terrifically important in a world where our deficits are not only financial. But they’re also the deficits of education, infrastructure and innovation.

Growing up in Detroit, I am very aware that the middle-class was the creation of the auto industry. I’m also aware that growing up in Detroit in the ‘40s and ‘50s was the gift of the gods. Everything anyone wanted was available to nearly all, sports, the arts, education, etc., etc. And let’s get personal: my college education was the result of union power. Those days are dead and gone. So now, I fear for the children of union workers. Especially since education at a top school can cost upwards of $65,000 a year. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The union dilemma is not merely fiscal, it’s primarily political.

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