The life and death of labor unions

Resurgent San Diego labor unions have been getting publicity lately for their role in local elections. Two-thirds of San Diego’s population was born after the heyday of labor unions 50 years ago. All they know comes from what they’ve read. Unions claim they raise wages, reduce hours, improve working conditions and provide competent workers. But do they?

San Diego built six dams in the backcountry after 1930. As the story goes, during the construction of one dam, a union steward said, “If not for those infernal earth-moving machines, there would be jobs for hundreds of men with picks and shovels.” The foreman responded, “And millions of jobs for men with teaspoons,” an apocryphal story about early union mentality.

How the labor unions emasculated and nearly destroyed America’s railroads, airlines, steel mills and automobile companies, I have no special wish to tell you. They are subjects covered in the many books not published in union print shops, nor written by union-paid economists.

There are virtually thousands of pro-union articles — this is not one of them. This is a countervailing account. This essay is “the rest of the story,” not commonly available about the history of unions.

A union competency test

You pass this test and in 1968, and you could become licensed as a plumber:

____________ is to Building Trades as _________ is to Lily White.

Czolgosz is to Booth as McKinley is to (a) Lincoln, (b) Washington (c) Roosevelt (d) Garfield.

_____________ is to phlegmatic 1. Husky 2. Rheumatic 3. Pneumatic 4. Sluggish

as vivacious is to _________________ A. elusive B. Pouting C. exuberant D. gripping

What does the test have to do with plumbing? Good question!

The above test is from Fortune magazine, January 1968, and its report on union apprenticeship tests. George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO and a licensed plumber at the time, could not pass this test.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the labor union movement in the late 1800s with observations at the time: “Black workmen, though free, were not permitted to organize against the employing class, and the distinction between white workmen and Black workmen really began when the organization of white laborers began.” This is from the February 1898 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, in case you missed it.

The article reports that in 1859, The Society of Friends (Quakers) catalogued 1,637 “colored people” in Philadelphia, working in 77 identified skilled trades and by 1898 nearly all the trades enumerated were closed against “colored” workers. This is how employment discrimination in America began.

In 1895, unable to launch an interracial machinists union of its own, the American Federation of Labor reversed an earlier principled decision and chartered the whites-only International Association of Machinists (IAM). Formally or informally, the color bar spread throughout the trade union movement.

In 1902, blacks made up scarcely 3 percent of total membership, most of them segregated in Jim Crow locals. In the case of women and eastern European immigrants, a similar devolution occurred — welcomed as equals in theory, excluded or segregated in practice.

Let’s move forward to how discrimination in the government began. Less than a month after his March 1913 inauguration, President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, who had promised to treat blacks fairly in exchange for their votes, took the first steps toward segregating the federal service.

The Post Office Museum notes, “The Woodrow Wilson administration initiated the racial segregation of work places, rest rooms and lunch rooms in all federal offices across the nation” despite the fact that blacks and whites had worked side by side without antipathy for generations.

Unions exist to keep competition from filling jobs. They are a cartel protected by government, like no other, above the law in many instances. It wasn’t until labor unions effectively excluded competition and fought labor-saving devices that they were able to exercise enormous power and influence by delivering votes to politicians.

They began by discriminating against blacks and immigrants, then women and teenagers. From the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website, “First, anxious to protect the jobs and living standards of their members, trade unions emphasize their exclusionary aspects. Craft unions try to reduce the numbers of new entrants and to keep out those, like women and minorities, who threaten their conceptions of self.”

Unions represent union workers — they do not represent most workers and never have. By inference and confirmation, this could not be clearer than in this famous statement by Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers: "When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of schoolchildren."

The apostles of unionism, however, still say they eliminated child labor, textile slop shops, sweatshops and women’s long hours — it not being copacetic to admit their motivation was to eliminate competition for jobs to which unions claimed they were “entitled.”

Contrary to popular wisdom, in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, life in the factories — though it was miserable — was far better than in the countryside for most people. This is why there has been an unbroken chain of migration from the country to the cities for centuries. When children initially were prevented from working in sweatshops, they did not skip home to read Shakespeare and listen to Beethoven. They died from starvation.

Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman said, thank God for sweatshops. His mother came from Russia at 14, with no skills and not speaking the language. "If his parents were not willing to work so long and hard under sweatshop conditions, they could not have earned the money to invest in his education," and he would not have won a Nobel Prize.

Unions and the government cannot make workers worth more than what consumers are willing to pay for the goods and services they produce. Consumers ultimately, determine everyone’s income. The only way the general standard of living can be increased is by an increase in the amount of capital invested per worker, greater than the increase in population, making workers more productive.

At their peak in the 1950s, labor union membership reached 35 percent of the private sector labor force. Unions now represent about 6.6 percent plus 4.7 percent of government workers for a total of 11.3 percent, according to 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ask yourself, why?

For more than 100 years, union power was derived from discriminating against other workers, women, immigrants, minorities and teenagers. Today, their power derives from plying politicians with booze, money and votes.

Schnaubelt, president of Citizens for Private Property Rights, has been a commercial real estate broker for 35 years and was a San Diego city councilman from 1977 to 1981.

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