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A Lesson from Michigan: Time to End Crony Unionism

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In this week’s Acton Commentary, I take a look at the prospects of “right-to-work” legislation in Michigan, “A Lesson from Michigan: Time to End Crony Unionism.”

One of the things that disturbs me the most about what I call “crony unionism” is the hand-in-glove relationship between the labor unions and big government. We have the same kind of special pleading and rent seeking in this system as we do in crony capitalism, but the labor unions enjoy such special protection that there isn’t even a hint of democratic competition.

The unions get windfalls from government subsidy and turn around and actively campaign for the expansion of government. The partisan character of some of the ad campaigns funded by labor unions are particularly egregious. I’ve recently seen a labor-funded ad running in Michigan that demonizes Republicans and lauds Democrats, and ran a report earlier this month about attack ads from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

One of the noteworthy thing about unions in America is that the share of union members are increasingly coming from the public sector rather than the private sector. This adds an additional layer of concern to the larger problem of crony unionism. We in effect get government employees using government funds to campaign for the expansion of government.

Labor unions form a vital part of civil society, but when they are turned into arms of the government, their purpose is perverted and corrupted. Professor Charles W. Baird examines the merits of free labor in his Acton monograph, Liberating Labor: Liberating Labor: A Christian Economist’s Case for Voluntary Unionism.

Even the idea of debating whether unions should enjoy monopolistic privileges in a state like Michigan, dominated by organized labor interests for so long, is refreshing. And I think it might just be instructive about the kinds of alternative and innovative proposals that will have traction at the polls this November.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • John Hunt

    T am a member of a construction trade union, but agree with much of the concern over unions. However, being close to the union movement, I have a different perspective. From my perspective there are basically three types of unions. For each of these three, the protections they have for members and the effects they have on society/economy are very different.

    There are subset that could be discussed, but basically, there are construction unions, industrial unions, and government unions.

    Construction trade unions must compete every day (hold in abeyance a discussion of prevailing wage laws) or the contractors they work for will not win the bids that provide the jobs. They must compete by being better skilled and yet competitively priced. They work with local contractors to provide a “package” to the market that will allow members to be protected from the status of “migrant workers”, have health insurance, some retirement security, and have “roots” in an area yet allow contractors to win bids, make a profit and continue to hire union labor. We compete with each bid and most people are shocked to know we get paid only when we work; that is no paid vacations, no paid holidays, and no sick time. If we cannot compete as “apples to apples” with non-union, the market will choose not to use us. I don’t know, but I suspect service industry unions might be similar.

    Industrial unions started with a similar philosophy, but when they could not compete, the market could go off shore and did for much of our industrial base (they took some of the construction market with them).

    Now, the government unions have union protection, teacher-tenure, seniority, and various job protections, cradle to grave health insurance AND NO COMPETITIVE FORCES with a captive market. There is no real consumer of their goods or services. The “contract negotiators” – the “bosses” – do not pay the wages and benefits. The “owners” – the taxpayers – have no control over costs. This is the area of unionism that has my contempt and should have the contempt of the citizens. The same might be said for some of the large near-monopolistic industries, such as the auto industry.

    It would nice to see distinctions made more often between these unions during discussions of “unions”.

  • evagrius

    Beg to differ regarding public sector unions.

    The focus of the public sector union is to guarantee wages and working conditions not being subject to political manipulation.
    Public sector jobs are civil service. Entry-level jobs are open to all those who qualify passing an examination of skills and knowledge necessary for the job being applied for.
    Promotions are determined through the same process. In other words, political manipulation is at a low level, ( though there certainly plenty of it given human nature).
    Wages and working conditions for each job classification is done through periodic contract negotiation with the government entity and its representative. Quite often, the contract is a give and take with both sides aiming for the best that serves the public and the employees.
    Public service employees do have a “customer”. It’s the public and they try hard to fulfill their obligations.
    They do have “bosses”. They’re the elected officials who are voted into office by the public.
    What’s going on right now is to attack public services, especially those dedicated to the public that cannot afford the equivalent private service.

  • Phocion

    As a son of Michigan myself, I am all too familiar with the Midwest’s unholy trinity of Democrat politicians, unions, and organized crime. In fact, after moving from Detroit to Chicago I found a city that even embraces it with a sense of humor and occasional pride.

    Early unionization aimed to provide a counter-balance against unjust practices of employers – giving a united (and therefore more effectual) voice to common and just grievances. Justice here not only serves the dignity of the individual, but the integrity of the system as a whole. After all, capitalism (as another expression of liberty) is premised on Christian-like behavior. However, it didn’t take long for unions to devolve into just another vehicle for the accumulation of ever-more power – be it a throw-back to the uncompetitive labor goals of the medieval guilds or something worse – and alignment to like interests. And so the story goes from pursuit of justice in attaining living wages and safety to jokes about how many union men does it take to screw in a light bulb. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, it’s about the perks of few in wielding political muscle.

    At least in the free market, workers unduly sapping the enterprise leads to an impairment to compete and (if unchecked) ultimate ruin – for themselves (further motivating alternatives such as automation, relocation, outsourcing, off-shoring, etc.) if not the company as a whole (think Detroit auto industry). This at least acts as some sort of interest (morality notwithstanding) to check any impulse of the union to gravitate from beneficiaries of the enterprise to parasites. This connection is undermined by the further nationalization and internationalization of unions – but then principles such as subsidiarity are of no consequence in the lust for power.

    Of course all notions of proper checks and balances, self-correcting mechanisms, and incentives for effectiveness and efficiency are thrown out when we switch the discussion to public sector unions. Unlike their free market counter-parts, who were at least born from the cause of justice, these later mutations were spawned solely in the interest of greed. The interests of the primary actors are all one-sided – to feed the bureaucracy and barter for your place at its trough. With no disrespect toward their many accomplishments in disconnecting rewards from success and accountability, perhaps the greatest gift of the public sector unions and their benefactors to the American taxpayer is just now beginning to be unwrapped – massively unfunded public pension and retiree health obligations.

  • Robert Packer

    Unions have been devastated in the last 30 years since Reagan began his explicit anti-labor, anti-worker campaign which has produced terrible consequences for the middle class and the poor. To dump on them at this point is clearly piling on. It certainly shows that the author has his priorities confused. There are many economic problems in the US today. To claim that unions, that are almost powerless now, are a significant contributor to those problems is false.

  • Unions have indeed devastated the market and made an entire culture and generation be dependent on government and socialism. Read an interesting article here how even if we tried to stop the tide it would create more govt. However, Reagan politico pundits have the upper hand nowadays but I even disagree with them.

    BTW, Your RSS feed is not linking to my google account. I tried to do this.

  • Ome

    I’m curious why the mid west ex-industrial cities and rural farmers vote republican when it is so clear that it is in their best interest to vote for democrats? I understand the wealthy republican being against unions, and corporations…but if you are high school graduate working on the assymbly line making 50K year….don’t u understand the policies of the republicans will have that plant factory sent overseas so they can exploit foreign workers @5 to 10 cents on the dollar what they pay in the U.S? Their governments don’t have child labor laws or minimum wage. I really don’t get how this constituency of the republic party comes to the conclusion that the repubs are better for them??? It’s just the opposite!