Labor Unions and Me

Ezra Klein’s weekend question: “Almost forgot! Have you or anyone close to you belonged to a union? How did that change your impressions of organized labor in general?”

I’m generally speaking an out-of-touch pointy headed elite, but as it happens throughout my life my father has been a union member. Specifically, he’s in the Writers’ Guild of America a small (but important in its sector) AFL-CIO affiliated union. He’s even been an official in the union.

The main thing I’d say I learned from that is about how difficult it is to maintain unionization gains in the context of a union-hostile environment. In television there’s been a big move away from using unionized writers and unionized actors in favor of shows oriented around non-unionized “real people” as the performers and non-unionized “editors” and “producers” to create the storyline. The distinctions here are metaphysically questionable but they hold up legally, and the US policy environment makes them very difficult to fight. The way to organize “reality” TV, it seems to me, would be through secondary strikes. But that’s illegal. The studios are, however, allowed to execute what amounts to secondary strikes in reverse in replace union-made scripted shows with with non-union “reality” ones. This not only directly weakens the land of labor in collective bargaining, but it sets up a dilemma. The capital of TV studios naturally flows to the most profitable sectors of television. So insofar as labor succeeds in extracting a larger share of the surplus in scripted programming, that merely accelerates the shift to non-scripted programming. Alternatively, labor can seek to slow the shift to the non-scripted sector by reducing its demands for workers to get a larger share of the surplus. Either way, the prognosis is bad unless it’s actually feasible to unionize the non-union sector which under the Taft-Hartley legal regime it isn’t.

This is structurally the same problem faced by the United Auto Workers vis-à-vis factories in “right to work” states. I think the classic postwar American dynamic of an economy with a large minority of the workforce unionized is fundamentally unstable. In the long-run the two equilibria are toward a non-union economy or else toward the Nordic model where virtually everyone is in a union. In the latter case, I think the unions become organizations of a more political character than anything else. In theory, Swedish labor unions could use their dominant labor market position to increase workers’ compensation by making Swedish firms less profitable than non-Swedish ones, but that would be bad for everyone. What you get instead is a kind of Mirror Universe version of the Chamber of Commerce, a politically powerful institution interested in maximizing the income growth of the median Swede rather than the median Swedish CEO.