Saturday, June 09, 2012

One Big Union (Not)

There's an understandable lot of clucking about the news that the building trades unions are teaming up with Andrew Cuomo in going after the  public employee unions.  But in the larger context, it shouldn't be that much of a suprise: the union movement has a long history of internecine competition and conflict.  The reason people speak of "one big union" is precisely  because we do  not have it, and never have.  The AFL-CIO didn't get together until 1955.  True believers in union strenth have never counted the Teamsters as part of the team. We've seen any number of instances where competing unions have clawed each others' face off for new representations.

But I think there is an important long-term shift at work here also. That is:  my take is that unions have become far more sophisticated over the generations in making themselves co-venturers in an economic enterprise: far more disposed to recognize that their well-being rises or falls with the health of their employer.  From World War II until, say, the great inflection of the 70s, unions really didn't seem to care all that much how management made its money: it was management's job to manage the money, and the unions' to claw it away.   

I'd say that attitude had vanished long before the building trades opened their purse for the governor.  Lately we've had Steve Rattner speaking appreciatively of the role played by the UAW's in-house investment banker in helping to engineer the auto bailout.  And just this spring, we've had occasion to observe the American Airlines pilots going over the heads of their managers to talk directly with US Airways about the prospect of merger. Unions have come to know that they are a vendor of services, and that the way to make deals is to respond to the realities of the market.

One more point: many--I--have remarked on the blunt reality that public employee unions gain some of their cachet from their quasi-monopoly position,  as sharers in sovereign power.  I'll stand by that, with the qualification that unions in general thrive if and only to the extent that the employer is exempt from competitive pressures.  That is precisely why unions did so well in the United States between 1945 and 1972--and why they have weakened since.  Yet this leads us to a final irony.  I don't know the details of the New York deal, but just in general can you think of any union that has profited more from this access to monopoly protection than the building trades--not least because so much of their money comes straight from the public fisc, in the problem of government contracts?

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