So Who Wants to Join a Union?

I was channel surfing yesterday when the clicker landed on the Belt Ways Boys long enough for me to hear Fred Barnes declare that no one wants to belong to a union. Not wishing to waste another second listening to a couple of Faux News nutcases lie about everything, I found a decent movie. Jonathan Chait does a much better job at discussing the current proposal before Congress:

CONGRESS IS debating a measure to change the way workers can form a union. Instead of holding a secret-ballot election, a union could be formed if a majority of employees sign a card indicating they want a union. The House passed the bill Thursday. However, the Senate will probably filibuster it, and if that somehow fails to happen, President Bush will certainly veto it. But it shows, despite conservative bluster about Big Union goons, just how modest the contemporary labor agenda is. The conservative objections to a “card-check” plan certainly have some merit. In an ideal world, workers would decide whether to form a union by holding a free secret-ballot election. The workers would be able to listen to arguments from both sides, consider their choice and vote entirely on the merits of the arguments put forward. The problem is that, in the real world, union elections bear little resemblance to this happy picture. Companies that face organizing drives have an enormous amount of control over the elections. They can hold mandatory meetings and barrage employees with anti-union propaganda. (Employees, obviously, can’t call a halt to work for a mandatory pro-union propaganda session.) They can predict that a union will result in the shop closing and everybody losing their jobs. And that’s just the legal part. On top of that, they can do all sorts of illegal things: fire workers involved in organizing, actually threaten to close the shop if a union forms and so on. Enforcement of these violations tends to be spotty and lax. Generally, it takes years for illegal union-busting firms to face any penalties and, even then, whatever fine they pay is often well worth the price of maintaining their bargaining power over the employees.

I can hear conservatives arguing that unions are deviations from perfect competition. Chait offers a few thoughts on this topic:

But the real problem in the American economy is not that workers have too much bargaining power. It’s that they have too little. Corporate profits have exploded in recent years, while wages for average workers have barely budged. It’s obviously great that business is doing so well. What we need are a few measures to help divvy up the pie just a bit more evenly. Anything that helps to slow down the massive erosion of unions is one of those sensible, small steps.

He doesn’t seem to buy into the perfect competition model of labor markets and neither does Mark Thoma:

The union question is a hard one for me. I don’t believe that the degree of market power workers and firms bring to the bargaining table is in balance. “Superstars” at the upper end of the income distribution have too much market power, and firms have too much market power at the lower end of the income distribution, where the lower end starts at fairly high levels of income. Unions are one potential answer for workers at the lower end of the income distribution, but is a return to unions the best solution to the market power imbalance? Should we return to the past, or should we try to use the changing political landscape as an opportunity to build better institutions for both workers and firms, institutions that offer workers the same degree of bargaining power that unions provide, and the same degree of income, health, and retirement security, but do so more efficiently? We already know how unions work, pretty much, but can we do better?