Where Have All the Unions Gone and Where Are All the Jobs?*

Economics is a simple field. Just about everything can be described in terms of supply and demand. If the supply of something is scarce but the demand for it is strong, its price rises. On the other hand, if there is a lot of supply but little demand, its price will go down.

Now, buyers and sellers can engage in certain strategies to weight the scales. For example, sellers of a product can band together (perhaps by buying each other out) to achieve some amount of monopoly power. Conversely, buyers of a product can collude to bid down the cost of purchasing.

This is, of course, true for the market for labor. And in the labor market, one classic way for sellers of labor (i.e., workers) to raise their bargaining power, and therefore their pay, is to band together into unions. What makes unions effective is that:

1. Union members commit to acting in concert
2. While it is easy for a company with a 1,000 person assembly line to replace a few people at a time without missing a beat, replacing all 1,000 at once would seriously crimp operations.

As a result, the cost of workforce dissatisfaction to a company with a unionized workforce is greater than the cost of workforce of dissatisfaction to a company without a unionized workforce. Therefore, a company with unionized workforce will, all else being equal, be willing to make greater concessions on pay and working conditions than the same company would be if its workforce was not unionized.

But a union is not a guarantee of anything. After all, a union can be broken. And all you need to break is to make sure there is a sufficiently large, inexpensive workforce capable of replacing the unionized workforce. There might be short term pain, but on paper at least, after that its all profit.

Which brings me to this story in the NY Times. Its about a small town in Iowa heavily reliant on the meat packing industry. Despite the Times’ clear and omnipresent bias that more immigration is always a positive thing, the following paragraph provides a good summary of the entire piece:

At that point, Mr. Smith returned to do night cleanup, earning $5.50 an hour with no benefits, but a vast majority of his former co-workers were turned away, he said, because the new owner did not want to hire union supporters. Instead, the company began actively recruiting in Mexico and immigrant communities in Texas and California.

If there are enough low-skilled immigrants, unions cannot compete. They chose to turn a blind eye toward illegal immigration because they felt it was good for business. Democrats also understood that decades ago and sided with unions. This is because Democrats felt it was good for society if factory workers could enjoy a middle class lifestyle. In the past decade, Democrats have changed. (The reason for this may be the subject of a future post.)

But regardless of politics, the facts are simple: except in very limited circumstances, one cannot simultaneously have strong both unions and virtually unrestricted immigration.

* With apologies to Bonnie Tyler. And my sympathies to American workers who also need a hero.

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