Beyond Unions and Collective Bargaining

By Leef, George C. | Ideas on Liberty, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Beyond Unions and Collective Bargaining


Leef, George C., Ideas on Liberty


Beyond Unions and Collective Bargaining by Leo Troy M.E. Sharpe 1999 256 pages $60.95 Reviewed by George C. Leef

Labor unions are nonprofit businesses whose managers benefit to the extent that they can get workers to accept their representation services in exchange for the payment of dues. Supposedly-and there is some statistical evidence to support the claim-unionized workers enjoy higher earnings than nonunionized workers in comparable jobs. Unions also claim that they give workers greater job security, safety, and "voice." So why is it that for almost half a century, the percentage of workers who are not represented by labor unions has been increasing?

The salient fact is that the percentage of unionization among private-sector workers peaked in 1953, at 36 percent. Although unionization has rapidly grown among government workers since then (for the obvious reason that government agencies don't have to worry about competition or costs), privatesector unionization has been falling steadily. Now, only about one in ten workers has union representation. In his new book, Beyond Unions and Collective Bargaining, Rutgers University economics professor Leo Troy attempts to explain why.

His conclusion is simple: Most workers prefer self-representation. Yes, unions promise various benefits, but most workers have figured out that the benefits are dubious and the costs, both in dues and the possibility of job loss because of the well-known propensity of unions to make firms uncompetitive, are very real. The product the unions are selling-their services in negotiating and administering a collective labor contract-is one that many workers have come to see as unattractive or irrelevant. That is why the great organizing campaign announced with bravado by AFLCIO President John Sweeney on taking office has had no discernible effect. Union numbers continue to slide. The customers just aren't buying.

A key reason why they aren't is that business managers have become, on the whole, far more sophisticated in their handling of workers than they were in the era of advancing unionism. The old managerial style that sometimes rivaled the Prussian army has given way to greater flexibility and attention to employees. While management at one time told workers to check their brains at the door, today managers seek ideas from workers. Union contracts and rules mean higher costs and lower efficiency for companies, and it should come as no surprise that they have discovered methods that keep workers content enough that they will say "No thanks" if union organizers come around. …

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