Labor Daze

Unions have become their own worst enemy.

Three Labor Days into his presidential term, Barack Obama has finally devised a jobs plan. With unemployment eclipsing nine percent for 26 of his first 30 full months in office, the focus on putting America to work, to be unveiled in a speech initially crassly scheduled to conflict with Wednesday's Republican presidential debate, seems quite late. But to satiate the grumblings of Big Labor, it comes not a second too soon.

“This is going to be a moment where history and our members are going to judge him,” Richard Trumka says of Obama’s jobs plan. The AFL-CIO president threatens that some of his affiliates may sit out of national politics next year, focusing instead on local races (as they disastrously did in Wisconsin this year).

The about-face would appear both tone deaf and an act of massive ingratitude. President Obama turned over General Motors to the United Auto Workers. Democrats in Congress and the White House infamously exempted unionized workers from the 40 percent excise tax on so-called “Cadillac” health-care plans through 2018. His recent selection of Princeton labor economist Alan Krueger to replace Austan Goolsbee as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers has been widely interpreted as a sop to unions. And his National Labor Relations Board has become a rubber stamp for union whim, with its job-killing edict blocking a new Boeing aircraft factory in right-to-work South Carolina the most glaring demonstration of this.

“America wants to work,” Trumka commented this August. “To make that happen, it will take smart, large-scale public investment to restore America’s place in the world—and the opportunities are there. Our crumbling roads, highways and bridges cry out for investment. We have a tax system that begs for an adult conversation about how to make it fairer and raise the revenues we need.”

It’s not just that Trumka’s comment overlooks the last three years—isn’t he describing what the stimulus package was supposed to be?—it overlooks the last six decades. Trumka’s demands for more spending and higher taxes seem something out of Great Depression America. They don’t reflect the political realities of a 21st-century nation facing a $15 trillion debt and an economy stuck in neutral.

If Trumka is out of touch with America, he is in tune with Unionized America. Trumka’s call for jobs is as much about means as ends. He wants more jobs, but only if pursued in a manner (massive government spending) that benefits the job holders who pay his organization a portion of their earnings. Alas, his process necessarily defeats his stated goal. The Big Government that serves as a boon for Big Labor has been a bust for the United States. Massive government projects, in the immediate wake of several years of massive government projects no less, are nonstarters for a broke nation. But such boondoggles are the lifeblood of unions that increasingly depend upon government spending. In effect, they want taxpayers to pay union dues, too.

Most unionized workers in America are now government employees. Just 14.7 million—less than twelve percent of the workforce—out of 310 million Americans pay dues to organized labor. Of these unionized workers, 7.6 million hold public sector jobs. Whereas organized labor claims less than eight percent of private sector workers (down from 30 percent in 1958), they boast more than 36 percent of public sector employees, with public librarians and teachers among the most represented professions. Librarians of the world unite!

When the adversarial relationship was primarily one between blue-collar workers and fat-cat plutocrats, unions understandably won the admiration of much of the public. But now that summers-off guidance councilors and six-figure Social Security Administration employees demand raises from taxpayers, the public’s sympathy necessarily wanes.

Big Labor has a bigger friend in Big Government. The president in Trumka’s doghouse has expanded organized labor’s greatest single source of funding. The federal government’s share of gross domestic product rising from 18 to 25 percent in just a few years has coincided with an economic slump not experienced in generations. The policies that Americans voted to curb in 2010, labor unions pressure politicians to expand. If jobs were the concern of labor unions, they would not push to hike the spending, regulations, and taxes that have largely calcified hiring. But since union members (particularly dues-paying public sector employees) often benefit from what harms the rest of us, their leaders frequently advance policies that not only damage America—but the politicians they ostensibly support.

A president, of the USA or of the AFL-CIO, can’t serve two masters. Richard Trumka’s constituency is the AFL-CIO. Barack Obama is the president of the United States. Should the latter confuse the people he serves with the people the former serves, he will be soon looking for work with so many of his countrymen.

Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, popularized the political strategy of the union movement to “reward its friends” and “punish its enemies.” As long as Gompers’s progeny can’t tell their allies from their adversaries, they will continue to act as their own worst enemy.