Demonizing Labor

Strike leader (man on balcony) at Gary, Ind., ...

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Matt Yglesias has had his differences with teachers’ unions in the past, so I was especially pleased to see him push back on this notion that breaking the unions should be one of the primary goals of the education reform movement. Matt writes:

There are a lot of reforms that K-12 education needs in the United States. Since strong teacher’s unions do in fact exist, they often take a prominent role in avoiding these reforms. But that’s a question of union leaders not liking reformers and reform proposals. Some people turn this around through a process of resentment and decide that breaking the unions should be the goal of reform. Not only is there little evidence to back this up, it doesn’t make any sense as a matter of logic. You can’t have an education system without having providers of education services. And the fact that the interests of service providers and the interests of the public are sometimes at odds has nothing in particular to do with labor unions. Unions act as a kind of red cape for some people in some contexts, just like for-profit colleges do for other people in other contexts, and federal contractors do for other people in yet other contexts.

The same holds in other sectors and industries. When some union or another supports a policy that enriches its members at the expense of the broader public, there’s a tendency for organized labor’s critics to point to this as proof that unions are malevolent entities that must be destroyed.

But of course it’s not the job of the unions to represent everyone’s interests. They need only represent the interests of their workers. That these interests might occasionally run counter to broader considerations is no reason to blanketly condemn institutions that, on balance, do far more good than harm. Nor does acknowledging that the interests of unions will occasionally run counter to the public interest undermine the principled argument for more unionization. Unions are good and important because workers need the institutional resources to check employer domination. That doesn’t mean that workers will invariably hold the moral high ground in conflicts between labor and capital; it just means that they have a right to voice their concerns and not get steamrolled.

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