Eric Boehm’s “Award-Winning” Article

Eric Boehm’s article “Biden is Pandering to the 1 Percent: Union Manufacturing Workers” deserves an award. Unfortunately, the award is for Most Disingenuous Ever Reason Article Not Written By Robby Soave.  

Union manufacturing workers, Boehm crows, are a “mere sliver of the country’s workers.” Further, “one of the biggest disconnects between reality and our political rhetoric” is that it “continues to equate the interests of unions with the interests of working-class Americans, even though unionization rates have been falling for decades.” And further still, today “there are roughly seven times as many unionized workers in the public sector as there are in manufacturing jobs. That means unions are far more likely to represent the interests of bureaucrats and public school teachers than grunts on the assembly line.”

This reminds me of Lincoln’s anecdotal defendant who murdered his parents, and then threw himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he was an orphan.

Why are union manufacturing workers a tiny minority, Eric? Might it have something to do with two generations of systematic union-busting by corporations, since the dominant circles of American capital decided in the 1970s that postwar economic consensus — including its labor accord — was no longer serving their interests? Might it have been likewise systematic government policy in support of corporate America’s new neoliberal consensus and its union-busting agenda, including the Volcker Recession and Reagan’s breaking of the PATCO strike? And while we’re at it, might the subsidized export of industrial capital to low-wage sweatshop havens over the past 40 years have had some effect on the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States? These are all policies, by the way, for which Eric Boehm, the Reason crew, and their ilk have been agitating for decades.

Having gotten off to this great start, Boehm continues to display Olympic-level prowess in missing the point.

He notes that “manufacturing work has shifted toward places with low rates of unionization” like South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama. Yes, low rates of unionization — because of right-to-work laws, and all the other incidents of a banana republic culture dominated by Boss Hoggs and Eric Endicotts. Right-to-work laws had their origin in Jim Crow. And the banana republic culture of the sunbelt was backed up, when need be, with the help of extralegal violence, with funding from the local employing classes — in exactly the same way that Italian industrialists funded the Blackshirts and Central American landed oligarchs funded death squads. 

Given all this, it’s a bit much that Boehm uses the word “machinations” to characterize the relationship between organized labor and Joe Biden.

Boehm decries the tendency to “romanticize” labor unions, reflected in the fact that 71% of workers take a favorable view of them — despite 58% of workers not wanting to join one themselves.

That suggests 42% of workers are interested, to some degree, in joining unions. And as a matter of basic logic, we can safely assume that the more convenient and less complicated the process of joining a union — the fewer the obstacles to unionization deliberately imposed by employers, and by a state that serves their interests — the more of those 42% would actually belong to unions. 

42% is higher than the actual share of union membership at its height in the 50s, when it peaked at a third of the workforce. And the higher pay won by unions doesn’t benefit just union workers. It benefits scabs in union workplaces who choose to freeload on dues-paying members. And it also benefits workers in non-union workplaces whose employers have to compete with union pay. 

If you’ve been paying attention at all, you’ve probably noticed one major difference since the rapid decline in union membership that began in the 80s: that’s the same time that wages stopped keeping up with worker productivity, and virtually all economic growth was channelled into mushrooming billionaire wealth and senior management compensation while production worker pay stagnated.

As another matter of basic logic, we can safely assume that, if any workers who would like to belong to unions do not belong to them, it’s because some obstacle has been placed in their path by their employers or by a state acting in their employers’ interest. And I have no doubt that Eric Boehm, having shown such immense respect for the revealed preference of American workers in regard to union membership, would want to remove all obstacles to their speedy organization and certification for those who would like to join one.   

We’ve effectively romanticized the idea of what a labor union is. It’s similar in some ways to how the public has nostalgic and generally positive views regarding train travel, even though only 22 million people (well less than 10 percent of the country) rode Amtrak last year. Most of us wouldn’t choose to join a labor union or travel by train, but we like the idea of both things existing.

The comparison is actually quite apt, albeit inadvertently so. Although Reason’s transportation analysts are fond of framing the decline in passenger train capacity as a simple matter of “revealed preference” by the consumer, the state has been central to the promotion of travel by highways and passenger jets over the past century at the expense of trains.

And even though Biden has a First Amendment right to say and do whatever he’d like in this situation, it’s pretty unseemly to have the country’s chief executive picking sides in what is ultimately a private dispute between the automakers and their workers. There’s a good reason why presidents have never done this sort of thing before.

Oh, no — heaven forfend! I’m sure the last thing Boehm would want is for the government to be involved in picking sides in private disputes between employers and workers — except for all the times, recounted above, when the neoliberal state picked the side of employers and systematically disempowered workers. But since Boehm started his article out disingenuously presenting the results of decades of state-sponsored union busting as a spontaneous development, it’s only fitting that he should finish it by disingenuously clutching his pearls at the “unseemly” idea of government intervening in labor disputes.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory