As in years past, last September heralded a new crop of eager freshmen, short-lived enthusiasm for classes, and the renewed antics of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM). SLAM’s unceasing demand for more—higher wages, more vacation time, and, above all, stronger unions—may resonate with the new Democratic Congress’ agenda, but unions, like any other cartel, help their members only at the cost of the general public.
This fall, SLAM’s cause du jour was security guard unionization. In what The Crimson called a “hard fought victory for the guards and student activists,” Harvard security guards subcontracted through AlliedBarton were allowed to form a union. SLAM celebrated, and The Crimson’s editorial board applauded the decision because the “University’s security guards…deserve a union”—a glorious victory in the eternal class struggle.
It almost seems crass to rain on this self-righteous congratulatory parade, but, if unionization results in higher wages and benefits, where is the money coming from? The Harvard Corporation is unlikely to open the endowment’s coffers, so the University—like all corporations—has a limited budget, and therefore endeavors to minimize its costs. If security guards become more expensive, the University will either raise tuition or decrease employment. Since tuition raises are limited by popular outcry, benefits to unionized workers are likely to come at the expense of those who actually need wages the most: the unemployed, fewer of whom will be hired as new guards.
Of course, unions can have positive effects, such as providing an efficient mechanism for informing managers of employees’ concerns and (occasionally) resolving labor conflicts. Above all, at least in many supporters’ eyes, unions dampen pay inequality.
But the supposed rise of inequality in contemporary America is overblown. As argued by Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, much of it can be attributed to demographic trends. Simply put, as populations get older, they tend to display higher variation in income. Most of the rest of the increase in inequality is a result of increasing returns on education and skill. In other words, to raise wages, activists would be better off with neo-Luddite machine sabotage than with unions, because structural factors in the economy—globalization and technological change—are responsible for unequal wages.
Unfortunately, actors on the national stage don’t seem to know any better than Harvard’s naïve students. Democrats are currently engaged in an effort to resuscitate moribund unions with the “Employee Free Choice Act,” a breathtaking piece of doublespeak. The bill, among other things, strips workers of their right to vote over unionization and instead mandates a “card check.” In other words, rather than having workers vote in a secret ballot monitored by the neutral National Labour Relations Board, a company would have to recognize a union if a majority of its employees sign a public card saying that they want one.
Currently, card checks are used in some unionization drives—Harvard security guards were unionized under this process—and according to supporters, these public petitions are somehow less open to intimidation. In the words of the AFL-CIO, card check “reduces conflict, coercion and harassment.”
But public petitions are, if anything, far more open to abuse than secret ballots. These cards are solicited by union organizers and signed in a face-to-face process that inherently involves intimidation and peer-pressure. If a half-dozen co-workers show up at your door (these cards can be signed anywhere) asking you to sign a pro-union petition, it’s hard to say no. Not only could union bosses watch as workers vote on unionization, they could also “explain” (read: misrepresent) workers’ rights and even control the actual cards.
Perhaps if strong unions were necessary, as they were in the age of violent Pinkerton guards, this measure could be justified. But modern unions are a relic of a bygone era. It’s no coincidence that many of the remaining union bastions—like the airline and auto industries—are struggling to stay afloat. In a competitive, global economy above-market wages systematically disadvantage unionized companies, which ultimately harms the workers too. And in other industries, such as healthcare and higher education, above market wages don’t lead to bankruptcy, but they do inflict nosebleed price raises on consumers—who are often the very same workers that activists intend to help.
It is easy to see why Democrats are in thrall to unions—after all, they’ve bankrolled the party for decades—but student activists have fewer excuses. Luckily, because the University doesn’t face normal market pressures, the harms of unionization at Harvard are more limited. Although SLAM’s efforts may be quixotic, and harm the unemployed, the University probably won’t cut costs and raise prices to the same degree a normal corporation would.
Nationally, however, it is a different story. If artificially revived, unions do have the potential to cause significant economic damage. Admirably truthful, the late union organizer Samuel Gompers explained his union’s goal as an unending battle: “We do want more, and when it becomes more, we shall still want more. And we shall never cease to demand more.” Unfortunately, the end result is that as unions grab for an ever greater slice of the pie, the pie itself shrinks, leaving only crumbs for consumers, non-union workers, and the unemployed.
Piotr C. Brzezinski ’07 is a social studies in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.