Monday, September 3, 2012

Blessed Are The Union Busters

On this blog's first Labor Day, I'd like to offer a few words of praise for my personal favorite union busters, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Their clashes with unions helped set the stage for years of broad-based prosperity.

Were it up to me, I would see the Wagner Act repealed and public sector unions outlawed altogether. Until that bright day comes, however, I am resigned to finding contentment in less comprehensive victories over the socialism of the labor movement.

Private sector unions have in large measure proven to be a self-correcting phenomenon, by undermining the viability of employers with unionized workforces. In 2011 just 6.9% of private sector workers belonged to a union. Public sector unions are a greater scourge at present, both in terms of numbers - 37% of public sector workers were unionized in 2011 - and the structural imbalance in bargaining power that gives public sector unions the upper hand over taxpayers.

Still, recent events in Wisconsin and elsewhere offer some cause for optimism that taxpayers can ultimately be made to realize that public sector unions can never be anything but their adversaries.

Smart parasites leave their hosts healthy enough to continue providing sustenance. For example, while there is a stereotype of loan sharks breaking the legs of delinquent borrowers, in reality this in vanishingly rare, since any loan shark worth his salt recognizes that a man who can't walk is unlikely to be able to earn the money to pay his debts.

Labor unions are not smart parasites.

Labor unions are more like vampires; completely exsanguinating their victims, leaving a pile of corpses in their wake, and wondering why nobody wants to hang out with them.

While U.S. union membership as a proportion of the workforce peaked in the mid-1950s and has steadily declined since then, unions remains very potent economic and political forces into the 1970s. Recall that it was Republican President Richard Nixon who established the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the government agency that essentially insures that if a union bleeds a company to death, pension promises are protected. The PBGC is also one of many gestating future Federal bailout recipients, but that is a topic for another post.

But thirty-one summers ago, in August of 1981, President Ronald Reagan drew a line in the sand. The air traffic controllers called a strike in violation of both the law, and of the oath that each striker had taken prior to starting their jobs. Despite having served as the President of the Screen Actor Guild himself, Reagan wasn't inclined to countenance such lawlessness. And as a President in his first year in office, and with plans for re-establishing U.S. credibility with the Soviets and around the globe, he didn't have the political latitude to indulge the air traffic controllers even if he had been so inclined.

Reagan gave the strikers 48 hours to return to work, or else forfeit their jobs. I remember watching this press conference live:

When they defied Reagan's ultimatum, 11,345 controllers were duly terminated and barred for life from being rehired.

Which seems perfectly just to me.

Less than three years later, Margaret Thatcher took on a far more formidable adversary in the National Union of Mineworkers, headed by real-no-foolin'-self-declared Marxist Arthur Scargill. Under Scargill, the NUM had been victorious in a strike that contributed to the collapse of the Conservative government of Ted Heath in 1974, and anticipated a similar outcome in 1984, following the announcement of plans to close 20 mines.

There may be nothing comparable to the 1984-85 NUM strike in US labor history, in terms of the scope, and the stakes. The NUM and its membership openly flouted the law, regularly engaging in violence. For its part, the Thatcher government reportedly deployed both MI-5 and military personnel (the latter allegedly disguised as policemen).  

But unbeknownst to the NUM, and unlike the Heath government, the Thatcher government had stockpiled massive amounts of coal to allow the UK to ride out an extended strike.

In March, 1985, after nearly a year, with many union members already having returned to work of their own accord, the strike formally ended on the government's terms. In 1983 there were 170 coal mines in operation in the UK; by 2009 that had declined to 4.

Here is Thatcher discussing the strike a few months before it ended:

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher each have many claims to greatness, but Labor Day seems like an appropriate time to remember one in particular: decisive action to defend the public's interests against lawless unions.

With luck, on a future Labor Day I will be able to write a post adding a third leader to this pantheon for having successfully broken the back of America's public sector unions.


  1. Here is a very funny video of President Reagan from back in the day:

  2. On this blog's first Labor Day, I'd like to offer a few words of praise for my personal favorite union busters, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Their clashes with unions helped set the stage for years of broad-based prosperity.

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