Why are Americans so hostile to labor unions?

Doesn’t it seem that Americans have a special type of anger towards labor unions? Seeing as only 10% of us work with unions, how can so many Americans have such negative attitudes towards an institution most of us have likely never even dealt with? When I travel overseas and meet European conservatives and libertarians, they have much less antipathy towards unions; they don’t like unions either but do not spit as much venom about them as Americans. Why is it that Americans are so hostile to labor unions?

Americans have had a unique historical experience with labor unions.

As far as I can tell, there is no equivalent to Jimmy Hoffa in Europe. Labor unions have a well-deserved reputation in this country as violent and corrupt. For much of the 20th century many of them were violent and functioned as a de facto mob front, some of them still do. In certain industries, labor unions are referred to as ‘classically corrupt,’ looking out for their own personal profits instead of the good of their membership, literally selling their integrity to industry bosses. At the expense of the actual workers.

Unions joined the great Baby Boomer lie, encouraging people to believe that the prosperous Mayberry, USA of the 1950s and 60s was the new normal. Get a job, work 25 years, retire on a generous pension. (That post-war world was the aberration, not the norm, and to be fair to unions -and politicians- it was common belief that it would last.)

In many cases they deliberately sold their membership bullshit, knowing full well that entire industries were fleeing or evolving and that union bargaining power was in-fact contributing to the demise, escape, or switch to automation of many industries. Sometimes because of shortsightedness, sometimes due to corruption, sometimes out of political blindness; but the guys depending on that steady paycheck and pension don’t care about why. They only know they got screwed.

(We’re actually screwing over two generations right now with an evolved version of that lie: Get a college degree if you ever want to amount to something. As if plumbers are unimportant and aren’t very, very well paid. Generation X and Millenials are pissed by the way. You will be too when the check comes due.)

Government labor unions are contributing to a public pension crisis in states across the country. Taxpayers in many states are getting pretty tired of that. Especially conservative ones.

Law enforcement unions are continuing to prevent meaningful accountability and reform of law enforcement and the criminal justice system as a whole. Taxpayers across the country are getting pretty tired of that. Especially minorities (and libertarians).

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Unions are huge backers of the democratic party. In general, around 90% of union political donations go towards democratic candidates and causes. This has contributed to basically half of the population thinking of them as not only corrupt but actively working against them. This causes quite a bit of consternation among the more conservative union members, their dues go to politicians and policies that they don’t agree with. In fact, there’s a case before the US Supreme Court about this issue right now which will have huge implications for the future of American unions.

Similarly, in many cases unions restrict benefits without a commensurate decline in the cost of dues. Dip below full time work and your benefits get cut; you pay the same amount though. This happened to me personally. I didn’t take the job when they explained that to me (I was in college and needed full time work for the summer and part-time during the school year. I’m not paying full dues 12 months a year for 3 months of benefits.)

Unions have a host of rules that discourage innovation and investment, and demotivate workers. Seniority rules allow workers to pick and choose their work, often leaving the harder work to the less-skilled and leading to sloppy work, which then encourages competent workers to flee for a firm that recognizes and promotes based on performance as opposed to mere longevity. Disallowing cross-utilization of labor can lead to absurdly high increases of the cost to employers and contractors to use union labor.

Then there’s the protectionist aspect of unions, they prevent the incompetent or corrupt from being fired. Now, unions are supposed to protect their membership. That is their entire purpose of being. But when incompetent teachers can’t be fired and for years taxpayers continue paying their salary even though they do not have students and do not teach, well…you can understand why people would be upset.

As you can see, for a variety of reasons, unions have let down the people they are supposed to help. They have allowed themselves to wither and are increasingly not a factor in far too many sectors. I am a firm believer in the necessity of unions in a free market but I see little evidence that America’s unions are interested in doing much other than lining their own pockets. Until they join the 21st century, show some integrity, and become relevant again, it seems that many Americans have compelling reasons to be hostile towards unions. Hopefully, that can change.

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