Laws dating to 1935 pit employees against their bosses, a zero-sum game that hurts everyone.
To a union leader, the question “What’s in it for the employer?” might seem bizarre. The point of organizing is to improve labor’s position against management. But much has changed since Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935—when workplaces were largely unregulated, the Great Depression had pushed Americans to the brink, and labor unrest was widespread. The NLRA’s objective was not only to empower workers but also to end what Sen. Robert Wagner, its sponsor, called “a procession of bloody and costly strikes, which in some cases swelled almost to the magnitude of national emergencies.”
Today bargaining over employment terms is mostly superfluous. The law already mandates a 40-hour week, paid overtime, a minimum wage, workplace safety standards and employer-sponsored health insurance. The government provides benefits to the elderly, disabled and unemployed. Yet unions still must find something to deliver to members. Thus the prevalence of destructive work rules, grievance procedures and seniority systems.
In 1936, after hundreds of deaths in auto plants, General Motors workers in Flint, Mich., launched their famous sit-down strike. Among their demands: permission to speak in the lunchroom. Seventy years later, GM had converted the strike site into a “rubber room” where laid-off union members earned salaries and benefits for doing nothing.
Oren Cass is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here. This article was adapted from his essay, “More Perfect Unions,” in City Journal’s “The Shape of Work to Come” issue.