Right-to-work laws re­flect re­al­ity of glob­al­iza­tion

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For

all the fury and fist­fights out­side the Lans­ing Capi­tol, what hap­pened in Michi­gan this week was a sim­ple ac­com­mo­da­tion to re­al­ity. The most fa­mously union­ized state, birth­place of the United Auto Work­ers, roy­alty of the Amer­i­can work­ing class, be­came right-to-work.

It’s shock­ing, ex­cept that it was in­evitable. In­di­ana went that way ear­lier this year. The en­tire Rust Belt will even­tu­ally fol­low be­cause the hey­day of the sov­er­eign pri­vate-sec­tor union is gone. Glob­al­iza­tion has made splen­did iso­la­tion im­pos­si­ble.

The nostal­gics look back to the im­me­di­ate post­war years when the UAW was all-pow­er­ful, the auto com­pa­nies were highly prof­itable and the world was flooded with Amer­i­can cars. In that Golden Age, the UAW won wages, ben­e­fits and pro­tec­tions that were the envy of the world.

To­day’s an­gry pro­test­ers de­mand a re­turn to that norm. Ex­cept that it was not a norm but a his­tor­i­cal anom­aly. Amer­ica, alone among the great in­dus­trial pow­ers, emerged un­scathed from World War II. Ja­pan was a cin­der, Ger­many rub­ble, and the al­lies — be­gin­ning with Bri­tain and France — an ex­hausted shell of their former im­pe­rial selves.

For a gen­er­a­tion, Amer­ica had the run of the world. Then the oth­ers re­cov­ered. Soon global com­pe­ti­tion — from Volk­swa­gen to Sam­sung — be­gan to over­take Amer­i­can in­dus­try that was sad­dled with pro­tected, in­flated, rel­a­tively un­com­pet­i­tive wages, ben­e­fits and work rules.

There’s a rea­son Detroit went bank­rupt while the South­ern auto trans­plants did not. This is not to ex­on­er­ate in­com­pe­tent over­paid man­age­ment that contributed to the fall. But clearly the wage, ben­e­fit and work-rule gap be­tween the union­ized North and the right-to-work South was a ma­jor fac­tor.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama railed against the Michi­gan leg­is­la­tion, call­ing right-to-work “giv­ing you the right to work for less money.” Well, there is a prin­ci­ple at stake here: A free coun­try should al­low its work­ers to choose whether or not to join a union. More­over, it is more than slightly ironic that Democrats, the fiercely pro-choice party, re­serve free choice for abort­ing a fe­tus, while deny­ing it for such mat­ters as choos­ing your child’s school or join­ing a union.

Prin­ci­ple and hypocrisy aside, how­ever, the pres­i­dent’s state­ment has some va­lid­ity. Let’s be hon­est: Right-towork laws do weaken unions. And de-

Kath­leen Parker

David Brooks

Ross Douthat

Ramesh Ponnuru union­iza­tion can lead to lower wages.

But there is an­other fac­tor at play: hav­ing a job in the first place. In rightto-work states, the av­er­age wage is about 10 per­cent lower. But in rightto-work states, un­em­ploy­ment also is about 10 per­cent lower.

Higher wages or lower un­em­ploy­ment? It is a wrench­ing choice. Although, you would think that lib­er­als would be more in­clined to spread the wealth — i.e., the jobs — around, pre­fer­ring some­what lower pay in or­der to leave fewer fel­low work­ers mired in un­em­ploy­ment.

Think of the mo­ral cal­cu­lus. Lower wages cause an in­cre­men­tal de­cline in one’s well-be­ing. No doubt. But for the un­em­ployed, the de­cline is cat­e­gor­i­cal, some­times cat­a­strophic — a loss not just of in­come but of in­de­pen­dence and dig­nity.

Nor does pro­tec­tion­ism of­fer es­cape from this dilemma. Shut­ting out China and the oth­ers de­prives less well-off Amer­i­cans of ac­cess to the kinds of goods once re­served for the up­per classes.

Glob­al­iza­tion taketh away. But it giveth more. The net ben­e­fit of free trade has been known since, oh, 1817. (See David Ri­cardo and the Law of Com­par­a­tive Ad­van­tage.) There is no easy para­chute from re­al­ity.

Obama calls this a race to the bot­tom. No, it’s a race to a new equi­lib­rium that tries to main­tain em­ploy­ment lev­els, al­beit at the price of some mod­est wage de­cline. It is a choice not to be de­spised.

I have great ad­mi­ra­tion for the dig­nity and pro­tec­tions trade union­ism has brought to Amer­i­can work­ers. I have no great de­sire to see the pri­vate­sec­tor unions tossed out.

But rigid­ity and nos­tal­gia have a price. The in­dus­trial Mid­west is lit­tered with the re­sult­ing wreck­age. Michi­gan most notably, where its for­merly great metropo­lis of Detroit is re­duced to boarded-up bank­ruptcy by its in­abil­ity and un­will­ing­ness to adapt to global change.

It’s easy to un­der­stand why a state such as Michi­gan would seek to re­cover its com­pet­i­tive­ness by em­u­lat­ing the success of neigh­bor­ing In­di­ana. One can sym­pa­thize with those who pine for the union glory days, while at the same time wel­com­ing the new re­al­ism that prom­ises not an im­pos­si­ble restora­tion, but des­per­ately needed — and doable — re­cal­i­bra­tion and re­cov­ery.

Amity Shlaes Charles Krautham­mer

Ge­orge Will

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