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One of the great myths perpetuated on high school students in History classes is that unions were formed by concerned workers in order to protect themselves from the vicious capitalists of the day. We’ll explore the claim of exploitation in a future post. For now, let’s start by recognizing a simple micro-economic insight: relative prices matter.

Once you understand this simply insight, it would not be a surprise to find union interests supporting all kinds of programs that make their members appear relatively cheap. Now, union workers would never want to lower their wages to do this – so a time honored tradition is to promote legislation that makes people that compete with unions relatively more expensive.

This is brilliant economics and politics. The economics is clear – when competitors become more expensive, then it becomes more attractive for employers and contractors to hire union workers. The politics is even better – few Americans have a taste for the parading around of naked self-interest (unless it comes from teachers unions, which seem to be given a free pass in the name of our children). So, rather than running around saying how union workers “deserve” more … they run around supporting social legislation that nominally looks like it is helping the unfortunate. Ask yourself why a union worker who earns $25 per hour or so would ever campaign aggressively in favor of raising … the minimum wage? Similarly, many laws proposed by Progressives and their union supporters in the first half of the 20th century were “women only” laws. Those laws were passed in the name of protecting stupid women who were too shy and dumb to be able to negotiate contracts for themselves, but they really had the effect of making it more attractive to hire men. We’ll say more about these later.

However, sometimes unions were/are a little more conspicuous about their policies. It should not be a surprise to see such a dramatic rise in unionization only after slavery ended in the South (and yes, I understand that industrialization was still growing). Why? Well, there suddenly became a huge number of skilled and unskilled workers entering the labor force to compete with white workers. So, workers organized unions and made arrangements with employers that only union workers could be hired and so forth.

David Henderson describes in his book, the Joy of Freedom, a passage from F. Ray Marshall’s, The Negro Worker. Marshall was Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Labor. In the book, he documents a list of unions that barred blacks from joining in 1930:

American Federation of Express Workers

American Federation of Railway Workers

American Train Dispatchers Association

American Wire Weavers Protective Association

Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders and Helpers Union

Brotherhood of Dining Car Conductors

Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen

Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen

Brotherhood of Railroad Carmen

Brotherhood of Railway Station Employees and Clerks

Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks

Commercial Telegraphers

International Association of Machinists

National Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots of North America

Neptune Association

Order of Railway Expressmen

Order of Railway Telegraphers

Order of Sleeping Car Conductors

Railroad Yard Masters of America

Railway Mail Association

Swicthmen’s Union of North America

And these were just in the railroad sector. And not only did these organizations make it hard for blacks to find jobs in those sectors, union members were not averse to beating and killing black workers who tried to compete against them. There is ample evidence cited by both Henderson and Marshall of this.

Where was the government protecting the rights of black workers? Why were unions able to accrue such power? How do our children come to learn that unions are a requirement for markets not to end up enslaving or exploiting people? If markets end up exploiting and enslaving people, then shouldn’t union workers have celebrated the fact that their competitors would work for exploitive non-union shops? If the market cannot sustain an humane and peaceful and increasingly prosperous workforce, then how come union members do not celebrate the fact that millions of their competitors work for Walmart and FedEx? Would such employment doom them to misery and failure and hence the ultimate victory for union workers in unionized shops?

Note that I am not saying unions per se could not have had reasonable beefs, or that some unions were not organized with the best intentions for all workers. But what I am saying is that they, just like government officials, certainly do not deserve a priori the respect and admiration that young people seem to give them just because they were told how great the were in an AP History class.

My drone/clone students call me “crazy” when I point these things out to them.

3 Responses to “The Illustrious History of Labor Unions”

  1. Josh Fulton says:


    I like your website a lot, and this is a great post. I was wondering if you’d consider linking to my website. It’s daily news from an anti-state perspective. I’ve also had writing featured on Naked Capitalism, Blacklisted News, Global Research and elsewhere.


    Thanks a lot.


  2. Harry says:

    Mike, you assume our kids get taught history. But, yes, I recall the picture of John L. Lewis, the poster boy in every textbook that discussed the labor union movement. It was always discreetly seperated by at least one chapter from the one on the evils of monopolies and trusts.

    I have always been sympathetic with free people getting together to make whatever arrangements they can to promote their interests. I’m Also against government-sanctioned extortion.

    I sold ice cream in Hartford once, and had to join the Teamsters. Somewhere is my I Am A Friend of Jimmy Hoffa button.

    With his many faults, Jimmy was a much better guy than Gerard McIntee (sp?), the big guy from AFSCME.

  3. Avril Lavigne says:

    Unions are labor cartels, restrict the supply for labor to make those in the union for expensive to employ. Its a win win for the unions. If you join, you increase their power and influence, so they get paid more if you don’t join, less supply so they get paid more. Hmm…starting to make sense why public employees are compensated to much better than private…

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