My thoughts, from many decades in the union movement and six years as head of the AFL-CIO in Oregon:

-The single-employer, site-based bargaining unit, a product of those 1930's New Deal laws Noah cites in this piece, are woefully outmoded and mis-structured for today's economy, whether we pursue industrial policy or not.

-That's why we need sectoral bargaining.

-These outmoded structures infect the organization of the union movement as well. Unions are federations of local chapters, thus the actions of the Arizona pipe fitters, which may run counter to the views of their national leadership. The many tails of any national union often wag or disorient the dog in instances like this, pitting parochial biases and short-term interests against the broader and longer-term interests of workers in a given industry.

-Sectoral and regional bargaining would help to force unions to restructure and better deal with the dynamics of today's economy.

-The union movement continues to press for labor law reform to make organizing easier, without pursuing parallel reforms to change the structure of bargaining to be multi-employer, multi-site and therefore sectoral. The labor law reform agenda needs to add a focus on the latter.

-There remain two types of unions in the U.S. -- craft unions (like the pipe fitters Noah mentions in AZ and all of the building trades unions), which preceded the New Deal (think of Samuel Gompers and the cigar makers), and industrial unions like the auto workers, which are a product of the New Deal. The former (AFL) are supply side unions, based on apprenticeship and their ability to deliver a highly-skilled workforce to multiple employers. The latter (CIO) are industrial unions, structured on a non-craft, all-workers, "wall-to-wall" model, but still largely dependent on localized bargaining units focused on sharing the profits of single employers.

-If we progressives hope to build back better, we'll need to pay more attention to the benefits of the apprenticeship model of the craft unions (on a regional basis) and the need to reform the outmoded bargaining unit structure of the industrial unions (on a sectoral basis). Those changes will require more than new approaches to unionizing and representing workers by the unions themselves. Some unions have been pioneering new ways of representing workers in specific industries, like the Service Employees' Justice for Janitors and home care workers campaigns, but that approach won't get to scale with a new legal framework enacted at the national level. Unions should move beyond trying to regain their power for workers through an outmoded structure and Democrats should stop treating labor law reform as an "oh yeah, that" agenda item. There are big changes needed that will take a concerted effort, like, for example health care reform.

Expand full comment

Respectfully Noah, this piece is a little empty. Unions in most countries and most times throughout history have been anti-automation, anti-foreign workers, and frequently anti-progress. They are philosophically always, always protectionist. Advocacy for extremely narrow interest groups (dockworkers, cargo ship deckhands) imposes large costs on the other 99.9% of the working population. Everyone in America is paying for the Jones Act giving job security to a few thousand workers!

>That might involve giving labor more of a seat at the table when making industrial policy

So they have even more political power to block progress?

>and convince them that things that they previously perceived as threats — new technologies and foreign workers — now represent opportunities instead

Frequently they really are a threat to their very narrow interest group- automation really will put some dockworkers out of work, machines really did displace the Luddites. The bird's eye view is that it's better for society overall for some workers to lose these jobs, sorry to say. Pain for narrow interest groups leads to diffuse benefits for everyone

Expand full comment

In my experience in local development (Planning Commissioner for 8 years) the problem wasn't unions per se, but their use of other legal mechanisms to blackmail project developers and their repeated advocacy of non-labor issues.

An example of the former is bankrolling CEQA (CA's environmental review law) lawsuits that miraculously go away the moment the developer signs a union scale agreement: "you will pay our wages or we will use snails and turtles to make sure you NEVER build anything." This sort of thing sours people both on environmental review and on unions. However, at least it is "advocating for the interests of their members" in a perverted way.

The second problem is more serious. Major unions have become wholly owned subsidiaries of a single political party. Why the hell is the AFL CIO donating to Planned Parenthood? Why are they taking stands on biological males in girl's sports. In polling, the majority blue-collar males (the class of most of their members) consistently rejects these. And even if they didn't, these aren't labor issues! Sometimes, the union's loyalty to the Party directly harms their members, specifically the issue of illegal immigration, which, while it is a slight positive overall economically, there is no question depresses the wages of the very people the union is supposed to represent.

I have worked in union jobs before, specifically IATSE, the stagehands union. I would love to see strengthening of private-sector unionization (public sector, no, for other reasons). A reconstruction of the tripartite agreement between, as Turchin says, "the few, the many, and the state" that existed from the 30's to the 70's. But to achieve that, American unions are going to have to learn from the Germans and Japanese and Swedes to start staying in their lane and playing well with others. Right now, they don't do either.

Expand full comment

I remember Tim Cook saying something like - and this is 10+ years ago - that if he wanted to hire production engineers, he might find enough candidates in the US to fill a meeting room, but in China to fill a convention center. It's going to be a long march on a long road to reverse that.

Expand full comment

There’s nothing I love more than saying I told you so, which I did. It’s early days still, I’ll grant, and I could still be wrong. But if you think American unions (as opposed to German or Japanese) can be a productive part of the economy, or even only a minimally burdensome one, I think you’re dreadfully mistaken.

Expand full comment

The question is so much better than the answer. Give union leaders a seat at the table? How is that supposed to make the slightest difference? In reality, the answer is to just steamroll them when their complaints are this ridiculous.

Expand full comment
Aug 10, 2023·edited Aug 11, 2023

Excellent excellent excellent article. I am a labor-centric, strongly pro-Union New Deal Democrat, and a union member. I don’t see the problem of being able to coexist and think you are spot on. The fact is, unions with nutty work rules & an inflexible approach, can be self-defeating. Unions should ensure that the workers have a voice at the table, ensure fair treatment of their workers through due process, and ensure that workers receive fair compensation and a fair share of the profits for their labor. They should add value, and advocate for their members’ interests over the long term. They should not be a gravy train for union hierarchy or lazy people, or the union honchos who are all too often corrupt and sell out the rank and file. They should return balance & fairness to the workplace. The German union model, in general, sets a fine example.

Expand full comment

Dayen and the Roosevelt institute are saying “patronage and inefficiency good because it benefits our favored groups”, they’re just too dishonest to be open about it.

Expand full comment
Aug 10, 2023·edited Aug 10, 2023

Biden’s policies are explicitly oriented toward unions wherever possible (they are key donors and supporters) which is one of the reasons many of these policies will fail.

Unions like to call their members “skilled” but anyone who has been a union member or worked on an assembly line knows this is largely BS in manufacturing (not the case in some trades).

For Biden, a win is where scarce “skilled” labor is used to assemble battery components mostly imported from China, using American union labor that discourages automation at every turn.

I would favor (and impose) much more training and favor higher value businesses (machine tools, robotics, advanced semiconductor fabs) and promote more automation. Biden’s dream would be big union manual assembly shops subsidized by taxpayers.

We should question whether it is sensible to be paying companies to assemble low complexity products (like batteries) using scarce labor resources who would be much more valuable (and trainable) elsewhere .

The good (?) news is that while it is almost certain that much of the subsidized investment will prove to have been misdirected, we can’t really predict how it all will turn out and there should be some winners. And Noah’s list of things that might determine the list percentage is spot on.

Expand full comment

What's going on with these unions blocking the Taiwanese visas? It sounds like they are actively interfering with the preconditions needed to get their members more work (no experts -> no building -> no jobs)?

Is this just old fashioned anti-immigration/anti-foreign bias causing people to behave irrationally, opposition to Biden's agenda or what?

Expand full comment

What’s crazy is Arizona isn’t even a traditional Union State.

Expand full comment

"American pipefitters simply do not know the technical details of installing ultraviolet lithography machinery. They need someone to teach them before they can do it, and the people who can teach them live in Taiwan."

This a gross misunderstanding of how fabs are built. The lithography machinery is installed by employees of ASML (the equipment manufacturer). In fact, at the big fabs, the equipment manufacturers station employees full-time on-site for service and maintenance. The building of the fabs is primarily dealing with plumbing, air handling, climate control and vibration dampening, all spelled out by the equipment manufacturer specs and the building design. These are more difficult than putting up an office building, but all things American pipe fitters and related tradesmen can do. We know this, because they built the fabs for Intel, Global Foundries, Samsung, Micron, countless universities, and everyone else. I'm no sure we should be taking TMSC's stated reasons that they're falling behind at face value.

Expand full comment

IG Metal promoted diesel passenger cars in this century in order to reduce carbon emissions!! So the notion unions have the same goals as progressive groups is absurd! The most powerful union on the planet played a big role in what is now widely agreed is an unmitigated public health disaster that failed to reduce carbon emissions.

Expand full comment

This is a demonstration of the failure of industrial policy. Public choice being what it is, political pressure will always trump effectiveness. Neoliberalism has been working and can continue to do so if allowed.

Expand full comment

Unions are a core component of Bidenflation. They do nothing but slow down productivity and drive up costs. Most members would not even be in a Union if they could avoid it. If it's a union shop, I avoid it like the plague.

Expand full comment

Unions in America are needlessly politicized. In Germany and Japan, all mainstream political parties are vaguely pro-union. In the US, unions today (particularly union leadership) are an arm of the Democratic party.

Actually growing union membership is an anti-goal; more blue collar unionization would cause many unions to become GOP-leaning. This would be catastrophic for Democratic election strategy. The result is that American unions instead push for small self-serving political wins like maintaining the Jones Act or making union votes non-secret. Whining about immigrants fits in here too.

Expand full comment