Unions @ Work

Is There a Conservative Case for Labor Unions?

By Tim Murphy

Many labor lawyers will be blogging soon about what to expect on the labor law front from a Biden/Harris Administration. That’s to be expected because the question will be on the minds of those of us who pay attention to labor law. But there will be plenty of time for that. Today I’d like to write about something else that I hope you will also find interesting.

Like too many other things, the subject of labor unions can really polarize political opinions in this country. Views about labor unions pretty reliably break down along partisan lines, with liberals largely in support and conservatives largely opposed.

This past Labor Day, a small group of influential conservative thinkers, policymakers, and politicians came out in favor of a conservative rethink about labor unions. They issued an open letter entitled Conservatives Should Ensure Workers a Seat at the Table. The group, affiliated with the think-tank American Compass (see its mission statement here), described the letter as a “statement on a conservative future for the American labor movement.”

The letter begins with a defense of capitalism, free markets, economic freedom, and limited government. As you’d expect—no surprises there. But then, the letter states that “Strong worker representation can make America stronger.” Whoa. It goes on to argue that the decline of labor unions is bad news for America: “Rather than cheer the demise of a once-valuable institution [labor unions], conservatives should seek reform and reinvigoration of the laws that govern organizing and collective bargaining…” What’s going on here?

Labor union reform and reinvigoration would promote core conservative values of economic prosperity, limited government, and strong communities, according to the group. No specific labor law reforms are proposed by the group; however, they recommend borrowing successful labor policies from other industrialized countries. The letter concludes with the group’s commitment to “pursue discussions with policymakers from across the political spectrum and representatives from all facets of the economy…” because “workers must have a seat at the table.”

I can’t say whether this was a public relations exercise or something more. Many conservatives have expressed concern about public opinion surveys indicating decreased support for capitalism and increased support for socialism (particularly among younger Americans). I don’t expect a groundswell of conservative support for labor unions to arise from this letter, but anything that sparks discussion about supporting and strengthening the American worker is probably worthwhile.

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