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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

How to stop worrying and love unions

It is no secret America’s unions have seen better days. Only one in 10 Americans in the workforce are members of a union.  The percentage of private employees with union membership is now under seven percent, the lowest proportion since 1932, and their public counterparts are faring little better, as across the country, staggeringly insolvent municipalities duck their pension obligations. Even their political punch is reduced, as the flood of money that rushed into American politics after “Citizens United” has made it difficult for unions to keep up in the fundraising arms race. Some might think this a cause for celebration to any true conservative, as frustrated by the economic costs and inefficiencies unions impose as they are angered by unions’ steadfast support of leftist politicians. Yet to toast the decline of America’s unions would be foolish, for if unions’ decline continues, we will all pay the price.

Though industrial labor unions only appear in the second half of our nation’s history, their roots in, and importance to, the American psyche were anticipated in one of the most prescient political works ever written. When Alexis de Tocqueville traveled across our nascent republic, he found that “nothing ... is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America.” Tocqueville did not think it a coincidence “the most democratic country on the face of the earth” was one where associations were constantly formed, for he believed the civic bodies thus popularly created were integral to the success of the republic itself. Tocqueville was right to place such importance in America’s voluntary associations, for they simultaneously suppressed the worst attributes (egoism, avarice, isolation) of American individualism and checked the potential excesses of a majority government. The voluntary associations described by Tocqueville are a perfect example of a mediating institution, a corporate body that, standing between the central government and the individual citizen, precludes the central government from certain spheres of life as well as insulating the individual from the often oppressive arm of Uncle Sam. Conservatism is defined, or at least has been since 1789, in great part by the fear of state power rising to unchecked supremacy over the population. An intellectually honest conservative must then support such mediating institutions, of which labor unions are an excellent example, that buffer the individual from the state.

The modern state has mushroomed from a modest entity concerned almost exclusively with martial projects and regal comfort into a leviathan whose tendrils extend to nearly all areas of human experience. The individual man, once shielded from the emanations of the generally isolated central government by layers of mediating institutions — Church, guild, and city being only the most prominent — is now more exposed than ever to the caprices of the administrative state. In such a situation, the few remaining potent mediating institutions are of ever greater importance and ought be cherished and defended.

Perhaps G.K. Chesterton best described labor unions’ significance, writing “in modern constitutional countries there are practically no political institutions thus given by the people; all are received by the people. There is only one thing that stands in our midst, attenuated and threatened, but enthroned in some power like a ghost of the Middle Ages: the Trades Unions.” Today our labor unions are threatened by the gaping maws of the homogenous administrative state and omnivorous international capital. Should they engulf labor unions, we will have lost a irreplaceable element of our national identity, all for the sake of a few dollars in a businessman’s pocket.

I can hear complaints about labor costs, corruption, and unnecessary regulations. I reply there is something higher than a quarterly earnings report at stake here, for it is the very soul of our republic we are bargaining away. We as a people must stop worshiping the golden calves of cold capitalist efficiency and profit maximization, for the sacrifices, forced upon the poor and the under-educated, made to those graven images shall stain our nation’s history as surely as any to Baal Hammon. Some day Americans will be forced to ask themselves whether our highest national god is that of Smith, Marx and Keynes or that of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Let us pray we have not fallen too far when that day comes.

Two months into the reign of President Trump, the policies, assumptions and third rails of yesteryear do not even need to be discarded, for they are already gone. In such times, a shift by conservatives towards a pro-union policy that protects the welfare of the nation and society they claim to hold so dear would hardly qualify as radical, and would indeed make the party platform more coherent under a Republican president who openly bashes free trade and labor mobility before adoring proletarian crowds.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.