Organized labor has accelerated its metamorphosis in recent years away from a movement committed to improving the lot of workers towards becoming a vast policy advocacy effort devoting a disproportionate share of its efforts to political operations. In doing so, much of the traditional labor movement has been hijacked by newer unions devoted to vast expansions of government and an undermining of the economy in a way that directly punishes those they call "brothers."
The history of the labor movement in the United States is a dramatic one, full of stories of courage, determination and vision. It was often radicalized, flirting with the extreme left of the political spectrum, but it did so in an effort to fight for the working man who could not fight alone. While the regulatory constructs they created have, in many ways, gone awry in the hands of bureaucrats and special interest advocates, their original intent was noble.
As our economy has changed and work conditions vastly improved, employment has diversified and union membership has plunged. But one area has proven to be a huge growth area for union recruiting-government. And that success has moved labor into a position where it is directly advocating policies that destroy the prospects for men and women working in the construction and manufacturing trades from whence the movement sprang over the past century.
In 2008 the percentage of private sector workers who were members of labor unions stood at 8.2 million people, just 7.6 percent of the private sector workforce. By contrast, public sector union membership reached 7.8 million in 2008, 36.8 percent of government workers. That was an increase of one percent just from 2007. So, just under half of the union members in our workforce are feeding at the public trough. Is it any wonder that the labor movement has shifted its advocacy focus away from the workplace and towards tax and regulator policies that will vastly increase the need for more public employees?
A unionized government workforce will continue to demand more taxes, more government programs, more rules, more everything that will empower the bureaucracy. Concurrently, they will demand more guaranteed pension and health care benefits, shorter hours, more jobs security and less accountability.
But what of the men and women carrying union cards who actually make things for a living? Government regulations, particularly environmental restrictions on construction and development discourage and needlessly delay building and infrastructure projects. Higher taxes suck up billions of dollars that would be available for construction at all levels and force employers to keep payrolls lower. They also create financial hurdles to the tradesperson who would seek to start his or her own business.
Some trade union executives rationalize their blind support of labor's new progressive agenda saying that it is the huge, taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects like highways and airports that provide the most jobs for longer periods of time. But they fumble for excuses when faced with the fact that many major infrastructure projects that would be beneficial for the communities they would serve and create thousands of jobs have been abandoned under pressure from anti-development environmentalists enabled by their public sector union brethren.
A government that diverts less money to social engineering programs and that implements meaningful controls on the growth of entitlements can better afford the robust and growing infrastructure that is vital to job creation both in building and using such a system. And a government that limits taxation to keep capital readily available for private construction projects, business expansions and renovations also spurs more economic expansion and wealth creation.
The men and women of the nation's building trades must now ask themselves if their collective influence in the political arena is being used to help them or to further the agenda of other constituencies of the Democratic Party at their expense. Their union dues are funding politicians who seem bent on obstructing economic growth through taxes and regulations that will continue to stall the bricks and mortar projects that provide their livelihood.
Some trade unions have flirted with Republicans in the past few decades from time to time, and there remains a small but solidly pro-trade union faction among Republicans in Congress. But as the AFL-CIO has become more dependent on public employees to fund its existence and as those employees have exerted more control over the union agenda, the needs of the building trades have been ignored, namely, government policies that encourage economic development.
The economic stimulus package will provide some short-term help by funding public works projects that have long lain dormant. But the Democrats do not deserve kudos for this. More stimulus money should be going to bricks and mortar rather than new social programs. Our infrastructure is inadequate because we have diverted so many billions away from government's fundamental obligation to provide a sound infrastructure that facilitates our economic and social development. Republicans, by and large, support infrastructure projects as an appropriate form of government spending that result in a tangible benefit for society. And, it has been the Democrats who have increasingly empowered anti-development special interests to thwart major new projects.
Why is it that the carpenters, electricians, plumbers, bricklayers, teamsters, operating engineers, sheet metal workers, and others who build American haven't stood up against the changes in the labor agenda that are so injurious to the future of their trades? They may think that when bureaucrats get more job security that they will too. In reality, lending their money and muscle to the public employees' social agenda is short-sighted. In the long run, if the big-government agenda of the public employees unions continues to move forward apace it will destroy the economic growth and entrepreneurial spirit that is vital to continued development and more jobs. In short, work for the men and women of the building trades will become harder and harder to come by. It is time that members of the building trades considered finding a new political home.
Douglas O'Brien is a public affairs consultant.