Most people are familiar with the general idea of anti-trust laws and proceedings; but, as with many things the devil is in the details. A major problem that underscores this greater issue is a lack of understanding of the exact nature of labor. People often think of labor and capital as having a protagonist/antagonist relationship and this misconception is quite profitable to labor leaders and their political allies. However, the pervasiveness of this misconception does great harm to those who directly control labor—individuals; particularly those individuals who have the lowest skill levels which are most often the poor, minorities, and young people. People see laborers as having no leverage in the business relationship and thus assign laborers a more limited value.
First of all, there are two primary factors of production: labor and capital. Labor is the efforts of people in producing goods and services for trade. Capital describes the accumulation of machinery and tools (often thought of monetarily) that are used in the production process. Neither factor holds a distinctive advantage over the other as a general rule, but differing circumstances can tip the scales of control to one or the other.
This can be seen throughout history and even today. For example, there was a period in time when labor was so highly demanded (thus, labor held the advantage) that employers would wait outside of prisons to hire people as they were released. In the modern day, people who hold strong skills in computer programming or web design (etc.) can command significant salaries and benefits. These are not the instances that the media and politicians focus on; instead they choose to highlight the false narrative of the minimum wage and the “plight” of entry-level, low wage workers. This misses the reality of the damage done by labor unions by creating a sleight of hand, parlor trick.
We—rightly—prosecute the collusion (cartelization) of business (owners of capital) if they join together to fix prices or production levels in a manner to extract much higher profits from the market than the competitive (more often the monopolistically competitive) value of their outputs. However, when it comes to labor unions, who collude openly on a national scale and across industry sectors (e.g. SEIU and AFL-CIO), we see that not as being an extortion of the consumer as we do in the capital example. Instead, we see labor unions—simply groups of individuals colluding to monopolize and thus increase their market power artificially—as merely protecting their members from an otherwise predatory institution. This is not the reality when it comes to mega-unions. The reality is that they are utilizing their control of one of the two primary factors of production in the same way businesses do when they collude; therefore consumers pay significantly higher prices which would resemble monopoly level pricing.
Furthermore, just as other monopolies who do not enjoy regulatory protection by government which controls market entry, they induce others to enter the market and capture their market share by offering superior products at lower prices [note: natural monopolies that do not rely on regulatory control of market entry do exist; however, they are quite rare]. The effects of the monopoly, outside of government intervention, are often limited in their scope. We can see the results of this in the automobile market where, as trade restrictions relaxed (which is good for the US consumer), the foreign car producers began to rapidly grow against the domestic ones which were plagued by higher than natural equilibrium labor costs and diminishing relative quality (as a way to fight costs) versus the competition. The eventual result was that all those people who owned and controlled the labor factor of production in the car market and enjoyed higher than appropriate levels of profits (pay and benefits) ended up dropping their long run incomes to zero as new competitors entered and captured market share. From a labor perspective, these new market participants would include southern state workers who drew in production facilities as well as foreign workers (via outsourcing).
Additionally, areas densely populated with people who enjoyed this monopoly level pricing for their labors collapsed as the monopoly structure of their labor force declined. Their government, bloated on the excess of extracting unrealistic levels of profits in their labor force from other areas in the country, could not sustain the drop in tax revenues and have essentially become ghost towns (Detroit’s population in 1950 was 1.8 million and is approximately 700,000 today). Also, the greater than equilibrium labor cost overall in markets like Detroit due to unionization of the auto industry crowded out other industries making Detroit perilously dependent on one industry.
The real long-run winners in the equation have been the labor unions themselves (not their members) and the politicians who have enjoyed control of their votes and contributions for many years. The losers in the short run were workers that did not gain entry into those industries and, in the long run, all the people of areas once dominated by big labor production. People often say that unions were once a good thing and that somehow is supposed to justify the existence of mega union entities; however, I find that logic to be severely flawed. Instead, I argue that unions are still positive things when they are constrained to plant (or perhaps firm) level entities. This reduces large scale collusion while granting the owners of labor a more even position in the negotiating process without giving them unfettered control of the production of certain markets completely. Owners of a particular firm control all of the capital for that firm, but no single laborer controls all of the labor for a firm; therefore, an alliance of firm level labor can be positive without being punitive to consumers or damaging to the industry sector. Also, compulsory inclusion in unions should not exist because this removes the competitive nature of markets which allow a fair blend of profits to capital and labor simultaneously, while ensuring maximum marginal value to the consumers.