The Magazine

Summers Knows Best

Unions are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Mar 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 23 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Unions spur unemployment, and "there is no question" about it. "High union wages that exceed the competitive market rate are likely to cause job losses in the unionized sector of the economy." That is the unvarnished conclusion of one of the country's most admired economists. From 1970 to 1985, a state with average unionization had a rate of unemployment 1.2 percentage points higher than a state with no unions. This represented "about 60 percent of the increase in normal unemployment" in that period.

Okay, a finding from several decades ago may be a bit dated. But the phenomenon of how unionization affects unemployment isn't. Nor is the economist--Lawrence Summers, formerly president of Harvard and now President Obama's chief economic adviser. In this week's Fortune, Nina Easton calls him "the mastermind" of Obama's economic policy. His influence has limits, however, for Obama is aggressively promoting unionization at the worst possible time, smack in the teeth of a deepening recession with soaring unemployment.

Media attention has focused on the hot button issue of "card check." It would jettison labor's biggest impediment to signing up workers, the secret ballot. Naturally, it's labor's top priority in 2009. And though Obama and the vast majority of Democrats in Congress favor card check, its fate is unclear.

But Obama has already taken significant steps to aid unions. Steps that underscore his support for a surge in unionization. "I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem," he told union leaders at a White House event last month. "To me, it's part of the solution." Summers must have winced when he heard that.

Obama has issued four executive orders to benefit unions, nominated a union pawn as labor secretary, and picked a union lawyer to head the National Labor Relations Board. Aside from ramming card check through Congress, there's not much more he could have done in his first month in office to please labor leaders.

One executive order says private contractors on federal construction projects should hire union workers. This puts non-union contractors, especially small minority companies who compete by making lower bids than contractors with unionized workers, at a distinct disadvantage. Another order bars federal contractors from being reimbursed for expenses incurred in trying to persuade employees not to form a union. A third would force contractors to retain workers when taking over a project from another contractor.

These orders will have an immediate impact. Most (if not all) of the infrastructure projects funded in Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan will have union workers. Given the higher labor costs, this means fewer of the estimated 1 million construction workers currently unemployed will find work.

To make matters worse, the "prevailing wage" required on federal projects by the Davis-Bacon law will apply to all projects. This is supposed to be the average wage for construction workers in a region, but it usually turns out to be the higher union wage. So fewer workers will be employed even on non-union projects.

There's a double whammy here. Despite rising unemployment, a sharp limit is being imposed on hiring. And taxpayers will be required to pay considerably more for construction projects than necessary. This should be unacceptable in good times. In a recession, it's worse. This is flagrantly counterproductive.

Take one example. A non-union employer with the low bid wins the contract on a partially completed construction project. If the prior contractor had union workers, the new boss would have to retain them, their union wages, and possibly even their union.

As a devotee of the New Deal, Obama ought to have learned the lesson of increased unionization. After the Wagner Act of 1935 empowered labor organizers, unionization flourished and wages rose for those who had jobs. At the same time, unemployment went up.

If card check passes, this trend--more unions, fewer jobs--will shift into high gear. But the measure suffered a slight setback last week. Blue dog Democrats got House speaker Nancy Pelosi to postpone a vote until the Senate acts. The queasy moderates fear voting for an unpopular bill that could fail in the Senate. Labor leaders had hoped House approval would give card check a big boost in the Senate, where a handful of Democrats have voiced misgivings.

At the White House, organized labor's clout is still palpable. The president is indebted to union leaders for their lavish support for his campaign with money (hundreds of millions) and personnel (tens of thousands). And labor trumps Larry Summers. Too bad. On unions and unemployment, Summers knows best.

--Fred Barnes