New York Times Liberal Learns That Unions Aren’t All Bad

Henry James Soulen, Dancing at the Waldorf, 1896.
Henry James Soulen, Dinner at the Waldorf, 1896.

Last week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof made worldwide news when he acknowledged that he had been mistaken about something.

Like many Americans, I’ve been wary of labor unions . . . I disdained unions as bringing corruption, nepotism and rigid work rules to the labor market, impeding the economic growth that ultimately makes a country strong.

I was wrong.

Wait. Back up. Nepotism is regarded in a negative light at The New York Times? Since when? Also, what does Kristof mean when he says that unions bring “rigid work rules?” I can assure him that employers routinely create “rigid work rules.” It is strange that he applies the term “rigid” to rules negotiated between workers and management, rather than applying it to rules set unilaterally by management.

Well, at least he admits that he was wrong. What brought about this radical change in his thinking? He writes:

[L]ook at American history. The peak years for unions were the 1940s and ’50s, which were also some of the fastest-growing years for the United States ever—and with broadly shared prosperity. Historically, the periods when union membership were highest were those when inequality was least.

That has been blindingly obvious to many people for decades. It is puzzling that Kristof is only now discovering those basic realities of American history. Another recent discovery of Kristof’s is the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.

Joseph Stiglitz notes in his book The Price of Inequality that when unions were strong in America, productivity and real hourly compensation moved together in manufacturing. But after 1980 (and especially after 2000) the link seemed to break and real wages stagnated.

It may be that as unions weakened, executives sometimes grabbed the gains from productivity.

“May”? “Sometimes”? Professor Stiglitz has consistently stated that he believes there is a causal link between weakened unions and stagnating real wages. If Kristof is going to cite Stiglitz, he should note that fact, rather than hiding behind qualifiers like “may” and “sometimes.” If he regards that link as less firmly established than the renowned economist does, he should say why.

Since Kristof apparently doubts that executives (and, by extension, shareholders) have been “grabbing the gains from productivity,” he might take a look at the work of economists Atif Mian and Amir Sufi. They write that while worker productivity has doubled since 1980, “owners of capital are getting a bigger share of GDP than before. In other words, the share of profits has risen faster than wages.”

While Kristof is on the subject of his mistaken thinking about labor, perhaps he will also retract his opposition to laws that protect workers. He expressed his contempt for such laws in his 2009 prose ode to sweatshops, which I wrote about in this post.

Kristof’s column proves that while he can, on rare occasions, admit that he was wrong, he can never just leave it at that. This is how he closed his column:

I’ll say it again: I was wrong. At least in the private sector, we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them.

I hate to quibble, but “at least in the private sector”? So maybe it’s all right to “try to eviscerate unions” in the public sector? According to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 35.7% of public-sector workers belonged to a union in 2014, while only 6.6% of private-sector workers did. Union-organizing efforts are funded by dues paid by current union members. If we allow the evisceration of public-sector unions to continue, there may soon be no union movement left for private-sector workers to join.

Kristof’s newly positive statements about unions are as empty as they can be. I’m beginning to believe that he may be full of shit, sometimes.

His problem is that, despite his characteristically liberal views on other issues, Kristof lacks basic respect for working-class people. He would not sneer at civil-rights or feminist activists the way he does at working-class activists. Nor would it take him decades to see patterns of exploitation or discrimination against groups other than workers.

I wonder if it would even be possible to explain to him how absurd his 19th-century perspective on workers’ rights is. When I read Kristof’s column, I imagined him writing one in which he made similarly ridiculous claims of new-found enlightenment.

It looked like this:

Like many Americans, especially here in New York City, I had grave reservations about allowing a bunch of Irish to come to this country. Frankly, I thought that they would spend their days drunkenly copulating all over Times Square before running off en masse to confess to their priests. I was deeply concerned for our native-born street cleaners, you see, and also the traffic wardens. However, I recently discovered that the Irish have been here for a while and the danger of such untoward occurrences now seems relatively slight. I stand corrected.

Like many Americans, I was very worried about allowing women to vote. But did you know that members of the fair sex have been voting for some time in all 50 U.S. States? It’s true. I have been poring over election data and it is my considered judgment that female voters are no worse, on balance, than male voters. We live and learn.

Surprisingly, the same is true for voting by blacks. Make a note, people.

Like many Americans, I disdained universal, mandatory education for children. Honestly, it seemed like a communist scheme to allow street urchins to lounge around reading Cicero while my chimney remained entirely unswept. I was able to make other arrangements for my chimney, I am happy to state, and universal education has not proven a complete disaster. It has put some funny ideas into street urchins’ heads (they apparently want to form labor unions when they grow up). And it has contributed to their heedless, jitterbugging ways. But it behooves the ruffians’ betters to exhibit a demeanor of patient forbearance. I urge all reasonable Americans to join me in doing so.