Yesterday, it being Labor Day and everything, I made a comment expressing appreciation for the gains organized labor has brought. (It turns out that Labor Day might not really be about labor unions so much as the labor – i.e. work – itself, but that’s immaterial here.) My views were immediately branded “leftist” but that seems to be a particularly useless way to consider views toward organized labor. To be sure, unions and strikes have often been used by communists/socialists as weapons against capitalism, and many early union leaders here in the US were very red indeed. On the other hand, some leftist regimes such as China or the old Soviet Union have been markedly intolerant of unions. Go on strike there and you could get yourself shot. Show me a room full of trade-union members here in the US and I’ll show you a room where the dominant political beliefs are those of right-wing Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Beck rather than any “leftist” you could name. These contradictions spring from the fact that, in some essential ways, pro-labor vs. anti-labor sentiment isn’t really a left vs. right thing at all.

Left vs. right has traditionally been about the influence of government in people’s lives, and particularly in their economic lives. The union debate is about tension between two non-governmental centers of power – the providers of capital vs. the providers about labor. Unions are, at the most basic level, just voluntary associations pursuing common goals. The right of free association that’s involved is the same one exercised by the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock or the patriots at Lexington Green. Government has continued to honor this right not only by directly protecting its exercise but also by granting many kinds of associations favorable treatment – especially with respect to taxation. In the particular case of capital holders forming the associations that we call corporations, the benefits extend even further to limited liability, political influence, taxpayer-funded trade diplomacy, etc. If capital providers can voluntarily associate and receive all these benefits for doing so, why not labor providers (i.e. workers)? Why not allow the two groups to work things out directly between themselves, in the market, without government interference in the form of requiring government sanction for unions, enforcing exclusivity (labor monopolies are just as evil as capital monopolies), and so on? How is it “leftist” to recognize that voluntary association in the form of unions is an alternative to direct government interference in the market, and to support that alternative? Support for or opposition to unions is really more of a populist vs. authoritarian issue that doesn’t fit neatly into any simplistic “left vs. right” model. Those who would outlaw unions and replace them with government are leftist authoritarians. Those who would outlaw unions and replace them with nothing at all are neo-feudal authoritarians. I reject both. It’s absurd to think of “power to the people” as a leftist idea . . . but I guess if the right wingers want to make it clear that they’re against that idea then I shouldn’t complain.

[NB: if you go back far enough, to seating arrangements during the French revolution, the identification of "left" with populism and "right" with hereditary aristocracy does seem pretty strong. The axes have shifted since then, though, and by modern definitions the idea of opposing the left by favoring government interference with the right of free assembly seems rather absurd.]

By the way, my support of unions as a concept does not imply support of specific unions as they exist and operate today. Because of government interference such as I’ve mentioned, they have become another form of oppression for individual workers. That’s true whether they’re acting in league with company owners or in opposition to them. Having formerly lived in Detroit I reserve special hatred for the UAW, which in my view has harmed its members more than anyone by steadfastly resisting necessary adaptation to changing technology and globalization. They’ve done as much as the auto companies themselves to destroy that industry and that city. The kind of union I believe in, driven by voluntary participation and popular will of its members instead of being either neutered or captured by the politico-economic elite, hardly exists today. For the sake of real free markets the return of real unions would be a good thing.