The unions are not, contrary to the popular bumper sticker, the “people who brought you the weekend” or the 40-hour work week. In reality, Ford decided to institute the five-day week in 1922, though it was not done until 1926 — a decade before the United Autoworkers union was even formed, and 15 years before Ford would sign its first union contract. The Ford example is illustrative in that the company’s work-force innovations — effectively doubling its entry-level wage at one point, five-day weeks, etc. — were driven neither by political pressure nor union extortion nor philanthropic impulse but by the fact that good workers were and are extraordinarily valuable, and every time Ford lost an assembly-line veteran and had to recruit and train a replacement was money out of Henry Ford’s pocket. Ford’s management knew what today’s executives in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street and in Montana sawmills know: People are assets, not liabilities.
The same principle holds true now: A world without union bosses is not a world of wicked coal-mine operators exploiting helpless serfs with nobody standing in the way but the Molly Maguires. It isn’t a union that inspires Google to offer such high wages and rich (indeed, sometimes silly) amenities to its employees — it’s Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, etc., each of which would love to drive a fleet of buses over to Mountain View and bring back everybody it could. “Well, that’s Google,” you might say, “and not everybody has the skills or the talent to work in High Nerdery in San Jose or Austin or to tote a pitch book around lower Manhattan.” True enough, but the same principle applies to pipefitters and machinists and the 244 other labor categories Evan Soltas takes a look at here. His finding? That changes in productivity account for about 74 percent of changes in wages within any given industry. Workers get paid more because they produce more, not because there’s some coddled predatory halfwit threatening to pass out picket signs.
Henry Ford had good reasons for decisions he made and unions had contributions to make of both the positive and rent seeking kind, but I have a preference for a non-fiction version of the story. I've voiced that preference before.