Emotional economics has given birth to theories that calm examination cannot justify. One of these is the idea that labor is being “under paid”generally. This would be analogous to the notion that in a free market prices in general are chronically too low. Another curious but persistent notion is that the interests of a nation’s workers are identical with each other, and that an increase in wages for one union in some obscure way helps all other workers. Not only is there no truth in this idea; the truth is that, if a particular union by coercion is able to enforce for its own members a wage substantially above the real market worth of their services, it will hurt all other workers as it hurts other members of the community.
In order to see more clearly how this occurs, let us imagine a community in which the facts are enormously simplified arithmetically. Suppose the community consisted of just half a dozen groups of workers, and that these groups were originally equal to each other in their total wages and the market value of their product.
Let us say that these six groups of workers consist of (i) farm hands, (2) retail store workers, (3) workers in the clothing trades, (4) coal miners, (5) building workers, and (6) railway employees. Their wage rates, determined without any element of coercion, are not necessarily equal; but whatever they are, let us assign to each of them an original index number of 100 as a base. Now let us suppose that each group forms a national union and is able to enforce its demands in proportion not merely to its economic productivity but to its political power and strategic position. Suppose the result is that the farm hands are unable to raise their wages at all, that the retail store workers are able to get an increase of 10 percent, the clothing workers of 20 percent, the coal miners of 30 percent, the building trades of 40 percent, and the railroad employees of 50 percent.
On the assumptions we have made, this will mean that there has been an average increase in wages of 25 percent. Now suppose, again for the sake of arithmetical simplicity, that the price of the product that each group of workers makes rises by the same percentage as the increase in that group’s wages. (For several reasons, including the fact that labor costs do not represent all costs, the price will not quite do that—certainly not in any short period. But the figures will nonetheless serve to illustrate the basic principle involved.)
We shall then have a situation in which the cost of living has risen by an average of 25 percent. The farm hands, though they have had no reduction in their money wages, will be considerably worse off in terms of what they can buy. The retail store workers, even though they have got an increase in money wages of 10 percent, will be worse off than before the race began. Even the workers in the clothing trades, with a money-wage increase of 20 percent, will be at a disadvantage compared with their previous position. The coal miners, with a money-wage increase of 30 percent, will have made in purchasing power only a slight gain. The building and railroad workers will of course have made a gain, but one much smaller in actuality than in appearance.
But even such calculations rest on the assumption that the forced increase in wages has brought about no unemployment. This is likely to be true only if the increase in wages has been accompanied by an equivalent increase in money and bank credit; and even then it is improbable that such distortions in wage rates can be brought about without creating areas of unemployment, particularly in the trades in which wages have advanced the most. If this corresponding monetary inflation does not occur, the forced wage advances will bring about widespread unemployment.
The unemployment need not necessarily be greatest, in percentage terms, among the unions whose wages have been advanced the most; for unemployment will be shifted and distributed in relation to the relative elasticity of the demand for different kinds of labor and in relation to the “joint” nature of the demand for many kinds of labor. Yet when all these allowances have been made, even the groups whose wages have been advanced the most will probably be found, when their unemployed are averaged with their employed members, to be worse off than before. And in terms of welfare, of course, the loss suffered will be much greater than the loss in merely arithmetical terms, because the psychological losses of those who are unemployed will greatly outweigh the psychological gains of those with a slightly higher income in terms of purchasing power.
Nor can the situation be rectified by providing unemployment relief. Such relief, in the first place, is paid for in large part, directly or indirectly, out of the wages of those who work. It therefore reduces these wages. “Adequate” relief payments, moreover, as we have already seen, create unemployment. They do so in several ways. When strong labor unions in the past made it their function to provide for their own unemployed members, they thought twice before demanding a wage that would cause heavy unemployment. But where there is a relief system under which the general taxpayer is forced to provide for the unemployment caused by excessive wage rates, this restraint on excessive union demands is removed. Moreover, as we have already noted, “adequate” relief will cause some men not to seek work at all, and will cause others to consider that they are in effect being asked to work not for the wage offered, but only for the difference between that wage and the relief payment. And heavy unemployment means that fewer goods are produced, that the nation is poorer, and that there is less for everybody.
The apostles of salvation by unionism sometimes attempt another answer to the problem I have just presented. It may be true, they will admit, that the members of strong unions today exploit among others, the nonunionized workers; but the remedy is simple: unionize everybody. The remedy, however, is not quite that simple. In the first place, in spite of the enormous legal and political encouragements (one might in some cases say compulsions) to unionization under the Wagner-Taft-Hartley Act and other laws, it is not an accident that only about a fourth of this nation’s gainfully employed workers are unionized.7The conditions propitious to unionization are much more special than generally recognized. But even if universal unionization could be achieved, the unions could not possibly be equally powerful, any more than they are today. Some groups of workers are in a far better strategic position than others, either because of greater numbers, of the more essential nature of the product they make, of the greater dependence on their industry of other industries, or of their greater ability to use coercive methods. But suppose this were not so? Suppose, in spite of the self-contradictoriness of the assumption, that all workers by coercive methods could raise their money wages by an equal percentage? Nobody would be any better off in the long run, than if wages had not been raised at all.