The Book of the Week is “See You in Court” by Thomas Geoghegan, published in 2007. The author, a labor lawyer in Illinois, argued in this short paperback that the decline of unions in the United States is responsible for all sorts of ills that were plaguing the nation at the book’s writing (and have gotten worse since), such as the replacing of the of Rule of Law, contract law, and anti-trust law– with tort litigation; the risk of the disappearance of retirement funds at the whim of employers, and the growing income gap between rich and poor.
The author failed to differentiate between unions in the private sector, and ones in the government. Beginning in the 1950’s, the unions in the private sector were becoming unnecessary with the way things were progressing in the United States.
Economics 101 says that a nation requires a healthy, well-educated workforce. Unions in the private sector discouraged upward mobility– why should workers want to acquire more training and edification in their careers if they were making a decent living and their jobs were protected? Unions in low-skilled positions especially, fostered complacency. Private-sector unions fostered a lazy, poorly educated nation of low-skilled employees who went to work to collect a paycheck.
By the 1990’s, non-union, private-sector employees needed no protection. Employee satisfaction gets the same score as customer service. Free-market competition usually kept employers in line.
If employees walked off the job en masse, other employers gladly accepted employees and business lost by the wayward employer. Customers and employees could go over to Wendy’s if McDonald’s was unsatisfactory, or to Target if Walmart didn’t deliver. Low pay and difficult working conditions should have encouraged fry cooks and greeters to go to school to get a better job.
In the early 20th century, there was a need to protect workers– who were easily subjected to exploitation because many workers were poorly skilled, poorly educated new immigrants. There was limited opportunity for education, and limited transportation options even if workers were willing to relocate to find a job. Into the 1990’s, workers had more resources than ever to find work or engage in professional improvement if they wanted to.
Unions are always needed in civil service and in a few monopolistic industries (such as couriers, transportation, education and healthcare services), because they are exceptional. They are providing essential services (health, education and welfare), or else the work they provide is a matter of life and death. Government employees who are providing essential services deserve due process, in exchange for not striking. Striking is illegal, and rightly so. There would be massive economic and/or societal disruption, and possible deaths, if they were to walk off the job en masse. Therefore, civil service unions are a necessary evil.
The unions in the author’s day used to minimize the number of workers’ compensation claims, which have now become tort suits, in which the cause of action (grounds for suing) has become discrimination. Such suits are many more times complex than contract law. The legal bills for these suits keep soaring, as well. Pretrial discovery entails “fishing expeditions”– extremely intrusive investigations of, say, medical records and activities of the plaintiffs, so that the defendants can gain every possible legal advantage.
The author also ranted about various other issues. He wrote that hegemonic institutions such as nonprofit hospitals, Ivy League universities (which get billions of dollars in government grants) and nonprofit organizations sue people for nonpayment but get massive tax breaks themselves.
These entities get away with this because they are allowed to keep their accounting books secret– they file neither tax returns nor SEC documents. The author failed to specify how big a part of the U.S. economy this sector is. That situation has partially changed among the hospitals anyway (but not necessarily improved), due to Obamacare.
The author pointed out that “The more we deregulate, the less stability and civic trust we have… More and more it seems we don’t trust government, we don’t trust business, we don’t even trust each other.”
But– in the 2020’s, after the Trump administration has continued its predecessors’ policies to the extreme– running the government like one big brand (the president’s own) while allowing monster-sized corporations to ruthlessly profit with regard to neither the workers nor various populations who will be victims of pollution, poor quality education, housing and healthcare– history will have come full circle. There will be a need for unions in the private sector again (!)
Read the book to learn of additional outrages that have arisen in recent decades, such as the replacement of litigation with arbitration imposed by big corporations, how the law has changed to allow widespread usury, why people are suing Social Security to collect disability payments that are rightfully theirs, and how overpaid CEO’s (a redundant phrase) are making U.S. companies’ products less competitive overseas.