Charles Krauthammer: The right-to-work dilemma

BY CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER Published: December 14, 2012
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For all the fury and fistfights outside the Lansing Capitol, what happened in Michigan this week was a simple accommodation to reality. The most famously unionized state, birthplace of the United Auto Workers, royalty of the American working class, became right-to-work.

It's shocking, except that it was inevitable. Indiana went that way earlier this year. The entire Rust Belt will eventually follow because the heyday of the sovereign private-sector union is gone. Globalization has made splendid isolation impossible.

The nostalgics look back to the immediate postwar years when the UAW was all-powerful, the auto companies were highly profitable and the world was flooded with American cars. In that Golden Age, the UAW won wages, benefits and protections that were the envy of the world.

Today's angry protesters demand a return to that norm. Except that it was not a norm but a historical anomaly. America, alone among the great industrial powers, emerged unscathed from World War II. Japan was a cinder, Germany rubble, and the allies — beginning with Britain and France — an exhausted shell of their former imperial selves.

For a generation, America had the run of the world. Then the others recovered. Soon global competition — from Volkswagen to Samsung — began to overtake American industry that was saddled with protected, inflated, relatively uncompetitive wages, benefits and work rules.

There's a reason Detroit went bankrupt while the southern auto transplants did not. This is not to exonerate incompetent overpaid management that contributed to the fall. But clearly the wage, benefit and work-rule gap between the unionized North and the right-to-work South was a major factor.

President Obama railed against the Michigan legislation, calling right-to-work “giving you the right to work for less money.” Well, there is a principle at stake here: A free country should allow its workers to choose whether or not to join a union. Moreover, it is more than slightly ironic that Democrats, the fiercely pro-choice party, reserve free choice for aborting a fetus, while denying it for such matters as choosing your child's school or joining a union.

Principle and hypocrisy aside, however, the president's statement has some validity. Let's be honest: Right-to-work laws do weaken unions. And de-unionization can lead to lower wages.

But there is another factor at play: having a job in the first place. In right-to-work states, the average wage is about 10 percent lower. But in right-to-work states, unemployment also is about 10 percent lower.



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