Decertification of public sector unions continues apace, even in such strongholds as California. The most visible case is Wisconsin, of course.

Throughout the sinistrosphere there is lamentation which occasionally spills over into comment in rightist blogs: “Unions gave us decent working conditions and good pay! This will take us back to child labor and sweatshops!” Well, probably not. What the whole contretemps illustrates is that unions were the wrong solution to a real problem.

To review: Industrialization required capital equipment, which was expensive. It was, in general, financed by people who were already rich and wanted to get richer. The capitalists had power, especially over workers, and as usual with people who have power they misused it. Unions were proposed and implemented as a countervailing power center — the workers’ organization would have power which could counteract that of employers, resulting in better conditions for the workers. It all sounds very plausible, doesn’t it?

That paradigm resulted in unionization across the industrialized world, and did provide at least some gains for workers — though, as is pointed out now and again, a lot of the gains attributed to unions can be explained just as well as the interests of employers. The problem is that it ignores the very abuse it was intended to counteract. Rule #3: Power attracts power-seekers. Union leaders acquired power and promptly began abusing it, while generating just enough benefit for the members to keep themselves in power. In general, setting up a power bloc to oppose another one is a bad idea because of this effect. It produces a sort of stasis between mirror-image powers that looks like “peace” but results in the people it’s supposed to benefit scurrying below the lightning bolts being exchanged by the belligerents.

What works better is infiltration and subversion, and that works really well when one of the power blocs provides explicit methods to accommodate it. It was very early realized that there weren’t nearly enough people who were rich enough to finance the Industrial Revolution out of existing resources; some other way of accumulating capital was necessary. As de Soto (the recent economist, not the old explorer) established, the real reservoir of wealth in any society is the widely-distributed small chunks of private capital: houses, cars, personal possessions of all sorts. In order to tap that source to finance the new factories, capitalists retreaded the notion of the “corporation”. A corporation sells shares, uses the money to build capital facilities (“the means of production”), and distributes the profits to its owners, the ones who bought shares. It is, at root, what Marx was demanding — the workers have to own the means of production, because only they can afford them!

Suppose that, instead of being set up as mirror-image power blocs, the United (X) Workers had been organized as investment alliances, sort of like what we call today “mutual funds”. Dues would be used to buy shares in the company, dividends and share-value growth would be used to finance workers’ benefits, and soon or late the union’s investments would result in an active voice in company policy. There were, at the time, templates for just that — the “fraternal organizations”, the Moose Lodge and Odd Fellows and many others, existed primarily for just that purpose. By now, after a century or better of continuous investment, the unions, representing the workers, would either own or control most large companies. Marx’s vision would be realized: the workers would own the means of production.

What we’ve had, instead, was union leaders cementing their power by weakening the corporate structure. Over most of the Western world, we really haven’t added to our capital stock since WWII. Factories and the like have been financed by borrowing, because the tax structure established to keep union leaders in power well-nigh forbids capital formation on the ground that “capital” means “wealth”, which has to be taken away to Benefit the Poor. That policy is coming back to bite us in the butt at the moment.

Repeating that mistake with public sector unions has, and can have, only horrific results for everyone except union leaders. As above, the whole point of a union is as a power bloc to oppose the power of employers — but in the public sector, the “employers” are the Government entities and the taxpayers who support them. A public sector union is an attempt to remove control of Government from “we the People” and transfer it to union leaders who are theoretically accountable only to their own union’s members, and in practice can manipulate the system so as to be accountable to no one. That is becoming apparent to the most dedicated Leftist, and the less-dedicated are starting to take steps to correct the problem.

It is perhaps too much to ask that the process also include another look at private-sector unions, with a view to redirecting their efforts into avenues that would benefit the society we live in, but a fellow can dream.