The Conservative Case for Unions After the Harris v. Quinn Decision

The right has good reason to keep organized labor alive.

07.02.14 9:45 AM ET

Writing for the majority, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito handed unions a sharp rebuke in Harris v. Quinn. Ruling that “partial public employees” were exempt from paying union dues, which routinely flow into Democrats’ coffers, Alito invoked the “bedrock principle” of First Amendment law that “except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”

Anxious labor activists know well that the Court has teed up a future challenge to all mandatory dues. Alito opened the door by questioning the “anomalous” Abood precedent, which lets states coerce union members into paying dues. Justice Elena Kagan, dissenting, warned that Abood “is deeply entrenched” in the law, the “foundation for not tens or hundreds, but thousands of contracts between unions and governments.”

The First Amendment must not be blunted because upholding it makes a mess. But the majority’s business and ideological supporters are ignoring a profound question that Kagan helped raise, however unintentionally. And the failure to reckon with that question will make the injustice of paying dues for partisan speech look like a minor detail.

The issue is simple: Why do unions exist?

Supporters of the majority in Harris have one thing right: Unions do not exist to funnel workers’ dollars into a nationwide machine fueled by cronyism, corruption, and political partisanship. But this is just the beginning of an answer.

For old-school labor activists and unreconstructed Marxists, unions do in fact exist to get involved in national politics—but only insofar as they unite the workers of the world. This is because, under a Marxist view of justice, that’s an essential function for unions because the power of capital is a global power that can only be fought globally.

Today’s labor bosses, however, are a far cry from Eugene Debs, the four-time Socialist candidate for president jailed by Woodrow Wilson for opposing the First World War. They are happy to preside over a system where unions are political organizations first and economic ones second. The dominant goal of the current union system is the same as any political organization—increase membership so as to raise funds, and raise funds so as to push pet causes.

Ironically, Republicans share some blame for unions’ transformation into an appendage of the Democratic Party. The wing of the GOP that favors corporate business over free markets has gleefully worked against union interests at every turn. Big-business Republicans have sometimes behaved as if unions have no legitimate economic reason to exist—when, in reality, unions wind up being the only way industrial workers can bargain effectively with the massive corporations that employ them. Unions exist because, without them, the path is opened wide to crony collaboration between big government and big business.

That’s the fundamental insight behind a conservative case for unions. Without the balancing effect of organized labor, corporations can easily threaten political liberty by creating an economic system in which millions of citizens are effectively locked into servile, dependent labor relations.

Look around, however, and you might notice: almost literally no one is making this conservative case for unions. And those who are—like Pat Buchanan—are more marginal figures than ever. In part, that’s because lots of people think Buchanan conservatives are so racist and “theocratic” that everything they say is tainted.

But in larger part, it’s because the Buchananite case for unions is inseparable from a mercantilist, nationalist view of economics that’s anathema to the neoliberal consensus favoring globalization, free trade, and the financial system salvaged after 2008.

There must be at least some people out there who are frustrated by what’s falling between the cracks: the conservative case for unions that doesn’t go full Buchanan. This “minimalist” conservative case for unions doesn’t have to be a footnote in a full-blown attack on free trade, because it acknowledges that free trade doesn’t depend on corporate-powered, corporate-dominated financial globalization.

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It does, however, assume that unions will be most prevalent in areas where economic activity of any kind is dominated by large, especially industrial, corporations. It’s there that the physical and physiological reality of borderline “wage slavery” is at its most destructive to liberty. And it’s there that the reason unions exist is thrown into sharpest relief.

The pathetic union system that exists in America today is a more withered and more corrupt version of its former self. For that, we have several groups to blame, including both major political parties. Although some changes have helped bring along some benefits to some workers—including the Harris decision!—the big picture demands a sort of alarm.

Without functional, principled, vibrant, and truly local unions, the kind of labor corruption cherished by the Democratic Party will continue to grow apace with the kind that is favored by the Republican Party. Unionized workers will continue to become politically unfree, and workers without unions will become ever more likely to lose their economic freedom to crony capitalists.

Even more frighteningly, the disappearance of legitimate, independent unions will feed directly into the kind of radical resentment and alienation that has historically powered violent revolutions—not just against rigged political and economic systems, but against constitutional government altogether.