Importing European labor-relations models to the U.S. would be a grave mistake for conservatives.
If making American workplace relations more like those in the social-democratic countries of continental Europe sounds like something out of the political program of Senators Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), that’s because it is. But a faction on the American right, typified by Oren Cass of American Compass, also wants to increase the power of Big Labor to “represent” more unwilling workers by importing European models of workplace relations. While conservatives should ensure that Americans have a voice in their workplaces, the plan of the redistributionist Right to give more power to Richard Trumka, Mary Kay Henry, and other national union bosses will hurt, not help, workers who are more open than ever to supporting conservatism.
In 1946, Big Labor was at the peak of its influence. Empowered by New Deal–era legislation that increased their dominance over the workplace, labor unions began the largest wave of strikes in American history. This wave of strikes, led most prominently by the United Auto Workers under the ardent social-democrat Walter Reuther, put up to 10 percent of the workforce on the picket line, massively disrupting post-war economic activity.
The public revolted, electing large Republican congressional majorities with a mandate to rebalance the power of labor and management, correcting the excesses of the Wagner Act that established the union-monopoly representation system.
Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act over Harry Truman’s veto, although at least one source indicates that Truman thought the bill was “a pretty good law” and opposed it for electoral reasons. The bill was an effort to restore voluntarism to American labor relations, and to give workers back a core freedom of association: the right to refrain from union membership. But that right remained limited: Unions retained the power of “exclusive monopoly representation,” which allowed them to force non-members to accept the terms of a union contract, and, in states without a right-to-work law, to pay fees under that contract.
Despite this history, Cass and his allies have taken the view that conservatives should work to reverse declines in union representation. They believe conservatives should advocate European-style labor-relations models that would increase the power of labor unions. Cass and others at American Compass have proposed importing three European hallmarks: works councils, union-reserved seats on corporate boards, and sectoral bargaining.
All three enthrall the Left because they would increase the power of labor unions as institutions, and the Left controls those institutions. Each would harm the very people on whose behalf American Compass and similarly minded conservatives purport to act: the increasing numbers of union families who support conservative ideals and principles. Each would compel workers who do not desire union membership and do not support labor unions’ social-democratic viewpoints and partisan-Democratic political programs to join them or work under conditions established by them.
Of the three union practices Cass and company tout, works councils are the least offensive, but they still come with problems for employee rights. Under the German model of works councils, labor unions negotiate wages and benefits for their members while the works council, elected by the entire shop, holds “co-determination” or consultative rights over schedules and workplace matters. Technically, the works council and the labor unions — Germany does not have “exclusive monopoly bargaining” like the U.S., so multiple unions can operate in a workplace — are separate entities, but labor unions’ ability to nominate candidates for the works-council elections and the works council’s ability to use labor unions as a resource give unions undue influence over the system. Other countries’ works-council rules are even more friendly to institutional Big Labor. France, for example, prohibits non-union-affiliated candidates from running in the first round of works-council elections.
Reserved seats on corporate boards for workers are also a gift to organized labor as an institution, if the European experience is any indication. Whether the seats are reserved for them by rule or not, “workers’ seats” are almost exclusively controlled by a major labor union, which massively increases the political and social power that organized labor already leverages through economic-social-governance (ESG) investing and outside political pressure. If conservatives are concerned that businesspeople have become too cozy with institutional liberalism, they should be extremely hesitant to reserve corporate-board seats for representatives of organizations that give upward of 90 percent of their political and 99 percent of their advocacy contributions to left-wing candidates and groups.
Of the three European imports American Compass contributors propose, “sectoral bargaining,” as practiced most notably in France, is the worst idea. Under sectoral bargaining, Big Labor would have the power to negotiate on behalf of every worker in an industry, even those who never voted to be represented by the union and do not want to be. American writers might have their contracts negotiated by the NewsGuild — the union that forced a New York Times editor out for publishing an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and demanded the Times take action against a columnist who opposed the appalling revisionist history of the 1619 Project. As a conservative who happens to be one such writer, I think that would be bad. In France, only 8 percent of workers are union members, but over 95 percent are “covered” by a union contract — forced to accept “representation” by a union they do not wish to join.
What’s more, sectoral bargaining would stifle legitimate competition between businesses and regions — competition that has benefited traditionally Republican states such as Tennessee, South Carolina, and Alabama. Pushing sectoral bargaining — a dream of Big Labor and radical-Left activists for decades — would utterly repudiate the conservative policy consensus on employee freedom that has prevailed since Taft–Hartley.
Even worse, the redistributionist conservatives’ European imports would harm the very people on whose behalf they purport to act — the union families who already support conservative ideals and principles. Labor unions such as the NewsGuild are dedicated to full-on left-wing progressivism, not just strengthening worker power. Labor-union jobs have launched the careers of ex–Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards, ex–National Abortion Federation chief Vicki Saporta, and Patrick Gaspard, a onetime Barack Obama consigliere-turned-top man at George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. The consultants who serve labor unions’ political departments also serve left-wing philanthropic organizations and other progressive advocacy groups.
In short, a “redistributionist right” would just be the Left with a different social policy. While arrangements to improve the immediate work conditions of workers should be explored, one cannot simply transplant German social-legal institutions such as works councils into the American context. The American political system is far less consensus-driven, far more acrimonious, and much more beholden to partisan special interests than the German one. Switzerland isn’t Germany, but observing the difference in outcomes between government-by-plebiscite in the Swiss system and government-by-plebiscite in California should counsel caution.
Cass and his fellow travelers, by going straight for legal change without either institutional change or parallel institution-building, would create a situation in which the already-existing labor movement could “capture” whatever reformed system they created. That would be a disaster for the families who are already forced to fund and live under the system controlled by left-wing unions.
In 1946, the country saw what Big Labor, let free of all restraints, could do to the national economy and social life, and it swung to the right in revulsion. It would be a blunder for the Right to import European models and let unions coerce the workforce as they did when back then.