An Alternative Theory of Unions
by Paul Graham
“People who worry about the increasing gap between rich and poor generally look back on the mid twentieth century as a golden age. In those days we had a large number of high-paying union manufacturing jobs that boosted the median income.
…In a rapidly growing market, you don’t worry too much about efficiency. It’s more important to grow fast. If there’s some mundane problem getting in your way, and there’s a simple solution that’s somewhat expensive, just take it and get on with more important things.
…Difficult though it may be to imagine now, manufacturing was a growth industry in the mid twentieth century. This was an era when small firms making everything from cars to candy were getting consolidated into a new kind of corporation with national reach and huge economies of scale. You had to grow fast or die. Workers were for these companies what servers are for an Internet startup. A reliable supply was more important than low cost.
If you looked in the head of a 1950s auto executive, the attitude must have been: sure, give ’em whatever they ask for, so long as the new model isn’t delayed.
People who think the labor movement was the creation of heroic union organizers have a problem to explain: why are unions shrinking now? The best they can do is fall back on the default explanation of people living in fallen civilizations. Our ancestors were giants. The workers of the early twentieth century must have had a moral courage that’s lacking today.
In fact there’s a simpler explanation. The early twentieth century was just a fast-growing startup overpaying for infrastructure. And we in the present are not a fallen people, who have abandoned whatever mysterious high-minded principles produced the high-paying union job. We simply live in a time when the fast-growing companies overspend on different things. “