In the eighteenth century, missionaries fanned out across the British Empire to save godless souls from damnation. By today’s standards, their assumptions and methods can seem arrogant or even amusing, but they were driven by a sincere belief that what they were doing was God’s work. Fast forward to Saskatoon in 2010. One has to wonder if some organizers of the Teamsters union are not in a similar head space.
The allegations made against them are breathtaking: At Saskatoon’s FedEx depot they were rebuffed by workers, wrote down twenty-five license plate numbers in the parking lot, fed them to a clerk in the Ministry of Justice (of all ministries) who gave them the workers’ personal details from the SGI database. They then used those details to lobby the workers for certification in more invasive ways.
That was outrageous enough but think about the initial action: You would only write down the licence plate numbers if you knew you already had a channel through which to make use of them, suggesting this wasn’t the first time.
Earlier this year, the practice of hospitals that give out addressees of former patients to foundations that raise money (for hospitals) was controversial. The policy was opposed by the privacy commissioner and the surrounding political fallout was front page news. Some people argued that it is an invasion of patients’ privacy; others asserted it was a legal and official policy which patients would be aware of and could opt out of. What’s more the patients had likely benefitted from the foundations’ efforts during their treatment.
These recent license plate allegations should be the subject of widespread outrage. The information was taken in a way the victims could not anticipate or avoid, and by an organization they’d rejected, with the help of a government employee. Instead, it appears that the matter has been resolved with minor internal disciplinary action for the leaker.
Perhaps this blind eye is possible because of a belief that the Teamsters were doing God’s work just like the missionaries of old? Perhaps the belief was that unions’ work for the collective good justifies a few cut corners—such as the privacy of intransigent workers who don’t “get it?” Perhaps it’s time to think a little bit about the economics of what unions actually do.
Over the past year, the federal government’s Competition Bureau has prosecuted ten people and gas stations for fixing gas prices. Millions of dollars of fines and several jail sentences have been issued in accordance with the Bureau’s goal of “protecting and promoting competitive markets.” The Competition Bureau reasons that such fixing, “result[s] in higher prices for consumers, inefficiencies and reduced economic output.”
Economically, there is no difference between these illegal cartel agreements and the practice of workers in a workplace who agree not to compete with each other but rather offer an employer one price for a given service. No doubt the latter are better tolerated because they are seen as workers sticking it to “the man,” but as one great economist is fond of saying, his art is one of persistently asking “what happens next?”
What happens next is the business must cover the additional labour costs in one of two ways: either a sacrifice in profitability, or an increase in the price of what they sell. In the latter case, it should be clear that the greater good is served no more than when gas stations fix prices. The cartel of workers pushes up the price of their services for other consumers; one group is enriched at cost to all others.
A more tempting resolution to this problem is that higher wages come at the expense of company owners’ profits instead of consumers’ value for money. The problem with sticking it to the man this way is that, whatever else he may be, he’s not stupid. Lower profits make further investment less attractive, so he’ll spend his money or invest elsewhere.
Less investment means workers have less machinery and equipment to work with and that means less productivity and lower wages in the long run.
Even if their methods were not deplorable—and they are—the Teamsters and the government clerk’s mission was not serving any greater good so there’s no legitimate defense there. The Teamsters make the missionaries of old look positively enlightened and deserve a much bigger rebuke than they’ve had so far.