Writing in the New York Times recently, Louis Uchitelle calls for labor unions to be strengthened in order to prevent American firms from closing factories in the United States and shifting production abroad. Implicit in his argument is the notion that factories and the employment they provide are inherently desirable and the more the merrier.
Before addressing this point, however, let’s first acknowledge that the decline in the number of factories and factory workers in the United States is overwhelmingly a story about automation and improved use of information technology rather than trade or outsourcing. A widely-cited study by researchers at Ball State University found that increases in productivity explain almost 88 percent of such job losses.
Uchitelle’s contention, meanwhile, that greater unionization would stave off factory closures or even cause more to open in the United States is debatable. Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Japan, for example, all have significantly greater rates of unionization than the United States and yet have experienced higher percentage declines in manufacturing employment since 1990. And while he laments the “nearly neutered industrial unions” in the United States and their diminished proclivity to engage in strikes, a fondness for such worker protests hasn’t prevented France from similarly experiencing a greater percentage decline in factory jobs.
But even if increased unionization held the promise of fewer factory closures, it’s still not apparent why that outcome should be desirable. In fact, a blind obsession with the preservation of factory employment would almost assuredly make us worse off.