Saturday, December 31, 2011

Upon Further Review: “the aristocracy of labor”.

Milton Friedman referred to unions and their particular associated unionized labor as “the aristocracy of labor”. In other words a special class of labor with special wages, special benefits, and special political clout. That the remaining non-unionized labor pays directly and indirectly for the aristocracy class, in this case “the aristocracy of labor”. (1)

If ninety percent of private sector labor is not associated with a union, what about that ninety percent? Why not an argument about the economy of the ninety percent? Why is the argument always about the economy of the ten percent that is unionized?

Consider the following from William Graham Sumner:

A trades-union raises wages (aside from the legitimate and economic means noticed in Chapter VI.) by restricting the number of apprentices who may be taken into the trade. This device acts directly on the supply of laborers, and that produces effects on wages. If, however, the number of apprentices is limited, some are kept out who want to get in. Those who are in have, therefore, made a monopoly, and constituted themselves a privileged class on a basis exactly analogous to that of the old privileged aristocracies. But whatever is gained by this arrangement for those who are in is won at a greater loss to those who are kept out. Hence it is not upon the masters nor upon the public that trades-unions exert the pressure by which they raise wages; it is upon other persons of the labor class who want to get into the trades, but, not being able to do so, are pushed down into the unskilled labor class. These persons, however, are passed by entirely without notice in all the discussions about trades-unions. They are the Forgotten Men. But, since they want to get into the trade and win their living in it, it is fair to suppose that they are fit for it, would succeed at it, would do well for themselves and society in it; that is to say, that, of all persons interested or concerned, they most deserve our sympathy and attention. (2)

Now consider the public sector unions and their particular associated unionized labor as “the aristocracy of labor”. In the public sector the rate of unionization is 36.2% [three and one-half times the rate of private sector labor]. (3) As the argument goes, no one wants to be a public sector employee, hence as the argument goes there would be no excluded class of labor as exogenous labor, as well as current public employees, loath and despise, in the main, employment in the public sector. Stated alternatively, considering the highly used talking point of “no one ever entered a public sector job to get rich”, then logically the talking point argument is that the public sector is an employer of last resort.

Why a three and a half times larger unionized work force in the public sector than private sector? Why unionize if, as the argument goes, the union need not exclude potential workers [the forgotten man] as no one really wants the public sector job? Merely unionizing against a straw man?

In the public sector union arrangement the forgotten man is transposed. The forgotten man is not the excluded laborer who would like the job, the forgotten man is the taxpayer. The highly diffused , unorganized, and largely unrepresented taxpayer who pays for this particular brand of “the aristocracy of labor“. (4)



(1) Free to Choose, PBS 1980, "Free To Choose 1980 - Vol. 08 Who Protects the Worker?"

(2) What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, 1883, William Graham Sumner, chapter nine, pages 78 and 79.

(3) Bureau of Labor Statistics, Union Members Summary, 01/21/2011.

(4) Wisconsin is coming to a state capital near you!, 02/19/2011.!/2011/02/wisconsin-is-coming-to-state-capital.html


  1. Friedman, Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams, in no particular order, are three of the people I admire most.

  2. Given how entitled union members act, 'aristocracy' is an apt description.