The L.A. Times has a big expose about the union founded by Cesar Chavez:

Today, a Times investigation has found, Chavez’s heirs run a web of tax-exempt organizations that exploit his legacy and invoke the harsh lives of farmworkers to raise millions of dollars in public and private money.

The money does little to improve the lives of California farmworkers, who still struggle with the most basic health and housing needs and try to get by on seasonal, minimum-wage jobs.

Most of the funds go to burnish the Chavez image and expand the family business, a multimillion-dollar enterprise with an annual payroll of $12 million that includes a dozen Chavez relatives.

The article has a lot of lurid details. But what makes it truly interesting to me is that it helps illustrate the contrast between two different families of complaints about unions.

Mainstream media and the man in the street give you the “normal” complaints: unions are corrupt, and aren’t fighting hard enough for the workers they represent. (Another normal complaint, which doesn’t figure into this article for obvious reasons, is that unions have pushed wages up so high that jobs are going overseas).

These normal complaints hardly surprise economists. We expect nominally altruistic causes to have a self-interested under-belly: “I am shocked, shocked, to see that union officials put their own interests above those of the common worker!” But for economists, the failures of unionism go much deeper. Unions are a bad idea for reasons that the L.A. Times is unlikely to consider, much less put on the front page:

  • Pushing up wages creates unemployment by making employers less eager to hire. This might unemploy union members, but the more likely victims are the workers who don’t bother entering the industry in the first place because they know they won’t be able to find work. And the latter workers are likely to be especially poor; after all, migrant workers cross the border for work because – bad as conditions are here – they are worse at home.
  • The way to improve conditions for workers in general, and not just lucky members of successful unions, is to raise worker productivity. Instead of burning up energy fighting with employers, most workers would be better off learning English and acquiring more job skills. Compare the living standards of migrant workers in agriculture versus construction.
  • In the best-case scenario, unions engineer a transfer from consumers and relatively immobile employers to themselves, with considerable deadweight cost in the process.

    Journalists see corrupt unions living off donations from guilty liberals and think “If only unions would fulfill their promises.” Economists see the same thing and think “If you think that’s bad, take a look at places where unions DO fulfill their promises. It’s a windfall for the lucky few, and a wasteful burden on everyone else.”