Business-sponsored âscholarsâ deliver anti-union talking points.
Testifying before the Senate labor and health committee hearing in March, economist Anne Layne-Farrar of the corporate consulting firm LECG warned about the horrendous impact of the Employee Free Choice Act. Its potential to increase union membership from between five and 10 percent, she said, âwould result in an increase in the unemployment of around one and a half to three percentage points. These are sizable effects for the U.S. economy.â Earnest and well-prepared, Layne-Farrar cited her study that concluded that 600,000 jobs would be lost in the first year after the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) became law. Fox âFair and Balancedâ News, naturally, in its TV report neglected to mention that her âresearchâ was funded by the corporate-friendly, anti-union âAlliance to Save Main Street Jobs.â
Since the reportâs publication in March, this statistic has circulated through the media, showing up on MSNBC, CBS News, The Wall Street Journal and, in spades, Fox News. EFCA has been Swift-Boated for purportedly taking away the secret ballot from workers. But union supporters say it will level the playing field, offering workers the choice of whether to form a union either through an election or âcard checkâÂâthe majority sign-up of authorization cards. Plus it toughens penalties and mandates arbitration after 120 days if employers refuse to negotiate in good faith.
Yet business interests have used Layne-Farrarâs study and that of prolific legal scholar Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago to tell a different story. Ads citing the â600,000â statistic appeared on Politico and other political insider publications aimed at buttressing anti-union lobbying that targets moderate senators such as Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln, who subsequently backed away from the EFCA legislation.
Epstein, by some measures the third-most cited law professor in the country, has issued two major reports and five op-eds for the Wall Street Journal and other publications denouncing EFCA as a job-killing, unconstitutional âregime.â His wide-ranging attack on the pro-union bill for Stanford Universityâs Hoover Institution was paid for by the same Alliance to Save Main Street Jobs that subsidized Layne-Farrarâs work. In the past Epstein, an extreme libertarian, has attacked minimum wage and unemployment benefits, denouncing such New Deal legislation as unconstitutional âtakingsâ that violate the Fifth Amendment. That is no surprise. Epstein has argued that, historically, sweatshop conditions can only be ameliorated by market forces, not by laws or unions. He told In These Times: âThe level of wages will be determined by the intersection of supply and demandâŚthe escape from that system is not driven by unions, which cannot increase productivity.â
Epsteinâs past work is even a bit too radical for his business backers. He told In These Times that he is âunrepentantâ about his earlier writings, but he concedes that his corporate-funded sponsors have asked him to omit some of those previous arguments when attacking EFCA.
Counter-attack by progressives
Progressive bloggers, law professors and economists have launched counter-attacks, but these conservativesâ talking points, theories, and, most importantly, their data cannot be easily marginalized. In fact, they strengthen the hyperbolic rantings comparing the bill to the Gestapo or Islamic terrorism, claims that may seem laughable to progressives, but set the tenor for the debate in Washington. And Layne-Farrarâs and Epsteinâs conclusions serve as the academic veneer for the PR blitz that has tried to demonize the Employee Free Choice Act.
Despite the wide dissemination of Layne-Farrarâs report, critics like Chris Kromm of the Institute of Southern Living have found distortions and shoddy analysis in her work. Of the 10 Canadian provinces she studied, Kromm discovered that only three actually had significant changes in card check rules. And he found that the report itself acknowledged there wasnât enough data to draw conclusions about the impact of card check. It further admitted that the provincial card check data they did collect was too âweakâ for economic analysis. Kromm also wondered, âIf unions really were the cause of unemployment, why has Canadian unemployment risen in recent yearsâŚeven as union membership has declined?â
But Layne-Farrar massages the data using a complex âregression analysisâ to connect the dots between card check, higher unionization rates and more unemployment, putting the loss at between 600,000 and 2.6 million new American jobs in the first year.
âThatâs bullshit,â says Canadian labor economist Charlotte Yates, now the Dean of Social Sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. âI donât know of any credible economists who say [now] there is a direct correlation between unionization and the rise in unemployment.â
Even so, Layne-Farrar invokes her use of âregression analysisâ as a sort of holy totem to ward off criticism of her work from other economists who cite what she says are âsimplistic correlations.â These include studies showing that countries such as England, Denmark and Norway have higher unionization and lower unemployment rates than the United States. She says, âThis is empirical analysis, not an opinion piece, with results based on publicly available data and using well-accepted econometric tools. You canât rig these.â
John DiNardo, a labor economist at the University of Michigan and author of the textbook Econometrics retorts, âJust because she calls it âeconometricsâ and âregression analysisâ doesnât mean that it makes any sense.â While some earlier research had found a link between unionization and unemployment, more rigorous, recent research in Europe and the United States has found no connection between unionization and unemployment. In fact, Layne-Farrarâs study concocts a negative jobs impact from unionization that is 200 to 300 percent higher than even the most critical anti-union research.
Behind the statistical wizardry
Hereâs where it helps to look behind the curtain of her statistical wizardry designed to dazzle common folk and legislators alike with econometrics. Her regression analysis supposedly aims to tease out the factors driving unemployment increases. But, DiNardo says, if unemployment shoots up and the unionized percentage of the workforce goes up, that could just as well be caused by more non-union workers getting laid offâwhile union members still keep their jobs. Hence, the percentage of unionized workers increases.
How do you get around this thorny problem if you want to blame unions for unemployment? Layne-Farrar purportedly âcorrectedâ for the hopeless muddle of such simultaneous factors by, in part, merely measuring the unionization rates a year earlier than the unemployment rates. Presto! Unionization causes massive unemployment, she concludes. âShe has very poor research design,â says DiNardo. âShe doesnât have anything resembling a natural experiment.â And he says that his review of the economic impact in America of unionization shows the âthe casual effect of union recognition is zero.â
But for Epstein, the virtually unanimous opposition of business groups to the pro-labor legislation is proof positive that it will be âa job-killer of the worst sort.â In his report for the Hoover Institution, he paints an Edenic portrait of a non-unionized labor market, and laments the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 that legalized unions. âIf the National Labor Relations Act offends every principle of the voluntary exchange of private property, this new bill is much worse,â he says. âIâve never seen a statute so draconian.â
Epstein is the labor market equivalent of Candideâs Dr. Pangloss: If employers could just be left alone, all things work for the best in this best of all possible worlds. If there were no minimum wages laws, for instance, Epstein told me, âWages would go up because productivity gains would offset any short-term losses [to workers].â
Such anti-union assertions donât take into account the real world of employmentâand the justifiable fear of being fired. Kim Bobo, author of Wage Theft in America, asks, âWhat bubble does he live in?â Even the Bush labor board found that nearly 30,000 workers are illegally fired or discriminated against each year because of union activity. And these researchers donât really consider the widespread estimated $19 billion in wage theft.
While Epsteinâs more radical views are left off the table, his intellectual firepower adds to the impact of his arguments against EFCA. Both Epstein and Layne-Farrar see an idealized world waiting to be born where unions donât exist, and where workers and businesses thrive without them.
The question remains, will Washington politicians still listen to business interests that use these researchersâ dubious claims to argue, as Epstein does: âUnions are a bad deal for most workers.â
About the Author: Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications. He wrote the October 2007 In These Times cover story, “Unionbusting Confidential.” Levine is also the co-host of the “D’Antoni and Levine” show on BlogTalk Radio, every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. EST.
This article originally appeared in In These Times on May 31, 2009.