Do We Need Labor Unions Anymore?

Last Updated Oct 15, 2009 4:16 PM EDT

The other day I was watching a debate on CNBC starring a senior labor union official who said - with a straight face - that the UAW (United Auto Workers) had nothing to do with the demise of the U.S. automotive industry. Hard to believe, I know.

There was a time when America needed labor unions to organize for worker's rights, but federal and state laws prohibit workplace atrocities of the past. Moreover, the payoff for high-profile class action litigation is such that any large employee groups capable of getting the attention of union lawyers could just as easily get their own attorney to take the case.

I spent decades in the high-tech industry where unions had no traction. Over the years, there were issues involving worker safety in manufacturing facilities, but those were effectively dealt with in the courts. That aside, high-tech employees are typically treated well and if they're not, there are always state labor boards and lawyers to intervene on employee's behalf.

So here we are in the 21st century and we still have all these unions for teachers, nurses, truckers, airline employees, construction workers, and yes, automotive workers. But are they really needed? Do they really help employees? Or do they just diminish America's competitiveness in an increasingly global marketplace?
That was certainly the case in the automotive sector, regardless of the union's spin. I'm not sure about the role of unions in the airline industry, but I do know that there are very few U.S.-based airlines that have never filed for bankruptcy protection, and that hasn't been good for anyone, least of all airline employees.

And, in a recent Gallup poll, 51 percent of those polled said labor unions mostly hurt the U.S. economy, up from just 36 percent in 2006, marking the first time since the question was established in 1997 that more Americans said unions hurt rather than help the economy.

That shouldn't surprise anybody. Now that American taxpayers foot the bill when these industries go south, I think it's high time we take an active role in identifying the major roadblocks to bringing this country and its major industries back to prosperity as quickly as possible. To that end, I've got a few questions:

Is the writing on the wall for labor unions? Are they vestigial organizations that have served their purpose and should now move on? Are they just saddling companies and entire industries with debt and expenses they can't afford in an increasingly global marketplace? Or have I missed something here?