George Will

WASHINGTON -- How does the Obama administration love organized labor? Let us count the ways it uses power to repay unions for helping to put it in power.

It has given the United Auto Workers majority ownership of Chrysler. It has sent $135 billion of supposed stimulus money to state governments to protect unionized public sector employees from layoffs and other sacrifices that private sector workers are making. It has sedated the Labor Department's Office of Labor-Management Standards, which protects workers against misbehavior by union leaders. Cap-and-trade legislation might please unions with protectionism -- tariffs on imports from countries not foolish enough to similarly burden their manufacturers. If Congress, seeking money for more socialized medicine, decides that some employer-paid health insurance should be taxed as employees' compensation -- which it obviously is -- generous union-negotiated benefits might be exempted.

Now it is the Teamsters' turn at the trough. Congress might change labor law to assist UPS, a Teamsters stronghold, by hindering its principal competitor, FedEx.

At 2 a.m. in Memphis, where FedEx is headquartered, the airport is humming as FedEx sorts and dispatches many of the 3.4 million packages -- 10 million pounds of freight -- it ships daily, mostly with its fleet of 654 aircraft. Eighty-five percent of FedEx packages go by air; 85 percent of UPS' go only by truck. This matters because:

The growth of railroads had put America's increasingly integrated economy at the mercy of local strikes. "Brakemen in Altoona, signalmen in Wichita," says Fred Smith, could cripple the transportation network. Smith, FedEx's founder and CEO, says that in 1926 Congress, to protect the arteries of commerce, passed the Railway Labor Act (RLA). It ensured that any bargaining unit for workers must be systemwide so that no local unit could hold the railroads hostage.

In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), which covered everyone except railway workers, allowed organizing and bargaining based on localities. The path to unionization is steeper under the RLA, which requires a nationwide vote by all workers.

In 1936, airlines were brought under the RLA. FedEx, which began as an air freight company and created the modern express business, is precisely the sort of integrated system for which the RLA was written. This matters: 53 percent of all U.S. exports by value travel by air, and virtually all priority and express U.S. mail is carried by FedEx.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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