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What Power?

Here’s a letter to a new correspondent also from south Louisiana:

Ms. Donna Terrebonne

Dear Ms. Terrebonne:

Thanks for your e-mail.

I am indeed from Louisiana – New Orleans, to be precise.  You being also from that part of the world you’ll likely remember Avondale Shipyards, located just outside of New Orleans.  Avondale was for many years one of the largest private employers in Louisiana.  My father worked there (as a pipefitter) for most of his career.  So too did my maternal grandfather spend his career there.  So too did several of my uncles.  My mother worked there (as a secretary); my brother worked there for a while.  The adults in the working-class neighborhood where I grew up (in the New Orleans suburb of Marrero) mostly all worked at Avondale, all in blue-collar jobs – which brings me to your question of why, while I “complain about the power of politicians,” I allegedly “ignore employers’ arbitrary and abusive power over workers.”

What power?

My parents, grandfather, uncles, and everyone else I knew who worked at Avondale did so voluntarily.  Each was pleased to work there.  Indeed, when my mother was laid off permanently in 1989 after working at Avondale for 16 years, she was quite sad – hardly a feeling mom would have suffered had she been released from the grip of an entity that battered her with its arbitrary and abusive power.

Of course, my parents – like every other blue-collar Avondale laborer – would have much preferred jobs that offered more pleasant and safer work environments and that were better-paid.  Blue-collar work in a shipyard is dull, filthy, backbreaking, dangerous, and relatively poorly paid.  But no one forced my parents, grandfather, or anyone else to work at Avondale.  Given their levels of education, their skills, and their other options, work at Avondale was the best option available to my parents and to Avondale’s thousands of other workers.  And Avondale, of course, was not to blame for the relative poorness of its workers’ other employment options.

It’s bafflingly odd that when an employer arrives and remains on the scene and successfully expands workers’ employment options, that employer is assumed to gain “power” over workers.  What you, Ms. Terrebonne, assume to be an employer’s power over its workers is nothing other than the relative attractiveness of the jobs that that employer offers to workers.  Unlike government which commands – and cages or shoots those who disobey – private firms merely offer.  Workers are free to accept or reject.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

UPDATE: I forgot to include in this letter the fact that I, too, worked at Avondale Shipyards.  I did so every summer from 1975 through 1981 (with the exception of the summer of ’78, when Avondale wasn’t hiring for summer work the children of its employees).  By the way, my hourly wage for the first three of those summers was the legislated minimum.


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