What do you think he means when he says, 'conditions were very important'? 'Improved very greatly'? Improved from what? Improved how?
In order for something to be better, it has to be better than something. What is completely left out.
What do you think his overall point was? To me it reads as though he's saying the conditions such as 12hr workdays, 7 days/wk, including the labor of children were fine because if they weren't people would not have continued immigrating. Labor unions arose out of need.
It is not so simple. You don't need to coerce someone who cannot grow his own food, provide himself clothing, or shelter over his head. Many immigrants chose not to leave the cities for a subsistence lifestyle westward, and many did choose that. Those who chose to stay needed jobs. Not to mention, the formation of unions is a free market solution for labor. It solves the worker's problem of being in a relatively weak bargaining position.
i interpret Friedman to mean that initial conditions were bad relative to what we, today, think of as normal, but better than whatever alternative circumstances those people came from, and that these conditions got better as employers were forced to compete with each other for workers in a free market of labor. and again, citing 12 hour, 7 day workdays and trying to get some emotional response like "OMG those tired, exploited people" is a non-issue. although i'm no expert, but don't farmers even today have to work 7 days a week? people of this generation were mainly from a rural background and were used to working long and hard and didn't have our modern expectations.
and i think you're now shaping your arguments. it's not some extreme either-or scenario these people faced of "get exploited in a factory or go west and fight Indians and die on the Oregon trail of starvation and disease." if these people thought these industrial jobs were a super bad deal, in the absence of coercion (i keep saying this because i feel for those orphan kids who were basically slave labor), they could have got on a boat and went home, or went back to what they were doing before.
and i bolded those words which i feel are mistaken assumptions on your part. and this gets into...
If Friedman had put forth a viable alternative explanation to the creation of unions, I'd evaluate that claim. And I would be interested to read, after the amorphous 'important' and 'improved' statements were made clear, why the improvements occurred prior to unionization.
in short, unions are formed to protect highly-paid, skilled jobs from competition, usually through government assistance. imo, it's the labor side version of business monopolies. here comes a copy-paste bombtrack!
from the book, Free To Choose by Milton Friedman (1990)
If Gallup were to conduct a poll asking: "What accounts for the improvement in the lot of the worker?" the most popular answer would very likely be "labor unions," and the next, "government"—though perhaps "no one" or "don't know" or "no opinion" would beat both. Yet the history of the United States and other Western countries over the past two centuries demonstrates that these answers are wrong.
During most of the period, unions were of little importance in the United States. As late as 1900, only 3 percent of all workers were members of unions. Even today fewer than one worker in four is a member of a union. Unions were clearly not a major reason for the improvement in the lot of the worker in the United States.
Similarly, until the New Deal, regulation of and intervention in economic arrangements by government, and especially central government, were minimal. Government played an essential role by providing a framework for a free market. But direct government action was clearly not the reason for the improvement in the lot of the worker.
As to "no one" accounting for the improvement, the very lot of the worker today belies that answer.
One of the most egregious misuses of language is the use of "labor" as if it were synonymous with "labor unions"—as in reports that "labor opposes" such and such a proposed law or that the legislative program of "labor" is such and such. That is a double error. In the first place, more than three out of four workers in the United States are not members of labor unions. Even in Great Britain, where labor unions have long been far stronger than in the United States, most workers are not members of labor unions. In the second place, it is an error to identify the interests of a "labor union" with the interests of its members. There is a connection, and a close connection, for most unions most of the time. However, there are enough cases of union officials acting to benefit themselves at the expense of their members, both in legal ways and by misuse and misappropriation of union funds, to warn against the automatic equating of the interests of "labor unions" with the interests of "labor union members," let alone with the interests of labor as a whole.
[this is where he veers off into ancient labor unions ala medical men in Greece 2500 years ago]
Like most professional codes, business trade agreements, and labor union contracts, the Hippocratic Oath was full of fine ideals for protecting the patient: "I will use my power to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgment. . . . Whenever I go into a house, I will go to help the sick and never with the intention of doing harm or injury. . . ." and so on.
But it also contains a few sleepers. Consider this one: "I will hand on precepts, lectures and all other learning to my sons, to those of my teachers and to those pupils duly apprenticed and sworn, and to none others." Today we would call that the prelude to a closed shop.
Or listen to this one referring to patients suffering from the agonizing disease of kidney or bladder stones: "I will not cut, even for the stone, but I will leave such procedures to the practitioners of that craft," a nice market-sharing agreement between physicians and surgeons.
Hippocrates, we conjecture, must turn in his grave when a new class of medical men takes that oath. He is supposed to have taught everyone who demonstrated the interest and paid his tuition. He would presumably have objected strongly to the kind of restrictive practices that physicians all over the world have adopted from that time to this in order to protect themselves against competition.
The American Medical Association is seldom regarded as a labor union. And it is much more than the ordinary labor union. It renders important services to its members and to the medical profession as a whole. However, it is also a labor union, and in our judgment has been one of the most successful unions in the country. For decades it kept down the number of physicians, kept up the costs of medical care, and prevented competition with "duly apprenticed and sworn" physicians by people from outside
the profession—all, of course, in the name of helping the patient. At this point in this book, it hardly needs repeating that the leaders of medicine have been sincere in their belief that restricting entry into medicine would help the patient. By this time we are familiar with the capacity that all of us have to believe that what is in our interest is in the social interest.
Physicians are among the most highly paid workers in the United States. That status is not exceptional for persons who have benefited from labor unions. Despite the image often conveyed that labor unions protect low-paid workers against exploitation by employers, the reality is very different. The unions that have been most successful invariably cover workers who are in occupations that require skill and would be relatively highly paid with or without unions. These unions simply make high pay still higher.
A successful union reduces the number of jobs available of the kind it controls. As a result, some people who would like to get such jobs at the union wage cannot do so. They are forced to look elsewhere. A greater supply of workers for other jobs drives down the wages paid for those jobs. Universal unionization would not alter the situation. It could mean higher wages for the persons who get jobs, along with more unemployment for others. More likely, it would mean strong unions and weak unions, with members of the strong unions getting higher wages, as they do now, at the expense of members of weak unions.