Unions offer protection to workers in some situations, but union membership represents only one fifth of the American labor force. And while some unions do benefit their members, it is generally at the expense of competing workers and frequently at the expense of the consumer.
Government? Government provides some protection, but its efforts are minor. Some workers with only one possible employer—or with no possible employer— enjoy very little protection. The right answer to the question “Who protects the worker?” is that the worker is protected by employers; by the existence of other employers who can and will compete for his or her services if a present employer fails to provide decent wages and working conditions. The only real way to protect the standard of living of the American worker is to preserve a freely competitive labor market.
So where did these protections come from in the past? As Milton put it, “It could not very well have been unions that were protecting the worker, since there were almost no unions… It could not have been the government that was protecting the worker, because over that period government was very small. So it could not conceivably have been the government that was protecting the worker. Moreover, not only was spending low, but there was very little government involvement in the economy in any way. And it could not have been nobody who was protecting the worker, because that was a period of enormous progress for the ordinary worker.”
So how are they protected, or do they even need protecting? Take a listen and find out in the podcast Milton Friedman Speaks – Who Protects the Worker?