Unions, Today

Replying to an earlier post, Erik Kain writes

In some sense, Ned is making the pity-charity liberalism case here. Using monetary policy and a wicked-good social safety net to ensure that everyone is well-enough off to avoid being mired in poverty and focus on growing the economy sounds like Will Wilkinson or Matt Yglesias. I think Ned’s notion of a sort of positive labor scarcity is pretty compelling, though. Rather than create barriers to entry into the labor pool, create incentives for parents to stay home with their kids and for people to start small businesses, become artists, and so forth. I think something like single-payer healthcare would vastly increase the ability of working Americans to take risks like starting up a business or pursuing a creative career, for instance.

I’m less certain Ned is making the case for increased union density. After all, if markets are free and we have decent growth, and the state is doing the hard work of freeing workers from domination by employers (which, in the American context, would be largely freeing us from employer-based health insurance at least at first) then what is the real compelling need for more unions? If we have something like a negative income tax or a wage subsidy in place for low-income workers, what is the compelling case to have more union density – especially if we work to end corporate welfare and democratize the markets, taking the advantage away from the big corporations and giving it back to a more competitive, fluid and diverse market of innovators and start-ups.

The case for unions is pretty straightforward: we have the economic system we have. Sure, I can imagine a world in which the global economy runs on co-ops, labor scarcity is high enough that even workers in non-co-ops have significant bargaining power, and the unemployed are protected from destitution by a state-mandated guaranteed minimum income. If I woke up and found myself in that world, I’d never sing “Solidarity Forever” again. The work of labor unions would seem to be over, and their continued existence would be either (at best) extraneous or (at worst) a destabilizing force that would place an unnecessary burden on the already cowed forces of capital.

But that world is a fantasy. I might as well write a post meditating on what the replicators from Star Trek will mean for trade unions. Those kinds of posts are cute and all, but they have nothing to do with why I want increased union density on this planet. Which is why, though I have generally warm feelings about this paragraph from Erik, it feels incomplete:

I’m not 100% sure how workers ought to organize in today’s economy to be honest, but I think it’s going to need to go far beyond simply organizing the existing workplace. Workers and citizens should try to – quite literally – take back the means of production, not through violent revolution, but through new technology, open-source manufacturing, and the potential of worker cooperatives.

Look, I think co-ops are great. Open source manufacturing sounds pretty intriguing, too. But these tools aren’t available to everyone. For the non-entrepreneurs, labor unions are a crucial leveraging tool we can use in this economy to combat worker domination. Granted, they are not what they once were. Granted, many of them are flawed institutions. But for those who are at the mercy of their employers, organizing remains the best way to take matters into their own hands.

(By the way: If you want to see what a whole co-op economy looks like, watch this hour-long documentary on the Mondragon experiment.)

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One Response

  1. >Sure, I can imagine a world in which . . . labor scarcity is high enough that even workers in non-co-ops have significant bargaining power . . . But that world is a fantasy.

    Or is it?

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