Who needs trade unions?

So far on this blog we have not talked much about the choices between adversarial and non-adversarial relations inside of firms. But this is a great context in which to sharpen our understanding of adversarial ethics, because we do have experience with much more and much less adversarial corporate cultures and industrial relations.

The legal recognition and buttressing of labor unions from the late 19th century until, say, the 1980s, could be described in two ways: either as instituting deliberately adversarial mechanisms in the governance and management of firms, or as making an already-adversarial relationship between owners of capital (and their managers) and laborers less unfair. There are other ways of describing this contested institution, for sure.

We’ll talk much more about what goes on inside the firm in the future; but at this point I would just like to flag a brief debate going on in the blog space¬†at The Economist. Mark Thoma, an economist at the University of Oregon,¬†proffers a brief answer to the question “What good are labour unions?” His one-sentence answer is, “Governments should replace unions as a protector of workers.” And of course, in many ways they have. Government occupational health and safety legislation, along with extensive bodies of employment law, now give to all workers what unions had to bargain tooth-and-nail for on behalf of their members.

But however important unions may have been in the past (and for Thoma this is an open question), he argues that:

In an increasingly globalised world where digital and other technology allow firms to easily escape unionised labour, unions have lost their ability to act as an equalising force in negotiations over wages and benefits.

Global labor organisations could provide an alternative, but this would require global institutions that do not presently exist, and that do not look likely to emerge anytime soon. For now, the answer has to come domestically and the only institution powerful enough to protect workers is government. Government-provided health and dental care, security in old age, workplace safety, insurance against job loss, higher education that is essentially free, and other such benefits would go a long way toward remedying what workers have lost since the 1970s. In addition, government redistribution of income may be needed to ensure that economic gains are shared more equitably. In combination, this would provide the things that unions fought to get for workers and maintain the current social protections that government provides.

There seems to be a general trend to make more institutions adversarial, competitive, or “market-like.” Ed Sullivan got people to watch singers and dancers on TV, but now we won’t watch them unless they’re competing against each other and we can vote on who wins. But here is a proposal to make one very important economic and social institution — the firm — less adversarial. Or maybe just less fair.

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