The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Why Labour Unions Matter(ed)

Since it’s coming up on Labour Day weekend here in Canada, I thought I’d write a basic post on labour unions.

There’s been a vast effort, funded by huge amounts of money, to discredit unions and say they’re bad for workers.

That’s simple nonsense, but as with things like climate change denial, nonsense backed with billions of dollars is effective.

So, let’s run through the simple logic.

When we negotiate to get a job, or for a raise, in almost all cases we are negotiating with a group–the people who control a company, who are more powerful than us. They have more money (d’uh), and we need the job more than they need us. There are exceptions, of course, and it’s a lovely position to be in, but the number of exceptions is minute in a job-based economy like ours.

Corporations hire workers to do something which, combined with the effort of other workers, will make money.

The amount of money they make from a worker is “what the worker produces,” or “what the worker is paid.”

In other words, a corporation wants to make as much money as possible from your work, while paying you as little as possible, because that is their profit: That’s what they make.

You want the opposite.

This is a straight up conflict of interest. There can be a compromise which satisfies both, but really, the group hiring you wants you to make as little as possible so they can make as much as possible.

And they are more powerful than you. Also, you need the job, more than they need you. Without a job, you will be homeless and probably die; without any individual worker, they can usually just hire someone else.

So there is an imbalance of both power and consequences: Your BATNA (Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement) is often shit.

Now, it isn’t always shit. In a really tight economy, which most western countries haven’t had since the early 70s, you can just get another job. There are less workers than jobs. But that hasn’t been the case for a long time–except for brief periods in specific locations or jobs, for decades. Where it is the case, companies work to change that, as fast as possible because they don’t want you to have alternatives.

This stuff is important for people who are not in management (which, in the old days, included bottom-level supervisors.) It is unimportant to senior executives, who are usually the people really running the company, and who are in effect negotiating with themselves for compensation. You’ll notice that they reward themselves well.

So, people who don’t control the company, and who are easily replaceable (again, most of us, despite many people’s over-inflated sense of self-worth), need to group up in order to have power. One person, or a few, are easy to replace.

If every line worker walks off the job and then pickets to prevent any other workers (scabs) coming in, the power equation changes.

Because most of us don’t study history, we have forgotten what unions won. At the start of the industrial revolution, people worked 12 hour days, 6 1/2 days a week. The jobs were dangerous, with maiming common, and badly paid. Peasants resisted being thrown off the land because being a feudal tenant with rights to the commons was vastly better than going to a city and working in a factory job (or even most clerk jobs). You worked less, controlled your own work, were less likely to be maimed and had a ton more days off.

It took over a century to turn jobs into what they are now, with the 40 hour week, a lot less maimings, and so on.

Corporations are groups. When they negotiate against an individual they have an advantage.

Corporations almost always have more resources and power than any individual or small group with whom they are negotiating over a job. If you were richer, or more powerful than them, you probably wouldn’t be going to them for a line job.

So what corporations want is to negotiate as a group, with more money and power, against individuals.

Only a complete bloody moron would find it either smart or fair for workers to acquiesce to this. It is not in their interests. The people who control corporations (not own, control) want to make the most money possible, so do workers.

Corporate officers, notoriously ruthless, understand this. Workers should too.

As for those not in a union, and jealous: Unions raise the wages of workers around them. Plus, get in a union if you can.

Don’t be a bloody sucker. Corporations hate unions because when unions are effective, they make less money and workers make more. That is all.

And if you want to know why workers keep having shittier and shittier lives in the US, well, here’s a lovely chart for you.

Strikes involving more than 1,000 workers

Strikes involving more than 1,000 workers

Support unions. Unless you’re a greedy, asshole boss, who thinks CEOs should earn 300x more than workers, in which case, rot in Hell.

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – September 1, 2019


When the Ideas that Run the World Change


  1. Willy

    Large corporations are like the Catholic church – all moral stricture and ritual until the priest molests the choirboy. Well, and also pays powerful politicians to molest entire nations. Actually that’s sorta medieval. Bad analogy. I don’t think molesting priests have golden parachutes either. Breaking unions is how corporate leaders avoid the hard work of having to come up with potentially risky new investment ideas. It’s easier money.

    Unions should be seen as one way to prevent deranged mobs from suddenly forming to storm corporate castles armed with torches and guillotines. Forcing learned helplessness onto entire cultures only works for so long, before all hell breaks loose, with often unpredictable results.

    On the positive, union activism seems to be making something of a comeback, if nursing and teaching is any indication.

  2. Mike Barry

    In the USA, a union comeback will be a tough go due to Citizens United, the packed Supreme Court, and automation. Whoopee, we’re all gonna die, homeless.

  3. Neil M. Dunn

    And then factor in the jobs that have gone to all forms of immigration–temporary/permanent, legal/illegal and the robotics, AI, automation–>jobs displacement.

  4. Jill

    I moved to a “right to work state”. At first, I didn’t understand what I kept seeing. Businesses here run in a constant state of chaos. Employee turnover is incredible. Working conditions are routinely dangerous. I am talking about solar plants where supervisors don’t understand how to work with electricity to a well known museum which forces their workers to endure 120 heat without ventilation because the art work doesn’t require either heating or cooling. If you say one word about this, even though these conditions can result in serious injury or death, your are fired. Thus there is no (perceived) incentive for companies to provide safe conditions for their employees. Likewise, there is no institution which will enforce the amelioration of these conditions. This state definitely needs the WWW, immediately!

    Schedules are mandatory for employees but an employer can cancel your schedule <15 minutes before your start time. This throws all economic planning out the window. Checks can vary by orders of magnitude and budgeting with this situation is impossible.

    If an employer is in a bad mood, has alcohol or drug problems or for just any reason at all, it's "fire at will". That's the law. And yet, I hear employers complain bitterly that they cannot keep people on board. They seem to have little insight into their worker's actual situation and their own impact on employees' lives.

    This leaves amelioration of these situations to the mercy of a decent and competent boss. There are some of those and (strangely), their workers stay at those business with great loyalty. However, good bosses aren't the answer to systemic injustice. There must be a countervailing force to assure a safe work place, a just work place. That should be a union.

  5. Hugh

    Unions need to have teeth to be effective. It isn’t just about the money. It’s about the contract. With a contract, a worker can tell management, “You can’t do that,” file a grievance, and have a reasonable expectation that management will back off. Contracts empower workers, if unions have the heft to enforce them.

  6. S Brennan

    The answer to this is an ever greater number of workers available, on call 24/7.

    The answer to this problem is an ever greater number of immigrants [aka..workers with limited, or better, no rights], no borders [!!!] and more neo-economics..Yeah [!!!].

    After all, the WaPo & NYTimes say so…so who’s to argue? Really weren’t they right about Iraq, AF-PAK, Libya, Syria & Ukraine….with a batting record of 0.000 who’s gonna argue with clowns that are always wrong but, end up on top?

  7. xearner

    The board room has won over every lickspittle that loves his new tie and happily yanks crusts from the worker\’s lunch pail. The conformers only need a little bit of cheese to be against fairness for the bottom 25th. My employer likes to place stock photo posters on the wall that discourage any interest in bargaining, a softly interpolated threat. Ironically, the top tier also loves to have my vote when its time to reward them. This year I believe the CEO made 350x the \”average salary\”.

    So yeah, just say unions mattered back then.

  8. NR

    Well said, Ian. Sadly the decades of propaganda against unions has proven very effective. The left has been completely run over by the right in that regard since the 70s or 80s.

  9. Herman

    I think the automation explanation for the decline of unions has been overblown. Productivity growth has actually been rather slow in recent years compared to the period from 1947-1973 when we had both strong unions and rapid productivity growth. Automation is probably part of the problem but I don’t think it has been as big a factor as many in the media claim. Politics and anti-union labor laws are largely to blame for the decline of American unions.

    These essays discuss some of the legal obstacles to unionization in the United States compared to other countries and argue that the major determining factors with regard to union decline have been national politics and anti-union labor law.

  10. Mike Barry

    So much of business today (banks, pharma, real estate and more) is now extraction, needing few if any workers. Our overclass may feel they don’t need (very many) of us anymore.

  11. Hugh

    Automation is an excuse, not an argument. If automation was such a big deal, American companies would never have relocated their plants to China or Mexico. They sent them there because of cheap labor but if a plant were automated, there would be only minimal labor costs. So no need to relocate a plant and create a supply chain thousands of miles long.

    This is up there with the one about American companies can’t find enough qualified workers. What gets left unsaid is that these companies can’t find qualified people willing to work uncertain schedules at shit wages with no benefits. The idea that they could offer wages and benefits to attract qualified workers and/or train them in house with wages and benefits to keep them there has been pushed so far off the table that American CEOs would consider anyone suggesting this crazy or communist. No, the positions either stay vacant (phantom job openings) or are used as an excuse to hire in H1-b visa types who will work cheap and can be abused.

  12. That’s why we have welfare. Corporations and employers are not charities. If we want to set a reasonable minimum standard of living for all citizens then we must pay for that through democracy and our taxes.

    Of course there is a conflict of interest. That’s true of any business transaction. Don’t you try to get a good deal when you buy something? The price is that which balances supply and demand for that particular skill in that particular location. Employers look at staff turnover rates to see if they are paying the right rate. Too little and they will lose staff, usually the best staff first, and all the investment they have put into recruitment, training, experience building and team loyalty etc. is wasted. That is not good business. Too much and their customers will go elsewhere, putting jobs at risk.

  13. scruff

    Ok, unions are a great bandage, but they are still a bandage, aren’t they? How much of the problems solved by unions remain problems when capital is directed by those actually using it in the workforce?

  14. Looking at the above chart, it seems as if union influence — particularly as an economic force maintaining/expanding the middle class and protecting Americans’ overall quality of life — began a precipitous decline starting 21 January 1981.
    Mmmm, what the hell happened that day?

  15. 20th January . . .

  16. I’m just not all that sympathetic. I was a union member for some 25 years, and we got what we demanded because we had power and we used it. More than once I found myself outside the gate of a steel plant with an axe handle in my hand refusing orders from armed police to disband and saying not only “No,” but, “Oh hell no.”

    At a major steel plant, for instance, there are maybe a couple dozen managers, a hundred police or so, and 10,000 to 15,000 workers, and the workers are powerless? Please.

    Thousands of workers sitting on their collective ass begging legislators to do something for them because they cannot assert themselves over a dozen managers and a handful of policemen. Pardon me, police persons.

    Support unions? Not when they are not supporting themselves.

  17. Indeed Willy, unions should be seen as one way to prevent deranged mobs from suddenly forming to storm corporate castles armed with torches and guillotines. Forcing learned helplessness onto entire cultures only works for so long, before all hell breaks loose, with often unpredictable results… It’s why they were allowed to form in the first place. Mollify the mob.

    History only repeats to those paying attention.

  18. Jill

    Bill H,

    You were strong enough to pick up and hold that ax. Surely you must know that many people do not have the physical strength to do that? Other people will not choose to wield an ax because of a strong ethic of non-violence.

    You should also know that people who are responsible for caretaking others such as the elderly, children or people who need help because of their disability are not often able to risk going to jail and leaving other helpless people behind. Like the employers who do not value caretaking, many activists denigrate it’s worth as well. I strongly object to devaluing this mostly unpaid labor done mostly by women.

    If we want to help everyone out, then we all need to organize in many ways–ways that recognize people are differently situated in the world. If you can risk arrest then you should do so. Other people will be writers. Other people will take yet other actions and so on. In this way the skills of many are used for a common purpose.

    Collective action is desperately needed on behalf of people who face such a great power differential as employees. If the collective action again itself denigrates every kind of action except striking and getting arrested, sure some things will get done, but not nearly what can get done by working together using everyone’s skills.

  19. Herman

    @Bill H,

    I have heard that argument a lot and I used to believe it but the historical evidence seems to point to political support for unions being crucial. Labor action, even radical labor action, has not been very successful without at least some political support. A good example would be the crucial support that Michigan Governor Frank Murphy gave to the United Auto Workers during the Flint sit-down strike against General Motors in 1936-1937. Unions in the United States did not see great success until the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. This is why unions still have to be involved in politics, as much as I hate to say it.

  20. Willy

    Bill H, have you ever done a comprehensive probe into why union members are today more likely to give in than they are to wield axe handles and pocket guillotines*? I bet there are real reasons beyond “a buncha lazy gaming crackheads”.

    * The pocket guillotine! It slices, it dices, it quickly converts into a pocket fisherman for those progressive “weekend” days off.

  21. Dan Lynch

    “For those not in a union, and jealous: unions raise the wages of workers around them.”

    Yes, and at the end of the day I will support unions for that reason alone.

    But … rather than rejecting the ethos of capitalism that greed is good, unions effectively say “we’re fine with greed as long as we get a piece of the action.” There is no ethical difference between the typical American union and the typical American capitalist. None.

    And not surprisingly, American unions are often corrupt.

    And not surprisingly, American union leaders often throw their rank and file under the bus.

    And not surprisingly, American unions have often opposed universal health care. One of the big selling points of American unions is the benefits, but that selling point goes away if everyone gets good universal benefits.

    I have worked at both union and non-union jobs. The non-union jobs are everything Ian says — the companies don’t care about you and will screw you as much as they can get away with. My gross income was higher at the union jobs, but after subtracting union dues (which went to union bosses and senior employees. not to tangible benefits for me) it was a wash. And the union never lifted a finger to help me or my co-workers with our day to day problems. To the contrary, the union boss was just one more boss that I had to kiss up to.

    So yes I will support unions, because on the whole they are less evil than no unions, but they are merely a bandaid, not a long term solution. A long term solution will require a completely different ethos, and probably a completely different system.

  22. “Labor action, even radical labor action, has not been very successful without at least some political support.”

    Nonsense. Labor unions were formed to begin with not only without political support but in spite of strong political opposition.

    “This is why unions still have to be involved in politics, as much as I hate to say it.”

    Organized labor’s involvement in politics is the biggest reason for its demise.

    “Bill H, have you ever done a comprehensive probe into why union members are today more likely to give in than they are to wield axe handles and pocket guillotines*?”

    The question answers itself. Lack of courage. Unwillingness to risk their jobs. Laziness. An ethos of expectation that government will take care of them.

  23. Jerry Brown

    Dan Lynch, you have some very wrong ideas of labor union history in the US. “Labor unions have often opposed universal health care” ? Bullshit. You might find one or two unions that opposed that at some point – but I see you haven’t actually cited any evidence for it.

    “One of the big selling points of American unions is the benefits, but that selling point goes away if everyone gets good universal benefits.” Yes that explains why labor unions in the US have consistently fought for increased minimum wages across the board and for 8 hour work days and overtime pay and safety regulation regardless of whether employees were union members or not.

    Nope- you are just wrong.

  24. Herman

    @Bill H,

    Labor unions can be legislated out of existence or crippled by anti-union legislation. This is why unions have to be involved in politics. The links I posted above discuss the huge impact that labor law has on unions. What good is a union if it is rendered toothless by anti-union legislation? If labor law did not matter the Koch brothers and other anti-union forces would not spend millions of dollars to try to influence politicians to pass anti-labor legislation and appoint anti-labor judges to the judiciary. Corporations know that the game is played and won on the political/legal field. I am not arguing against unions going on strike but I am skeptical that militancy by itself is enough to win victories for labor.

  25. Jerry Brown

    Bill H, you speak of courage. Or a lack thereof by workers today. And you cite very large manufacturing factories that employ thousands of workers as if that is typical of employment in the US today. In those large factories that still exist here, workers do have considerable power, and I would bet they are compensated comparatively well. But even so I am pretty sure they realize that their employer can move production elsewhere to a place that labor costs and regulations are much lower. And that the real political power in the US supports and maintains that option. Even in the case of those factories that employ thousands of workers.

    You and your axe handle can’t do much about that no matter how much courage you have.

  26. Hugh

    Labor unions used to be part of larger social movements, but the Wilsonian Red Scares effectively split the two. Unions continued to grow. Their political power and wealth grew too. Their focus narrowed. They became more about wages and benefits. The social concerns became more rhetorical. They became institutional players.

    But political power and wealth come and go. Without the social basis, unions became vulnerable to a counter narrative. Union and their members were depicted as selfish, arrogant, in it only for themselves and at the expense of other, non-union workers. The problem wasn’t greedy corporations. It was greedy unions. The solution was Right to Work and other anti-union legislation. This counter narrative has been remarkably successful. What unions old and yet to be need to do in my opinion is to hook back up to the broader social movements that spawned and nurtured them. You hear this a lot from me, but it is all about the kind of society we want. Unionists should and I think can make a compelling case that in that society workers should be respected and their rights defended, and that unions are essential to seeing both these goals achieved and maintained.

  27. Willy

    Maybe Bill H. is a big Dune fan? In that series something called a “Butlerian Jihad” happened where mobs spontaneously eliminated artificial intelligence from humanity for over ten thousand years.

    (*crickets, blank stares…*)

    Well, I do find Bill’s idea that people have been conditioned to rely on government solutions instead of spontaneously taking matters into their own hands when it’s in their own best interest to do so, intriguing.

    Personally, I think the conditioning is more of a human feature than a bug. Some of us really are rationally humanist, but most of the folks I meet just want to be trendy and fashionable. My proof is that we don’t see too many afros and bell bottoms around anymore, despite their practicality. You save money on barbers and you can change your pants with your shoes still on. Plus you can store stuff in the fro. But I digress, again.

    One must remember that throughout most of recorded human history slavery was considered normal, even though lots of people considered it wrong. Hugh’s right. The control of the narrative is important.

    Bill H?

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