Over the last half-century, many people have grown suspicious of the trade union movement. Union settlements are regarded as excessive, and unionists are thought of as indolent work-to-rulers by consumers and tax-payers.
Recently – with talk of claw-backs, downsizing and restructuring 'to become globally competitive' on everyone’s lips - these perceptions have become more pronounced.Unionism is viewed as a millstone that, combined with public debt and overly generous social safety-nets, ... obstructs competitiveness in a global economy.
In addition, anti-union rhetoric makes for great sound bites. However, unionism's critics ignore important facts. For more than one hundred years, unions contributed to the well-being of both unionized and non-unionized workers. Unions benefited commerce, industry and shareholders by establishing remuneration, working conditions and benefits benchmarks.
The result? For decades western nations enjoyed a balanced capacity to produce and consume goods and services. Balanced, stable supply and demand capabilities is the heart of economic vigour.
In other words, commercial interests have been prospering because of the unions they love to malign. When unionists achieve living wages, they establish income benchmarks that make life-style promotions and quality-of-life ambitions plausible.
There is a downside of course. When understood in terms of workers, and not workers and consumers simultaneously, unionism unwittingly sanctions hierarchies it purports to confront. Supervisors can scarcely be paid the same as subordinates.
In addition, supervisors learned the ‘compounding wage’ trick a century ago. They have been assiduously applying percentage-based union settlements to their already larger salaries and quietly leaving unionists in the fiscal dust. The more successful their negotiations, the further behind members become vis-a-vis employers and managers.
However, unwitting contributions to inequity notwithstanding, unions have been accomplishing a wider distribution of the wealth than would otherwise have been the case. This is not trivial. To the extent that wealth is generated in ways that do not benefit the workers involved, a rat's nest of trouble is inevitable. This is why it is important to revisit the contributions unionism has been making. In spite of a century of progress - including the emergence of the first middle class the world has seen - 1st world economies are in crisis. Two factors stand out: the first is the vanishing relevance of ‘ordinary skills' in the context of sophisticated technologies. The second involves skewed wealth or inequity. One per cent of Americans now possesses more than eighty per cent of America's wealth. Most of this wealth is invested in profitable undertakings since one can only wear one pair of pants at a time.This means that these super rich people will control and enjoy a still greater proportion of the world's wealth next year and every year thereafter.
This fact, more than any other, threatens middle class populations everywhere and is obliterating the prospects of the world's poor.
The recent successes of conservationism are making matters worse. Ephemeral micro-economic victories lend slash and burn legislation additional credence; and they prepare people, psychologically and morally, to accept defeat and brutalize one another as they go down. Monies saved by restructuring corporations and gutting the public sector go to Fortune 500 shareholders, to financial institutions and to service the public debt. Very little filters down to middle and lower class populations, where it might stimulate manufacturing by providing consumers with money to spend.
In other words, automation and globalization are eroding the equilibrium between supply and demand unions helped achieve and economies depend upon. These issues sometimes make their way into debates, but usually as a preamble to urging further claw-backs and more efficiencies. Some conservative arguments make sense, but they rarely acknowledge a far more important issue: the lack of purchasing power in middle and lower class hands, and the fact that this problem is being driven by progress and development initiatives sometimes known as globalization and outsourcing.
Since Canada's Conservatives and America's Republicans seem unlikely to fix this problem, it falls to those being marginalized to make what repairs they can. One important possibility involves revisiting unionism’s collective bargaining principle with a view to renewing and expanding its mandate. While there are still labour unions to be found this might be a good time to collapse unionism's hierarchical structure into something more horizontal. Local unions should disentangle themselves from provincial and national affiliations and network among themselves within communities or cities. Such alliances would be more effective politically and economically than having a vague sense of solidarity with locals in remote cities under umbrella organizations such as: CUPE, OPSEU, CUPW, CAW ....
More importantly, union organizers, apologists and cognoscenti need to pay more attention to their strength in numbers principle. They need to figure out how to include part-time workers and consumers in the union tent. This is the only way ordinary people can hope to leverage their dwindling employment prospects and purchasing power into economic and political relevance.
In addition, locally-networked labour unions with robust contingents of consumers would be well positioned to participate in commercial and political decisions. For example, such groups could have valuable input into whether retail developments occur. Since consumers must eventually pay for infrastructure costs when they purchase goods and services they should have a say about new developments likely to erode their de facto investment in existing facilities. Such unions would also provide a new communication channel between existing and proposed businesses and actual and potential customers.
Communities enjoying regionally affiliated labour/consumer unions would be well positioned to respond to rhetoric about globalization, outsourcing and public sector gravy trains.
These arguments are made more urgent by a growing reality. The principal engine driving today's economic reality is the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about. A vast proportion of wealth vested in a few hands means that national economies are running out of gas and throwing people off the bus to lighten the load. Automation and free trade are also contributing regressive consequences. This means that the fiscal pumps delivering Industrial Revolution wealth to a small percentage of human beings must now beat the bushes for new revenue sources. Since real growth is no longer an option because the wealthy have all the money, the alternative involves transferring equity from historical investments in infrastructure and further encroachments upon general well-being.
This is why hospitals, schools and libraries are downsizing or closing. This is why North America’s highways are full of potholes and why poverty and homelessness are rampant.
Appreciating the importance of unionism involves recognizing its historical and future importance to economic and social well-being. The wealthy are growing more powerful every day. As this challenge looms larger and larger, a surprising number of us seem content to abandon the ‘strength in numbers’ idea–our only possible response to this threat–in favour of internecine strife and myopic self interest. Unionists who once responded heroically to oppression by organizing community resources and mutual aid projects as well as labour activism are now offering nothing except an exhausted strategy politicians and corporations learned to circumvent decades ago.
The principal work unions are doing these days involves organizing members so their wages and benefits can be clawed back collectively or so they can be dismissed en masse.
Unions need to repair their relevance
- by networking locals into community-based affiliations;
- since ordinary skills are no longer the sine qua non of production and information processing, unions need to add consumer bargaining units to their tool bag—a strategy embracing employed, unemployed and retired populations; and one which could not be legislated out of existence.
The perception that most delights neo-cons is the idea that unionism is a dinosaur whose day is done. The reality is that there has never been a greater need for unionism. However it must be unionism with a new vision: only strategies leveraging both the earning and spending of poor and soon-to-be poor populations can save us now.