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Jiminez's avatar

Are labor unions the potential means both of overcoming capitalism and of running society fairly in the interests of the majority?

Asked by Jiminez (1248points) March 25th, 2009
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8 Answers

cwilbur's avatar

Overcoming capitalism? Not really. They’re just one way of remedying the power imbalance between the management of the corporation, which by its nature acts collectively, and individual workers, who have considerably less power unless they can also act collectively.

Running society fairly? Fair is a loaded word. “In the interests of the majority” is not something I’m especially comfortable with either; given that it only takes a simple majority vote to unionize a workplace, I suspect that if the majority of workers perceived joining a union to be in their best interest, there would be a lot more union members.

(The problem here is the complex interplay between what a person’s short-term interests and long term interests are, and on what that person perceives his or her short- or long-term interests to be.)

On the other hand, if you limit “running society fairly in the interests of the majority” to “decreasing the gap in salary/income between workers and management,” I’d buy that. When the management of the corporation has the ability to bargain collectively and the workers must bargain individually, the profits from the work go disproportionately to management. When both sides can bargain collectively, the proportions are more balanced.

Jiminez's avatar

Syndicalism entails workers running production themselves, without any private ownership (other than them). There would be no boss. It could be a collective.

“In the interests of the majority” = fairly. That’s the only fair way I can see. Certainly you wouldn’t give the minority as much say as the majority, would you? More say is totally out of the realm of fairness.

given that it only takes a simple majority vote to unionize a workplace, I suspect that if the majority of workers perceived joining a union to be in their best interest, there would be a lot more union members.

Well, I’m not sure what country you are from but it doesn’t take “a simple majority vote to unionize a workplace”. It takes a lot of risk and withstanding threats and harassment. That’s what’s being proposed by the Employee Free Choice Act, though. It’s absurd to think that the majority of workers don’t want to belong to a union. They do; almost uniformly; across the board. Being in a union means higher wages and better benefits.

To quote ubersiren: “Any [collective] with a leader is oppressed.”

Workers should not have to bargain with anybody. They’re the producers. They shouldn’t have to “ask” for compensation. They should be able to share the fruits of their labor. This is what syndicalism allows for, and it’s still privatism, just like capitalism is, so it’s a less oppressive/restrictive form of socialism. This is what’s called libertarian socialism.

Jiminez's avatar

Not only that, it has the capability (and the likelihood) of being oppositional to (and also cooperative with) the state, just like private sector is now.

cwilbur's avatar

Workers should not have to bargain with anybody? So if I say that fair compensation for my work is $2000 an hour, that should stand, even in a utopian worker’s collective? Or if I say that my contribution to the finished product is 50%, and so I should get 50% of the profits, that should stand, even in a utopian worker’s collective?

The simple fact is, people are not equal in their skills or their contributions to the final project. The person who fastens the door bolts on a car does not contribute to the company’s profits in an equal way to the person who designed it or the person who negotiated to get the bolts at $10 per thousand cheaper or the person who keeps financial records and makes sure the bills all get paid. Somehow the profits need to be apportioned among all these people, and if there’s no bargaining allowed, how the hell is that supposed to get done?

And I don’t think the will of the majority is inherently fair. In California, the will of the majority is that gay and lesbian people should be denied the ability to get married, and should instead have the separate-but-equal status of “civil unions.” I don’t think that is at all fair, but it is undeniably the will of 50%-plus-one that you require in your definition of fairness.

Also, it’s not absurd to think that the majority of workers do not want to be part of a union. I’ve participated in unionizing efforts before. In a company of about 200, there were maybe 20 who were interested enough to come to one organization meeting, and only 3 of us who were interested enough to come to more than one. I understand that there’s pressure from management to not join unions, but hey, life is full of tradeoffs. It takes a certain percentage of eligible workers to sign a petition calling for a vote, and then a simple majority vote.

Being in a union can also mean losing jobs or bankrupting the company—part of the problem that the Big Three automakers are having is all of the benefits programs they foolishly agreed to when they thought the good times would never end, and the budget in Boston right now is such that unless the teachers’, policemen’s, and firefighters’ unions agree to wage freezes, there are going to be significant layoffs. So it’s not nearly as simple an equation as you want to portray it as.

Jiminez's avatar

Workers should not have to bargain with anybody? So if I say that fair compensation for my work is $2000 an hour, that should stand, even in a utopian worker’s collective?

Well, that’s not what I meant. I mean workers shouldn’t have to bargain with anyone outside of the body of workers. Within the body everything is allocated evenly.

Or if I say that my contribution to the finished product is 50%, and so I should get 50% of the profits, that should stand, even in a utopian worker’s collective?

Things aren’t done for profit. They’re done for sustenance. There’s this idea that organizations that utilize the labor theory of value cannot be reconciled with/cooperate with economic systems not based on the labor theory of value, and I agree with it. In this sense, syndicalist economies could not trade with non-syndicalist economies. It would have to be an international federation of syndicalist economies. Now this is getting convoluted. The important thing to understand is that agreements are made between labor federations and trade is done in accordance with whatever they decide is a fair exchange. But no one is rewarded more than anyone else.

The simple fact is, people are not equal in their skills or their contributions to the final project.

What’s negotiated within the collective is what’s negotiated within the collective, but workers are autonomous, not subordinates of anybody. If the collective agrees that someone isn’t doing enough, then they can vote on what to do. I suppose he can be kicked out if that’s what they decide. But everything is supposed to remain equal.

And I don’t think the will of the majority is inherently fair.

It’s not fair to judge the will of the majority (democracy) on one result. The people you associate with have to be of your choosing. You have the freedom to decide whose hands you want to put your fate in. Unions can break off from other unions and form their own collective if that create better working conditions for them, just like businesses. Ultimately, they’re all linked together as an industry, though. It’s best not to think of these things only as producers. They will also be providers of services.

It takes a certain percentage of eligible workers to sign a petition calling for a vote, and then a simple majority vote.

People often don’t understand what is good for them. That’s not to say they won’t learn, but maybe they were just lazy and self-sabotaging. I think the right way to do things (what’s fair to the workers) is to just get a majority of workers to sign on and they automatically get a union. That’s what’s being proposed.

Being in a union can also mean losing jobs or bankrupting the company

Assuming that it’s a company that depends on profits and not just a union of producers, yeah.

TheIowaCynic's avatar

No. Labor Unions, like any power structure, no matter how idealistic will eventually work for their own self interests. They will inevitably corrupt political processes and lead to less efficiency. Public Unions are the worst. The flourishing state of California, in the 1990’s, was able to get their unions some remarkable perks. School crossing guards made $25, with full benefits and could retire in 15 years. Now the state is bankrupt. Thank you, Unions.

In the private sector, the assure high prices and inefficiency as well. Any American car we buy has a cost that is around 20% accounted for by the medical costs of RETIRED unions workers.

cwilbur's avatar

@Jiminez: So, suppose I’m an engineer. I can go to Collective A, which insists on dividing everything equally. Or I can go to Corporation B, which has a table of jobs and pays engineers more than assembly line workers. Collective A will have its choice of assembly line workers, but Corporation B will have its choice of engineers.

So whichever one of these is in shorter supply will dictate which group succeeds. If good engineers are in shorter supply, Corporation B will have all the engineers it needs, and Collective A will suffer. And then, when Collective A can’t get something useful designed because they cannot attract good engineers, and thus can’t provide something of value to other people, where do they get the money to pay all their manual laborers?

Your theories only work if “work” is abstract and all labor is interchangeable. In practice, a good knowledge worker can be ten to a hundred times more productive than the baseline knowledge worker. You insist that everything must be equal within the collective, but because workers are autonomous, they’re going to seek the best deal for them. And that means working for profit—because even if you love your work, it’s to your advantage to get 200% of what you need to live on instead of 100% of what you need to live on, because amassing wealth means you have security.

And you say “People often don’t understand what is good for them.” I agree with that—but your solution seems to be to tell people what you think is good for them, while my solution is to let people decide for themselves what is valuable and what is not.

Jiminez's avatar

@TheIowaCynic I don’t think you clicked on the link I told you to click on.

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