Monday, 19th August 2019

I’ve thought that unions are overall a good thing since I was able to earn a paycheck. When I first became department chair, I recall going on a retreat with other new chairs from across the state of Florida, which also included some upper-level administrators. I was at a lunch table with a provost from another university, and the topic of unions came up. I voiced some support, and I remember him actually getting up and moving to another table. Wow.

This article gives some of the reasons why I think they’re good to have around (and, why I’ve been a member of my faculty union every year it was possible to be so, that is, every year I wasn’t in the administration). And, this article has an important lesson as well, which is that someone who had an initial bias against unions changed his mind after experience and research. That’s what we should all aspire to, I think, and that goes for people changing their mind in a direction I wouldn’t agree with as well. We’re all better off when anyone is open to change based on new information, understanding the experience of others, and understanding the broader issues and forces at work. So, thanks for the model of good thinking, German Lopez.

One interesting thing about the article is the approach it takes to rethinking why unions might be a good thing. Most discussions of unions map onto left vs. right politics, and socialist vs. capitalist economics. But I think there are good market-based reasons for wanting strong and active unions around, and we see some of those in the article along with the more familiar defenses of unions. We can see some of the less familiar reasons if we consider the usual arguments against unions that we hear in one form or another.

One common argument we get against unions is that they distort market production and all that goes into it (wages, especially, but other things too). They lock businesses into commitments that make them less competitive, both within a country and internationally. Another common argument is that they make people less free – workers have to “obey” the dictates of union bosses rather than express their own wills. A third argument is that they promote a divisive and combative atmosphere in a workplace. A fourth argument is that they are the first step towards collectivization and socialization of everything. And a fifth argument is that they protect incompetence and laziness, by disincentivizing hard work (since the fear of getting fired for not working hard is diminished).

Each of these, I think, is problematic, and misunderstands the economy in which we operate. Some of the answers to these arguments can already be seen in the linked Vox article above, but what is not highlighted very much is that unions are actually good for economies, and that most of the arguments against them come from actors within markets who are trying to tilt the market in their own favor.

So, argument #1: Unions distort markets. No, and it’s pretty easy to see why. Markets are only distorted if they are defined by corporate action and nothing else. But that’s not a market. Corporations are specific actors within a market, they are not the market itself. Also, the market is not singular, that is, it is not one thing. There are multiple markets, intersecting and affecting each other at all times. So, it is not that employees are subverting a corporation’s market activity, it is that they are engaging in a market themselves, which transversally intersects with the corporate market. We have other examples of this – the government, for instance, does not stand outside of market logic, but within it. Regulation is the expression of a set of interests that transversally intersect with the corporate market as well, they are not extra-market forces which put a drag on a free market.

I have problems with the phrase “a free market”, but it is not “market” that I have problems with, or the word “free”. It is the word “a”. Markets are never singular, they are always multiple. The stock market measures a small and select slice of the markets we engage in. Many of these markets do not use money or anything like it as a marker – exchange happens in many ways. Most economists recognize this, and have long since seen their discipline as the study of social exchange, not the study of finance and business, but that recognition goes away when we think about unions. They are presented as something outside of markets, inimical to reason, merely an expression of the collective id of ungrateful employees.

Argument #2: Unions make people less free. Well, no. What does it mean to be free? To have the power to exercise one’s will? If that limited definition holds, then a union helps with that, in that it helps to create the conditions for its members to have self-determination. But that’s not what people mean when they say that unions make people less free. They mean that unions are powerful centralized organizations in which the rank and file have to obey the union bosses, and which run more like an oligarchy than a democracy. That, of course, isn’t a necessary feature of unions, even if it has happened sometimes. It’s worth noting that every organization can go bad, in the sense of being undemocratic and overbearing – governments, corporations, churches, and yes, unions, sometimes. The fact that it’s possible doesn’t mean that it is inevitable.

Argument #3: Unions promote a divisive workplace. Again, no. Or rather, again, the fact that it has doesn’t mean that it must. There are examples of unions that have worked closely with management to reach shared goals – a good workplace for its members, and good productivity for the business. Industry-wide unions such as the ones that exist in Europe often operate this way. It’s worth noting, as well, that there is a significant amount of management literature that shows that treating employees well, by which I mean giving them autonomy, skill development, and a reliable and predictable support structure helps not only with hiring and retention, but with productivity. In other words, it is in a union’s interest for management to succeed.

Argument #4: Unions are the first step towards collectivization and privatization. This linear understanding of economics and politics should have died out decades ago, but it hasn’t. It is not the case that on the right end of a continuum we have atomistic individualism, and on the left end we have robotic collectivism, and we exist somewhere between those two, and the further to the right the better. This misunderstands reason, and will, and society, and markets, and pretty much everything else. Individual action never comes by itself, it always exists in the space of social action, and the emergent conditions which occur when the various networks we live with (some of them markets, some not) interact with each other. And, recognizing that people can organize themselves and speak with a single voice on at least some issues, is far from collectivism. Every society needs to organize, in myriad ways. A union is one way to do that, and to take that away or make it impossible to happen means that a legitimate way that people could organize it being kept from them.

Argument #5: Unions protect incompetence and laziness. The Vox article does address this issue, and I think convincingly shows that unions themselves have cultures, they can be good or bad, they can like guilds support the development of expertise in their areas or like police unions they can resist almost all self-examination and reinforce the status quo. At their best, they protect from exploitation, even of the sort that management isn’t aware of or can’t admit to itself.

Unions can’t do everything, but they can do some things. What they do not do is ruin economic systems, except to the same extent that any other dysfunctional organization has the potential to ruin economic systems. They certainly can do no worse than what rent-seeking industries did to the economy to bring on the crash of 2008, and for which they have yet to bear any serious costs. In fact, a country that had a higher percentage of unionized workers would not likely have faced a crash of that sort, or at least a much less serious one. Why? Because unions, as the Vox article points out, have other effects than bargaining for wages and benefits. They educate their people. They sponsor programs, including those which could help members understand what a good home loan looks like and what one doesn’t look like. They could push back against the loosening of laws which allowed balloon mortgages to proliferate. They could, in other words, do many things which could stand against a self-serving corporate logic which benefits from the social upheaval of 2008 by transferring more and more wealth to the already wealthy.

The point here is this: some of the good of unions can be understood as a check on the excesses of other institutions in society. Some of the good, though, can be understood as leveraging the will of workers in ways that cannot be compelled or incentivized by corporations. It is, in other words, in the interests of both corporations and governments to have unions that can do this. Markets are networks, but not of the sort that can be dominated and mastered by a few who see further than the rest of us. They develop when everyone can experience the benefits of success.

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