Mon 15 Dec, 2008
Tags: Editorial, News
The labor union is a problematic entity in today’s world. While at its inception it was the only means for any chance of equity for workers who had previously been at the mercy of robber-baron management, in today’s world with effective labor laws and industrial safety standards, some people argue that the Union has worked itself out of a job—indeed, it has become counterproductive, in that some unionized employers have been forced into untenable agreements with powerful unions. Indeed, amongst conservative and libertarian politicians, unions are seen as almost a parasite, drawing sustenance from the efforts of legitimate businesses without providing any tangible benefit to the employer and offering no significant protections (so the argument goes) to the workers.
To some extent, there is some support for this line of reasoning. Many unions today seem to exist for the sole reason of paying the salaries of a few well-connected union managers and to make the firing of long-tenured employees impossible, no matter the relative merit of the employee’s work. There is often corruption and graft amongst union bosses, and employers are sometimes held to ransom over demands for higher pay and more benefits whether they can realistically afford to pay them or not. An example currently in the news is the UAW, the union that is blamed by some for assisting with, if not causing, the difficulties currently facing the American automotive industry.
The argument against unions further states that under normal circumstances, if an employer acts inequitably, workers are (in at-will employment states, at least) free to leave at any time and to seek employment elsewhere. The logic goes that simple free-market supply and demand will bring quality employees to good employers, leaving inequitable employers unable to staff their ranks properly. What use, then, are unions?
Union advocates generally respond to these arguments with the position that it is inequitable for employees to be forced to leave in the first place, and that relocating to find a new job is an onerous requirement for many workers. They further point to the tendency of employers to take as much advantage of workers as possible (which is countered, of course, by the anti-union advocates stating that workers do the same thing, given half a chance) and to the presence of unions acting as an effective measure to prevent such inequities coming to pass.
As is usual in most arguments with two violently opposed polar positions, both sides have merits to their positions, but neither side is entirely optimal nor borne out by the facts of the matter. No matter how much they wish for it, libertarians and conservatives will never succeed in making unions irrelevant—nor will progressives see the rights of the workers triumph entirely over the wishes of employers. And, clearly, neither situation is entirely desirable for a well-functioning company—companies without unions are far more likely to violate labor laws and safety conditions, purposely or not, simply through lack of effective oversight; companies with too much union presence tend to stagnate and become unable to adjust to changing market forces, which can lead to vastly reduced profits or, in severe cases, insolvency. There is comparatively little regulation of union activities, either, meaning that in some cases union leaders are almost the equivalent of a competing management within the same company, a dysfunction which leads to little but trouble. In some cases, the agreements (if such a word can be used at that point) between unions and the employers that they relate with give little choice to the employees as to whether they wish to be involved with the union: whether they join or not, they will have their interests represented and the union dues deducted from their pay; the only real choice is whether the worker wishes to vote on union matters or not.
Unions formed originally from bare necessity, and as the necessities that spurred their formation—that is, a lack of wage controls, unsafe working conditions, and excessive demands placed by employers on their workers made possible by the advent of the industrial revolution—are no longer relevant (due to the passage of minimum wage laws, health and safety requirements, and other regulations for employers) then it is entirely true that unions, as originally implemented, are not a good fit for a modern era. The strike, along with other work stoppages and slowings, is the only tool available for negotiation available to the union; this is a blunt instrument of intimidation not suited to encouraging civilized negotiations. Strikes are desirable for neither the workers nor the employers, as neither can profit from them, and the company becomes less able to compete in the market.
However, it is also true that workers will always require communal representation in negotiations with employers, in order to ensure fair and equitable treatment of all workers by employers. Negotiations by individual workers are ignorable, as an individual is nearly always replaceable; it is only through collective bargaining that effective negotiations can be carried out: solidarity is regarded, correctly, as strength. A careful watch must be kept so that it can be assured that bargains will be kept, and that working conditions can be kept safe. Employees must be assured that they will be represented if they should run into legal problems with their employer; they must be able to be sure that their rights will be protected.
The solution, then, becomes an evolution: the worker-union-management-employer paradigm must be revised to take into account the changes in the working world, and to change the role of a union from that of a blunt instrument used to force change into that of a scalpel, an instrument to watch and diagnose workplace problems, and to treat them before they become problematic to workers and employers alike.
As a start, the charters of the unions should be reworked from the ground up, and be registered in the same manner as corporation charters, with careful protections implemented to insure against corruption by the leaders of the union. Further, unions and employers may wish to negotiate contracts between the union as an entity and the company as an entity, separate from the contracts between the employer and the employees, providing for remedies other than strikes and firings for use in negotiations—remedies such as fines levied by one entity against the other for damages, measures for formal mediation procedures, and circumstances under which one entity can bring suit against the other.
Further, the employees would receive a contract with the union at the time they join, where the relationship between what the union would provide to the employee and what the employee would provide to the union (in terms of dues, material support, attendance at meetings, et al.) would be clearly spelled out. The union would become, in a sense, an employee of the workers, with all the benefits for the workers that that would entail. The officers, too, would contract to the union, with their contracts specifying the types of duties that each would be expected to carry out as well as provisions for terminating their representation of the union should their behavior depart from that which promulgates the union’s best interests—it is in these contracts that an ideal location could be found for the insertion of anti-corruption measures.
While this proposal does somewhat complicate the situation, there is only as much complexity as is needed to provide stability and resilience to the organization. By contracting each entity to the others, the relationship between them is formalized, and a spectrum of responses is enabled—the options are no longer limited to strict, blunt, catastrophic responses, but can be moderated via mediation and other measures into a continuous dialogue.
Thus, the union ceases to become an enforcer of last resort, and becomes more relevant to modern situations as an advocate of the workers, a watchdog for the workers, and a liaison between the workers and the management of the company. The all-or-nothing attitude that permeates any negotiations between the workers and the companies dies away, to be replaced by a civilized dialog with a continuum of responses available for any given situation. Relations between unions and corporations cease to be in terms of parasite and host, and instead enter a sort of symbiosis where each finds it in their best interest to work for the benefit of both.