Working conditions have vastly improved over the past 200 years. So much so that we have to ask: have unions worked themselves out of a job?
Few people, save the most militant market fanatics, will deny that unions have served an important historical role. We cast our minds back to capitalism’s birth pangs in the Industrial Revolution and shudder at the small army of children frogmarched into Blake’s “dark Satanic mills,” at the men and women mangled by 14-hour shifts spent working above violent steam-engines, at a world without minimum wage, safety regulations, coffee breaks, or weekends. It was organized labour that made capitalism humane and resilient enough to survive its many internal and external opponents in the 19th and 20th centuries. Those “good union jobs” made the working class a participant in—rather than pawn of—the successes of global capitalism.
But that was then, and this is now. In 2020, Canada has a social safety net, an eight-hour workday, no kids in the coal mines, and thousands of pages of labour law. In a world where taut transnational supply lines, technological disruption, and occasional pandemics require businesses to be dynamic, innovative, flexible, and globally competitive (or die) it’s more than fair to ask: are unions obsolete?
Is there still a role for divisive organizations that pit employees against employers, slow down the pace of work, entrench inefficiencies, and drive up labour costs?
The answer, of course, is yes. As long as we live under organized capital—that is, as long as there is a meaningful workplace power imbalance between the owners and bosses of an enterprise and the employees who physically do the work that makes the enterprise run—so we will also live with organized labour.
At its core, a ‘union’ is a formal association of workers. It can be as big as an entire industrial sector (think the International Longshore and Warehouse Union shutting down every port on the American West Coast for a day in June to protest racism and police brutality) or as small as one department within a larger workplace (like the Macy’s cosmetics & fragrances “micro-union.”)
“A union is a formalized relationship among workers in a particular workplace, factory, or region,” writes labour activist Nora Loreto in From Demonized to Organized. “[They are] democratic structures for workers to advance their interests against the interests of their bosses so that through cooperation and negotiation, both sides can find common ground.”
Why is an overtly political concern with “democracy” relevant to the workplace? Because politics is all about power—and so is work.
No matter the size of the business in question, or the relative generosity of the mutually-agreed contracts, or the personal virtues (or vices!) of individual owners, managers and employees, nearly all workplaces are founded on a structural power imbalance. All things being equal, owners (and their delegates in management) have the final say over what happens on the job: who does what work, when, for how long, under what conditions and for how much pay. Employees, on the other hand, have comparatively little control: they must obey their orders, or else they do not work. On the job, employees surrender greater or lesser degrees of personal autonomy to their employers. Their time is no longer their own—they are on “company time.”
While both employers and employees in the same workplace have a common interest in making sure the enterprise succeeds—if it goes under, neither gets any money!—their interests at work itself are always, structurally, at odds. It is always in the interest of the employer to command as much labour as possible for the lowest cost possible, while it is always in the employee’s interest to secure as much pay and workplace autonomy as they can. This is the basic tension at the heart of every workplace with a clear divide between employer and employee. It can be mitigated or repressed in a wide variety of ways—some more effective and humane than others—but never completely eliminated. Of course, it is totally possible for bosses and workers to come to happy, mutually-beneficial arrangements without bringing in organized labour; Costco is a supreme example. But this hinges as much on the size of the shop as the trades and individual personalities involved.
It is perhaps strange to think of the workplace as a site of political struggle, but that is the core of why workers have formed unions and will likely continue to do so. When power relationships between bosses and workers are more equal—when employees trust and respect their employers, and feel that the sentiment is mutual—unions lose their appeal. But if a critical mass of employees feel mistreated, disrespected, insecure or otherwise alienated, then clandestine meetings and rounds of solidarity forever may not be far behind.
This is not to say that unions, like all so-called “democratic” political institutions, do not have serious flaws. Anything with a bureaucratic structure is in perpetual danger of ossification. Like their legislative counterparts, unions can produce equivalent “career politicians,” more invested in their own institutional longevity and personal power than solving problems or addressing the needs of constituents. By design, unions slow down the pace of work and productivity, and impede the ability of business owners to unilaterally make the “tough but necessary” decisions that might make or break their viability in the marketplace. Job protections mean inefficient or otherwise problematic workers who could be dismissed by management may be defended by the union. Union dues are like taxes insofar as some people viscerally hate paying them no matter the rate and/or otherwise strongly object to how they are spent. And—it goes without saying—strikes, blockades, boycotts, and other job action can be immensely disruptive to both balance sheets and everyday life. (Though then again, labour advocates would argue that the disruption is precisely the point.)
Whether or not unions are “good” is a fundamentally moral question, and the answer depends largely—though not always!—on which side of the selling-labour vs. buying-labour divide you find yourself in daily life. But it’s a different question than whether or not unions are obsolete. As long as we make a distinction between employer and employee—that is, as long as there is an unaddressed power imbalance in the workplace—organized labour will have a function to fulfill. Until there is no difference between those who control the workplace and those who do the work, the union machine is here to stay. •