Despite the fact that Nicaragua has invaded Costa Rica (a subject the mass media continues to largely ignore), I’m going to address another contemporary issue: the battle against collective bargaining rights. At present the fight against public collective bargaining rights has surfaced in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana. The battle to eliminate the rights of workers, public or private, has raged in the US since before the Taft-Hartley Act (or here). Collective bargaining rights were largely untouched by Taft-Hartley, so obviously there is unfinished work in the battle to repeal the labor union. Now, as you may know, labor union membership has declined in the US since the 1970s. Along with this has come wage stagnation, an increase in per capita consumer debt, and an increase in worker productivity with a decrease in real wage compensation. At the same time, corporate profits have consistently increased. All these facts reveal that when corporations and unions are out of balance, one side invariably loses.
The idea that the public sector will benefit from the elimination of collective bargaining rights can be applied to private sector unions and corporations as well. Unions are the first line of defense against the corporate mission of generating shareholder dividends. In many western countries, laws and regulations have arisen to meet the calls of unions and to ensure the rights that workers demand and deserve. In fact, this idea in enshrined in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is notable that the US is not a signatory to this declaration. This certainly facilitates the contemporary efforts to eliminate collective bargaining. This effort is meeting with success in some places. Wisconsin passed their bill and Ohio passed theirs as well. Labor organizations and supporters around the US have rallied to support the rights of the workers and to demand these bills be abandoned or repealed. However, there has been an instant perception by liberals and the left that this is a bad thing. Primarily, that the labor union is a cherished institution and that it must be preserved, even expanded, in order to check corporate greed and power and to ensure human rights. This perception is as antiquated as the union itself. In order to fully understand why the elimination of the labor union is a good thing, we need to look at a brief history of the corporation and the labor union.
As you may recall, corporations were responsible for the establishment of the British colonies in North America. Considering the number of people murdered, raped, robbed, and wronged, early corporations did not show themselves to be the most compassionate of organizations. But the corporation served its purpose well enough. It arose at the beginning of the age of European colonialism as a mechanism for monarchies to grant rights to private parties to extract the wealth of newly encountered lands. Though many nations participated in colonialism, only a few granted corporate charters to manage their activities. In these instances, the corporation was an essential part of colonialism. Check out Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money for a good introduction to this idea.
Though the corporation was an integral instrument of colonialism, when the colonies began to disintegrate, the corporations remained. Furthermore, long gone were the time limits common in the first corporate charters. Corporate activities abroad quickly spread to domestic markets in order to process, trade, and distribute the wealth extracted from occupied lands. Corporations quickly learned that exploiting domestic employees was slightly more difficult than the locals of the colonies. Any Charles Dickens novel will give you a glimpse of nineteenth century corporate activity. Executives, eager to generate more profit, placed this burden on their workers, demanding that they work more hours for less money. Consequently the first labor institutions quickly arose to defend the collective rights of the workers against their overseers.
Their efforts were successful around the world. Deals were struck with businesses, laws and regulations were codified by governments, and a new era of prosperity, wealth, and materialism ensued. Sadly, this balance between the workers and the corporations had not ended.
Acknowledging the rights and demands of workers is not good for the shareholder’s dividends and consequently the corporations began new campaigns against their workers. Their main tactic was to use the law to invalidate the rights of the people. This brief history brings us right back to the Taft-Hartley Act and the ongoing battle for Collective Bargaining Rights.
As I said before, the decline of the labor union is not a bad thing. If you’ve watched Waiting For Superman or read about the thwarted efforts at school reform in Washington, D.C. then you know about the problems that a union can pose. In the DC case, the union chose to represent the interests of its members as opposed to the interests of the people it serves (does that sound like a familiar business model? It should, that’s how corporations operate) So, labor unions, though good in some capacities, do have their problems. The same goes for corporations. The decline of the labor union is a very good opportunity, not to continue to deprive workers of their rights, but to leave behind the archaic structure of corporation and union. A structure that supports a monied class that does not work and continues to deprive workers of the benefit and control over their labor. It is time for the corporation and the labor union to become a thing of the past. (read this blog to learn more about what an economy is). There is an institution that merges the labor union and the corporation into one. A business model that succumbs to the processes of supply and demand while respecting the needs of its workers and not funneling wealth to people who contribute no labor to the business. This idea is commonly referred to as the cooperative. If you’re unfamiliar with the co-op, then read this or this. Briefly, “A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” What? Common values? Autonomy? Ownership? Democracy? Can it be true? It is. This business model, proven around the world, whether as your local food co-op or something as large as Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, does exactly what it says. Naturally many people have never heard of a co-op. Something like this practically eliminates the ability to make a living off of shareholder dividends or investments, particularly the very kind of investments that caused the Great Recession of 2008. Ultimately, in a free market economy made up of co-ops, the excesses of unions and corporations would be conspicuously absent.
What I’m saying in all of this is that what has happened in Wisconsin and Ohio is a good thing. All those who are affected by this attack on the labor union, and those who support organized labor, can now see that supporting their archaic institution will accomplish nothing. As long as their other half, the corporation, exists, they will always be fighting for their rights. The people of these unions need to begin the push to take not only control of their labor, but of the means of production. When the interests of the labor union and the interests of the corporation merge, the problems of old are largely forgotten. Any service or business in existence can be made more efficient, and less costly, by the abandonment of the corporate/union model. If you worry about research and development, it isn’t going to stop, entrepreneurs will continue to exist, academic institutions will continue to produce innovations, and the NSF will continue to fund new research. Coops that have a desire to offer new products will either fund their own research or perhaps create regional research collectives to meet the needs of a collection of independent coops.
Predicting the future is unnecessary here. All we need to do is realize that the corporation and labor union have outlived their usefulness. The recent events in Wisconsin and Ohio offer our country, and indeed our species, an opportunity to move out of the past and transition to something far safer and effective for meeting our needs.