who advocate the marketisation of all public goods and the dissolution of all
negotiated settlements in the economy, in the interests of flexibility, are arguing
that democracy and social citizenship have gone too far and should be rolled back....The
closer societies are to the pure market, we suspect, the more fragmented and harsh
they will be. That is why our subject is important!
Martin and George Ross (1), The Brave New World of European Labor (Berghan
Books, New York, 1999), chap. I
trends suggest that workers need unions more than at any time since 1945.
(2), Trade Unions in Britain Today (Manchester University Press, 1995),
creation of a permanently casualised industrial peasantry with little protection
and no stake in tbe future cannot be in the interests of organisations or society.
Brian Ward Lilley,
Institute of Personnel Management (London), at the Institute's 1993 conference
with globalisation, workers of all countries - rather than within each country
- need to unite.
Today, the need for effective
trade unionism is strong and urgent. For many years now, the position of workers
(and I mean not just the traditional "working class", but most people
who work for their living) has been growing more difficult.
most developed countries, workers' earnings (wages or salaries, pensions and other
benefits) have not kept pace with total national income (the sum of all personal
incomes) (3). For many people, earnings have failed to benefit from economic growth;
for others, earnings have actually fallen, or have been maintained only by working
longer hours. Hardly the benefits
of rising productivity that economists lead us to expect.
are only one facet of the problem. Another is the precariousness of employment.
For many years now, job stability has deteriorated. Work has become more temporary
and less reliable. It is more common than it used to be to lose one's job, and
harder to find another. This is an international problem, so obvious and well-known
that it needs only a brief mention here.
it has further-reaching consequences. Those who are worse off than they used to
be are not merely the people who, at any given moment, are actually out of work.
On the contrary, the growing instability of employment means that most workers
are worse off, even when
they are working.
For even if the income
(real purchasing power) of people at work is no less than it used to be, workers
are already poorer if
the future continuance of their income has become less likely. That is not just
a woolly, impressionistic view of how people feel; it is a mathematically accurate
To understand it better, try a comparison.
Suppose that, as from today, because of a change in the business environment,
it becomes less likely that a company will be able to maintain its dividends in
future years. Then, as from today, the intrinsic value of the company's shares
diminishes. Not may diminish in
future, but diminishes
right now, because dividend prospects have worsened. That can be proved
by mathematical calculation - the kind of calculation in which actuaries (like
myself) are specialists. The intrinsic value of the shares is down. And, as a
retired stockbroker, I can assure you that the market value (share price) will
fall too, pretty damn quick. Probability
By the same argument,
the declining probability of continuing future earnings makes workers poorer right
now, even if their rates of pay are unchanged.
problem is the increasing stressfulness of work. This is due largely to the growing
intensity of competition that free-market economists and other pundits never tire
of wishing upon us. We must become more competitive in order to hold our own,
in international markets, with other countries. They, of course, must likewise
become more competitive in order to hold their own with us. The object of all
this competition is to prune the prices of everything for the benefit of consumers.
It somehow escapes the notice of those clever
economists that we consumers are (or should be) also workers for large parts of
our lives. Never mind that! The interest of the worker, they say, must always
be subordinated to that of the consumer.
Yet another problem is that
present economic policies lead to exorbitant inequalities between the top management
of large businesses and everyone else. A US Federal Reserve study shows (4) that
the average remuneration of chief executives in 2005 was more than 170 times average
salaries in their companies, as against 40 times in 1970.
and industrialists are always telling us that harder times for workers in the
richer countries are inevitable in a world of increasingly sharp global competition;
that we cannot expect to hold on to all yesterday's hard-won gains in the face
of today's radical changes. They may even play at
being virtuous, arguing (as they delocalise their operations to the Far East)
that rich countries must make some sacrifices to allow poorer countries to grow.
Such pious chatter might be acceptable if the people at the top showed signs of
trimming their own inflated incomes. But there is precious little evidence of
Unions: needed yet unwanted
there are, it would seem, plenty of reasons for workers of all kinds to grab every
opportunity to co-operate to reinforce their position and resist being persistently
downgraded. Unity is strength,
as trade unionists say. But are workers uniting? Not as they once did.
union membership (in millions) (5)
1991 total for east and west Germany combined. Previous figures for west Germany
Why have unions lost so many members,
and why are they finding it so hard to attract new members? One hears many explanations.
A favourite is that fewer people today work
in big factories, traditionally the unions' prime recruiting ground. It is more
difficult to 'organise' workers who are dispersed among numerous small firms,
or maybe self-employed, than it was to drum up support at the late British Leyland's
lame dinosaurs. But this argument is somewhat weak. John Edmonds (6) observed
some years ago that working people
should be queuing up to join unions. If they were convinced of the
advantages of membership, they would be doing just that; recruitment would not
be a problem.
A stronger argument is that unions
no longer benefit from closed shops,
workplaces where union membership is a precondition of employment. These have
been effectively outlawed in Britain by Maggie Thatcher's legislation; in many
other countries they are no longer tolerated. Yet, despite the free-market rhetoric
that pours ceaselessly in thunderous torrents from the USA, the fact is that union
shops, not hugely different from closed
shops, are lawful in the majority of American states (7). Needless to say, George
W Bush would like to abolish them everywhere; but that would require the consent
of Congress, where he stands no chance against Nancy Pelosi.
historical cause of union decline in Britain has been the curious fact that many
unions made no effort to keep members on board when they lost their jobs. Indeed,
some unions did not permit anyone who was unemployed to remain a member. According
to Professor McIlroy (8), unions
have singularly failed to retain unemployed members, the biggest ingredient in
the haemorrhage of membership. However, today most major unions allow
unemployed members to stay on, paying reduced dues or none at all.
problem, especially in Britain, is that unions became discredited during their
heyday by their sometimes vexatious and counterproductive strategies. Some industries
were seriously damaged by frequent strikes and go-slows, which disrupted their
business and drove away customers; clearly this did not help to preserve jobs.
Some workers found the behaviour of union officials objectionable and saw their
efforts as doing more harm than good to members' interests. The arrogant and aggressive
conduct of certain unions alienated public opinion.
then again, there is the fact that unions with real heft may be more attractive
to potential members. There is a divide in the world of labour between co-operative
and militant unionism. And this divide reflects a real ambiguity in the relations
between labour and capital. Are they partners or enemies? The fact is that they
Since a business needs both labour
and capital, one may say that the two are inevitably in partnership; one cannot
function without the other. At the same time, capitalists have an interest in
maximising their profits by getting labour to work for them as cheaply as possible.
That is the basis for delocalisation of work to low-wage countries. To that extent,
labour and capital are indeed in conflict.
are unions which stress the fact of partnership, which are basically co-operative
with top management, which avoid extreme actions and foster a peaceful working
environment. These are prevalent in Scandinavia and to some extent in the USA.
In the ex-Communist countries, unions have historically functioned largely as
providers of benefits such as subsidised holidays, and have generally been closer
to management then to labour. Workers
in (or from) these countries do not perceive unions are being of much help to
them in the struggle for better wages and working conditions.
contrast, the traditionally muscular unions of countries such as Britain and France
may hold more attraction. The problem there is the unions' reputation for damaging
their own industries by too frequent strikes.
they up to the task?
But perhaps the basic
weakness of unions today is that, in general, they hardly seem up to the task
of confronting the new challenges of global business. They developed to cope with
a very different world and are slow to adapt their habits and strategies to today's
needs. Change will not be easy.
as markets expanded, unions had to enlarge their strategic domain to keep workers
from being played off against each other, undermining wage and labor standards.
Never easy even within national boundaries, it is even more difficult to do when
Martin and George Ross, loc. cit. supra, chap. VIII
Today, there is a serious mismatch
between nationally-based unions and the global corporations for which their members
work. Gradually, however, cross-border co-operation is developing. This may take
the form of links between unions of workers employed in different countries by
the same corporation; or of wider forums of collaboration between national unions,
such as the European Trade Unions Confederation (ETUC) or the Confédération
européenne des syndicats
Obviously there are areas where
international solidarity does not work. If a British company wants to close down
its customer service call-centre, replacing it with one in Bangalore, evidently
the British unions involved have no incentive to support their Indian counterparts
in this matter. However, European or American unions have every incentive to support
Indian or Chinese workers in their efforts to improve pay and conditions. For
as the gap narrows between Western and Asiatic labour costs, the export of jobs
To hold their own in the world
of globalisation, unions need to be international in scope. Workers
of all countries, unite, so ends the famous manifesto(9);
but, from 1848 onwards, it has generally been taken to mean: workers
within each country, unite. This motto is of
little use in today's world. The original text makes better sense.
Martin, of Minda de Gunzburg Centre for European Studies, Harvard University;
George Ross, Hillquit Professor, Brandeis University, Massachusetts.
John McIlroy is Professor of Industrial Relations at Keele University, England.
Stephen Roach, chief economist at New York investment bank Morgan Stanley, has
stated that the proportion of earned incomes (wages/salaries, transfer payments
and pensions) to total national income in the USA, eurozone, UK, Japan and Canada
fell in 2006 to less than 54%, "a historically low level". See Le
Monde, 30 January 2007.
Quoted by Eric Leser in Le Monde, 20 June 2006.
Figures in the table are taken from Monthly Labor Review, January 2006
(published by the US Government's Bureau of Labor Statistics), from a BLS press
release of January 2007, and from Mitgliederstatistik der DGB-Gewerkschaften.
Quoted by Robert Taylor in The Future of Trade Unions (Andrew Deutsch,
1994). John Edmonds was then general secretary of the major British union GMB.
Pre-entry closed shops are prohibited in the USA by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947,
but "union shops" and "agency shops" are permissible, unless
they are ruled out by the laws of individual states. A union shop is a workplace
where new employees who are not members of the recognised union can be taken on,
but they are obliged to join the union within a fixed period after starting employment.
In an agency shop, union membership is not obligatory, but non-members are required
to contribute to union funds. At present, union or agency shops are permitted
in 27 out of 50 states.
John McIlroy, loc. cit. supra, page 405
Workers of all countries, unite! is the final sentence of Marx and Engels'
Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848). The original German text is: Proletarier
aller Länder, vereinigt euch!