Labor

J.D. Tuccille Discusses Unions on HuffPost Live, Calls for Syndicalism

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Cynical

OK, I didn't call for syndicalism; I just suggested that labor unions consider abandoning their coal-era habits and follow a more syndicalist path to become relevant to modern workers. I made the suggestion during an appearance on HuffPost Live to discuss the sad current state and possible future of labor unions with Anya Kamenetz, senior writer at FastCompany, Jane McAlevey, author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement and Lowell Peterson, Executive Director of the Writers Guild of America, East.

Strictly speaking, I was building on what Kamenetz had proposed in terms of possible new approaches for labor unions in her FastCompany article, "Unions Are Dying. What Comes Next?"and applying a proper label. In a dynamic, contract-based, freelancing world, labor unions that provide insurance, benefits, negotiating clout and even business opportunity with fellow union members are likely to be more appealing than the rules-bound, politicized, us-against-them old model. I don't think of syndicalist unions as replacements for capitalism, but as participants in the free market alongside and in competition with other models. More to the point, they have to appeal to workers, not rage against some supposed conspiracy that's eroding their membership.

This is more than I had time to get into during the HuffPost Live discussion, especially since I ducked out half-way through, but I once had an interesting exchange with an anarcho-syndicalist in which we agreed that, with the state out of the picture, there would be no reason to argue about economic arrangements, because they'd be matters of preference and voluntary arrangement. We're not likely to get the state out of the picture anytime soon, but that's no reason not to embrace anything that's voluntary — including labor unions that change with the times and win members by offeing them something of value.

While we're at it, let's not forget that I pissed off lots of readers by arguing against right-to-work laws,

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  1. but I once had an interesting exchange with an anarcho-syndicalist in which we agreed that

    …you would take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week?

    1. Epi, you glorious bastard.

    2. Hey, that doesn’t sound half bad! I don’t recall that ever going badly…

    3. Come see the popular-culture references inherent in the system!

  2. We’re not likely to get the state out of the picture anytime soon, but that’s no reason not to embrace anything that’s voluntary ? including labor unions that change with the times and win members by offeing them something of value.

    I’d be happy if what happened in Wisconsin -where they forced Unions to collect their own dues instead of relying on the state government to do it- became a country wide phenomena.

    As of now, especially if you are a state or federal employee, there is no such thing as “voluntary” unions.

    Sudes is right that Voluntary Unions are nothing to be worried about per se, but that isn’t remotely comparable to our current situation.

    1. I don’t see a good path from our current situation to voluntary unions, really.

      The unions may well need to be “broken” so that something can replace them. It’s hard to say.

      1. “The unions may well need to be “broken” so that something can replace them. It’s hard to say.”

        Why should anything “replace” them? They were based on violence and coercion from day one, they’ve caused way more harm than they ever ‘corrected’.
        They were and are an animal of rent-seeking and deserve to disappear.

        1. One could say the same of corporations. But there’s really no amount of harm they can do that you won’t turn a blind eye to because their supposed virtues compensate for the harm.

          Businesses rent seeking? Either you’ve never heard of such a thing or for some unfathomable reason you think, despite it’s being hugely more of a reality in our economy, it’s far less of a problem requiring government sticking its nose in to correct.

          Most likely you believe whatever organized corporate interests and their mouthpieces tell you to believe, which happily converges on whatever rhetoric is necessary to destroy unions and prop up those corporate interests.

          1. Another example of Tony being a disingenuous asshole and ignoring the widespread criticism on this site of the corporatism his favored party engages in relentlessly.

        2. I was responding to Tucille’s article, not describing an ideal situation.

          You’re right. In a dynamic, contract-based labor market – keyword ‘market’ – trade associations have some possible value. But they would not be or resemble our labor unions, and insofar as they did, they’d be equally bad.

  3. It’s hard to imagine any existing American labor union becoming anything akin to a mutually-beneficial voluntary organization in a dynamic, contract-based society.

    I think that employee-owned companies have had a better track record.

    Except in right-to-work states, unions own workers, not the other way around.

    And in right-to-work states, unions aren’t really positioned to do what you suggest.

    I suspect a new form of organization (actually an old one, like unions in their infancy) may need to arise. There’s no way the current crop of union bosses is going to give up their power and their cash cow, which is the group of workers they control.

    1. You can say that again.

    2. “I think that employee-owned companies have had a better track record.”

      Isn’t he basically describing an employee-owned placement agency?

      1. Possibly. ‘Clout’ though unionism of any kind is still much differing from the clout one gets by owning the business and taking on the risks and rewards. Unionism is generally about gaining control of a business without having to pay for it. I am not clear where Tucille falls in that spectrum, here. Syndicalism has only existed for a short time in the real world, almost a century ago, and I am not clear what it really looked like.

      2. yeah, except unions would be so much better if they helped members retrain for other careers if they got fired, and help smooth transitions for poorly performing workers within their ranks, effectively, to decrease supply while increasing the average real value of their membership… Instead of solely trying to grow their ranks and collect dues by force. You know, operate within logical economic strategies. But we all know that’s never going to happen.

  4. It’s hard to imagine any existing American labor union becoming anything akin to a mutually-beneficial voluntary organization in a dynamic, contract-based society.

    I think that employee-owned companies have had a better track record.

    Except in right-to-work states, unions own workers, not the other way around.

    And in right-to-work states, unions aren’t really positioned to do what you suggest.

    I suspect a new form of organization (actually an old one, like unions in their infancy) may need to arise. There’s no way the current crop of union bosses is going to give up their power and their cash cow, which is the group of workers they control.

  5. Call it what you like, until the “organized labor” movement demonstrates an ironclad dedication to qualitative results over seniority and productivity-strangling work rules, I will persist in my obsessive hatred of them.

  6. If these magical free associations can carve out a legitimate argument for employers to prefer their members, fine. The minute they attempt to lock non members out of the labor market, it’s time for the guillotine.

  7. There is actually a nascent Freelancer’s Union that offers insurance and retirement benefits along with contacts and contract templates.

    There’s no real way to bargain collectively as freelancers, and I imagine that organizing a freelancer strike would be like herding a jail cell full of cat prisoners. But they do have client ratings so you know how to avoid deadbeats.

    If I were really interested in continuing my career as a freelancer, I would be tempted to join.

  8. There are some aspects of modern society where collective action could be quite powerful. One thing I’ve always thought – and would rapidly have Donkeys like Krugman finding reasons to hate unions – is a depositors’ union.

    Modern banks have single-digit percentages of actual funds on hand for withdrawl. A ‘depositor’ union could threaten their own version of a strike with a collectively organized run-on-the-bank. It would be a powerful cudgel on, say, Citiwhore around bonus time. And it would drive central-planners and their enabling FINRA-guild thieves batshit crazy with creditors – instead of just debtors – having some control again.

    1. “Modern banks have single-digit percentages of actual funds on hand for withdrawl. A ‘depositor’ union could threaten their own version of a strike with a collectively organized run-on-the-bank”

      Never work.
      The first time a hint of that activity went out to the “union’, there would be a line at the door of the bank.
      Who’s going to wait, losing they’re deposits, hoping to penalize some exec? Not me.
      Simply, the hint *becomes* the activity, and the activity is in no way ‘collective’.

      1. The first time a hint of that activity went out to the “union’, there would be a line at the door of the bank.

        And the problem with that is…..?

  9. “That’s no reason not to embrace anything that’s voluntary.”

    Is there a union whose strategy doesn’t involve trying to monopolize labor’s access to an industry and rent seeking?

    I’m trying to understand which parts of that are voluntary.

    Even ignoring consumers…

    The people who want to work for a company but can’t because the union won’t let them in–is their involuntary participation being taken into consideration here?

    1. Which is where abandoning the politicized, coal-era model in favor of something flexible, dynamic and voluntary comes in.

      1. “Which is where abandoning the politicized, coal-era model in favor of something flexible, dynamic and voluntary comes in.”

        Call me cynical, but I’m having a hard time imagining “something flexible, dynamic and voluntary” that accomplishes anything like the decentralized genius of the market.

        1. A voluntary organizational structure isn’t the same as an entire economic system. It’d be like comparing the structure of a corporation to fascism.

    1. Oh, crap, Not Proudhon. That’s it. I’m out.

  10. Get your busybody social engineering statist libertarian noses out of the business of unions.

    They’ve been practically destroyed in the private sector and are under mortal assault in the public sector. Yet still they’re described as the market-distorting demon creatures anti-union forces (i.e., corporate America) have always made them out to be. This decimation has occurred via public policy, i.e. government coercion. If you guys were half as concerned about the undue influence on government and attempts at market distortion of corporations, you’d be about 99% away still from having a little perspective. Libertarians defending right-to-work laws is just about as revealingly ludicrous as you can get.

    The state of the “modern worker” in America is the problem itself, not something that should be adapted to as an inevitable and even desirable reality. You want capitalism, workers get protections. Otherwise capitalism is a game rich people play to make themselves richer while everyone else works to survive–a thing not deserving of anyone’s support.

    1. I’ve been in two unions, including the Teamsters, and you’re full of shit, buddy.

      It is the state of the “modern American” in America that is the problem itself; exemplified in union bullshit and evidenced by the significant number of Very Non-Rich immigrants who manage to come to America and make it as successful capitalists and non-union employees.

      1. One of my great-uncles was part of the UAW (worked for GM) and has never had a good word to say about them. By his recollection, they were wasteful, incompetent, and corrupt. He used to call their monthly newsletter “Pravda”.

  11. What I really want to know is how I can get a date with that spectacled chick in the picket-line on that freeze-frame. She looks like a really fun gal with a great sense of humor.

    1. The signs they’re holding in that still read “Colombia + Yale”–are those striking professors or post-grads or somethin’?

      ’cause striking Ivy Leaguers–that’s not what most people imagine when they picture unions fighting for better living standards for working people.

  12. The working class deserves to starve.

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