it feels ungrateful of me not to mention…for many the misery–gone! but it’s back now. so unions?–flawed but needed again. there is no utopia, but people tend to work toward it personally, for familial reasons–when they are working.
I don’t normally write about explicitly political matters here, but when I attempted to reply on LiveJournal, I found that I had run over the limit for comments; so I beg indulgence of you all, and ask those not interested not to click on the link below, and not to bother with the remainder of this post.
My reply to S. Dorman:
I’m afraid I have to disagree with you about unions being needed again. They were an appropriate form of industrial organization for the industries of a hundred years ago, when most manufacturing labour was semi-skilled and a man could expect to do roughly the same kind of job for his whole working life. There is a reason why unions have nearly disappeared from the private sector in North America, and suffered grave losses in numbers and prestige elsewhere; and it isn’t the wickedness of the triumphant capitalists. It is simply that the average job nowadays doesn’t last long enough to organize.
I have had a number of jobs of that kind, and I have seen the pattern firsthand. To begin with, the job involves exploiting some kind of new technology; the people working in the field are self-starters and go-getters, the kind who can adapt to a complex new task without any formal training (no such training having yet been devised), and they tend to command very high wages.
When the industry grows a little more, the wages for new workers fall, but so do the requirements: the know-how is established and can be formally taught, which greatly increases the pool of potential applicants. At this stage the occupation might be unionized; but the technology is still new enough that the employers could do without it, and would do without it if the demands of unionized labour suddenly made it much more expensive to use.
As the industry matures, there comes a time when the employers cannot do without the technology or the workers who know how to use it; at this point, a union could get some traction and seek to inflate wages above the market level. In former times, an industry could remain in this stage for many decades. I have worked at jobs where it lasted as little as two or three years; and nobody will bother to organize a union for a job that will only last for two or three years.
After that, the job begins to be superseded by newer technology; that means new jobs, demanding different skills, and done largely by different workers. At this point, unionization in the older field would only kill off jobs by encouraging employers to dump the old technology sooner.
I have worked as a seismic data analyst, a job that only began to exist in the 1960s (when mainframe computer power was first applied to geophysical data) and disappeared entirely in the 1990s (when desktop computers became so powerful that geologists could do all the work themselves). For a time I worked as sysop of a multi-line dialup chat BBS, a job that was a radical novelty in 1990 and didn’t exist anymore (because of cheap commercial Internet access) a decade later. I have had several other jobs that did not exist a few years before I took them, and no longer exist today. It would have been a futile task to try to unionize any of these mayfly occupations.
Much as I agree that employers often exploit their workers, and sometimes shamelessly, I have to say that the union, in most cases, is a solution whose time has passed. It is simply not a structure that can adapt to rapid change, either technological or economic. If an individual worker wants redress for a grievance, he will much more easily find it by changing jobs than by waiting for a bureaucratic union to force change upon bureaucratic management.
The only private-sector unions that are really thriving in North America at the moment are in the construction trades and the film industry; this makes sense, for those are long-lasting, relatively stable trades in which most work is done on short-term projects, and the union serves a purpose by setting the ground rules for employment, as well as taking care of pensions and benefits for what would otherwise be un-pensioned and uninsured temp workers.
Apart from that, unions are mostly persisting in the public sector, where the employers are under no necessity to turn a profit, and the unions can contribute heavily to the campaign funds of the politicians who hire them — something that would be attacked as influence-peddling if anybody else did it, and outlawed as conflict of interest if it happened in private industry.
Meanwhile, I should say that when people are working, they don’t work towards Utopia, but towards economic security for themselves and opportunity for their children — and these two goals tend to conflict, for the younger generation’s opportunities frequently arise from the same technological change that makes the older generation’s jobs obsolete. You can’t cater to both in the same Utopia; and nearly every Utopian will instinctively prefer the first goal to the second.
For all Utopians as such are potential reactionaries. They only want to put society into what they conceive of as the perfect state, and then keep it there. Further change is not sought, not desired — actively opposed — and the desire for it is anathema. They cannot bear to be reminded of the truth that Zamyatin expressed with arithmetic simplicity in We:
‘Do you realise that what you are suggesting is revolution?’
‘Of course, it’s revolution. Why not?’
‘Because there can’t be a revolution. Our revolution was the last and there can never be another. Everybody knows that.’
‘My dear, you’re a mathematician: tell me, which is the last number?’
‘But that’s absurd. Numbers are infinite. There can’t be a last one.’
‘Then why do you talk about the last revolution?’
That passage cost Zamyatin his career, for Joseph Stalin was the very model of a Utopian Socialist, and in Stalin’s Russia, it was a capital crime to imply that Lenin’s revolution was not the last. It remained a crime until 1991, when the next revolution duly occurred.
Unions were revolutionary at one time; but they were not the last revolution. They are no better suited to present-day conditions than the mediaeval guild system was suited to the conditions of the Industrial Revolution. We may need to find institutions of our own that will do some of the good work that unions used to do, but we shall have to devise them for ourselves. The new wine won’t go into the old wineskin — a figure of speech I recall from somewhere.