Sunday, October 6, 2013

What Unions Are For

Will we re-discover just how essential unions are to capitalism just at the point that capitalism itself collapses?

Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money:

Great job by IBEW Local 520 in Austin to execute its own undercover investigation of independent contractor fraud among the city’s construction industry. Basically, employers are listing workers as independent contractors to avoid labor law. They then place these workers in dangerous situations, take advantage of the limited to nonexistent English language skills, and steal their rightful wages (not to mention taxes that should go to the state).

In case anyone ever asks what unions are good for, point them right straight to IBEW Local 520. Unions aren’t just about money. They are about dignity, safety at the workplace, labor law, and ensuring a better life for all Americans. Given how much even one local in a lightly unionized state uncovered, how much more fraud and abuse is out there? 
David Atkins has the flip side:
I'm beating a dead horse here, but it has to be said again: old answers won't work to solve new problems. Capitalism as we understand it today worked fairly well with physical products and smaller economies of scale. Everything worth buying needed lots of people to produce it, and those people needed to paid well enough to buy other things. Non-material goods were at a minimum, and mass producing items in one part of the world to be sold in another was limited to mostly to trade goods like tea that could not be supplied at home.

So long as the worst inequalities could be tempered with social safety nets, the most basic universal services provided or subsidized by government, and wages buoyed by labor organizing, the system worked as well as any economic system run by human beings could be expected.

But few people are asking themselves what becomes of human economic organization when the world's most profitable companies sell intellectual rather than physical property, and employ only a small number of people? What happens when the companies that do sell physical goods automate most of their processes? What happens when the few previously skilled jobs humans can still do become low-skill routine, when booksellers become Amazon warehouse stockers and cab drivers cease to exist entirely in a world of self-driving cars? What happens when local labor unions are helpless to organize against employers because almost any product can be produced almost anywhere in the world in a globally integrated economy?

You get rampant inequality. Countries run by right-wing politicians suffer increasing barriers to entry between classes, social instability and horrific gaps in wealth, while more left-leaning countries protect their middle classes and safety nets at the expense of high cost of living, graying demographics, choking deficits and skyrocketing unemployment.

The symptoms of a global disease are everywhere, and the old cures won't work anymore. There simply isn't enough honest work that needs doing at decent wages--perhaps at all, and certainly not within the control of any one nation-state. Technology has allowed capital to become disconnected enough from labor that the foundation of our economic systems needs serious re-examination.

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