Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Unions are a free-market solution

The Questionable Authority (That's the name of the blog by the way.) has a fantastic piece up about the Right's hypocritical hatred of Unions. Here's the start of the piece:

Like most people who pay attention to the news, I've been treated to several weeks of Republicans using the Detroit bailout as an excuse to bash unions. Like a broken record, it was easy to ignore for a while, but the repetitive droning of discredited canards (like $70/hr wages) is getting more and more and more annoying.

And it's particularly annoying because the vast bulk of the union-bashing is coming from the alleged free-market conservatives. What the hell is so conservative about beating up on unions, anyway. Unions are the quintessential model of a market based solution to a problem. The management and the money people might not like them, but that alone doesn't mean they're not a market solution - unless the real criteria for "free-market" is "stuff that makes people who already have money happier".

Yes, I'm serious. Let's take a minute or two to think about what unions actually are, and what they do.

At its most fundamental, a union is nothing more or less than a group of people who have figured out that if they act together to place limits on the supply of their own labor, the businesses that have a demand for that labor will need to pay more. Unions are basically employee-owned businesses that sell labor. Like any good business, they try to both encourage demand and control the supply.

You can find the rest here.

This article is about the US, but it has strong parallels in this country. To see how vilified Unions have been by the Tories you just have to look back to Margaret Thatcher's description of the 1984 Miners' Strike:

As she famously - and controversially - framed the dispute at the time, "We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty."

That's right the democratically elected Head of government directly compared the struggle of workers in this country to militaristic actions of a fascist dictatorship. In this internet age there's a phrase for that.

We have to ask ourselves where this hatred comes form. After all surely it's better for workers to do things for themselves, gain advancement through their own work rather by "Tax and Spend" politics that the Conservative so dearly loves to hate.

We're talking about groups of workers who don't need to rely on any outside assistance, they're standing on their own two feet. Surely the Tories should love them.

And yet they don't.

And it just shows the Tories for what they are. Unions are about societal justice, they work to ensure that the voices of the weak are heard by the powerful. They act to build a fairer job market in which workers don't have to accept whatever lousy conditions their all powerful employer deigns to hand out. And that's what the Tories hate, because in the kind of society that the Unions want to tear down it's the Tories with the money and the power, and that's why they don't want change.

David Cameron recently compared himself to Barack Obama. Well I'll take a leaf out of Obama's speech book; a smug Thatcherite bastard, thant's not change, that's more the same.

Britain doesn't want more of the same, that's why we kicked them out in '97, and if we work hard, and get our message out, we'll keep them out at the next General Election as well.


  1. Yes, an interesting US post - thanks for linking to it.

    It puts me in mind of something Karl Polyani wrote way back ('The Great Transformation', before Neo-liberal 'ideals' had swept the world, a time when our Karl must have thought that another more progressive ideology might hold sway for the next half century.

    It's best summed up in David Harvey's excellent 'A Brief History of Neoliberalism':

    'There are, he noted, two kinds of freedom, one good and one bad. Among the latter he listed "the freedom to exploit one's fellows, or the freedom to make inordinate gains without commensurate services to the community, the freedom to keep technological inventions from being use for public benefit, or the freedom to profit from public calamities secretly engineered for private advantage."

    But, Polyani continued, "the market economy under which those freedoms throve also produced freedoms we prize highly. Freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of meeting, freedom of association, freedom to choose one's job."

    These latter are essential freedoms which have been impinged upon by neoliberalism (incl. Thatcherism), and David Harvey in his book shows very well how this was done by co-opting the meaning of 'freedom', indeed 'freemarket', for the use of the capitalist elite only.

    Time to reclaim the term.

  2. I think that's a very interesting way of looking at it. I think it's very true that when people have absolute freedom, they're just as free to commit atrocities as they are free to advance humanity.

    The Right seem very hot for punishing criminals harshly but not so much for companies that do far worse damage. No-one would suggest that murder should be legal but it seems that, especially under the Bush administration, it's okay for a large corporation to poison the environment and put the public's health at risk.

    Speaking about co-opting language, there is a right wing idiot on a message board I frequent who is extremely rabid. Due to the labelling of people like Rumsfeld as neo-cons he took to calling very liberal people neo-libs. I thought it was pretty hilarious that he quite clearly had no idea what the word meant since he used it as a pejorative and yet thought that Republicans like Reagan were ubermensch.

    I think we should definitely try to reclaim freedom. I think that it's not free trade if a large company uses it's power to suppress the economic freedom of small producers. That's part of the reason I like fairtrade so much (And that's another thing that the right don't like that actually is all about using freedom of choice as a vector of social change.).

  3. "Margaret Thatcher's description of the 1984 Miners' Strike" was completely correct. The NUM managed to bring down Heath's government, a government elected BY the people unlike the NUM. And since Scargill was a Marxist, he wasn't the best champion of democracy and liberty.

    Britain didn't want to return to class warfare or industrial strife. That's why it took so long for Labour to get elected again.

  4. Anonymous have you got any idea what a union is for, its about representing its members and fighting for amongst other things health and safety and a living wage.

    Now you said in your post that the miners brought down the heath government, well lets look at the history, Edward Heath was not brought down by the miners he did it to himself by calling an election that he did not need to call, in the middle of winter and asks the British Public who runs britain and they decided the public, the voters that it wasnt him. It was no revolution it was demoracy in action, the voters choose to elect him in 1970 and they choose to kick him out in 1974.

    Now let us also not forget that in 1973/74 the NUM had a membership of just under 1 million members, it had historically been one of the most unionised industries, you had to work together underneath the ground to survive, and these were men who every day they went underground to get the coal needed to power our nation, who during the war were the 4th area that you could be called up to join after the army, mavy and RAF they were hero's who kept the nation going and Margaret Thatcher reffered to them as the Enemy Within was an insult to the men who went underground and to the families who supported them and the nation.

    Last historical fact the reason why Labour was out of office for so long was not because of class warfare or industrial strife it was because we spent so much time looking at our navel and forgetting who the real enemy were, the free market, privatise everything in sight conservatives who beleive that cutting public spending is the only way to go.

    Thank god this time we are not fighting ourselves as we know who the real enemy within is its called David and George and the conservative party.

  5. I would add something but peter said it all so well that I feel like I don't have much I can add.

    I will add this though, I grew up mostly in the North East of England so I have seen first hand the economic devastation left by Thatcher allowing the collapse of the mining industry without providing any kind of safety net for those who lost their jobs.

    I'd like to point to the first comment at this post at the Bickerstaffe Record. The idea of "free" markets is the Golden Calf of the Right, the Tories stick to it no matter what it costs ordinary people.