A Return to Unions

Should we be concerned about the ongoing decline of unions in the US? Amidst the upheavals the country is experiencing right now, it seems somewhat like old news — this is, after all, a trend that has been ongoing since the ’70s. However, the correlation between the loss of unions and the rise in support for extreme nationalist ideology is striking. The American Rust Belt, which handed the presidency to Trump, once had a high level of union membership and was solidly Democrat, but by the time of the election had a unionization rate well below 10%.[1] Though voting patterns in these areas had been trending more Republican in recent years, Trump’s nationalist tendencies seemed to accelerate the shift.[2]

Of course, in a landscape as complex as US politics such a correlation alone proves little. Everything from Russian subterfuge to white supremacy to fake news, have been associated with the current volatility. However, there’s deeper reason to think that the disappearance of unions have an important connection not just with the recent election, but with the broader dissatisfaction with the political options available right now. As is argued by Corey Robin, the consensus framework upon which current partisan disputes are built was established by Reagan, replacing the New Deal support structure with faith in free-markets. This framework has lost popular support across the whole spectrum of voters. This is borne out by the historic unpopularity of both parties’ nominees, and their need to deviate from party orthodoxy. With Trump, this is obvious in his anti-free-trade protectionism, but it can also be seen in mainstream Democrats overtures towards the more socialist left (after the rise of Bernie Sanders forced their hand).[3]

Looking at the significance of unions gives some insight into this dissatisfaction with the range of political options available within Reagan’s framework. They point to what’s missing within what the main two parties are offering, and show how they can counter-balance current nationalist extremism. In this context, the significance of unions is ethical in nature — they enrich the lives of workers by binding them to their community, and to the political processes that constitute a democracy. This ethical value is apt to alleviate the dissatisfaction felt within current political orthodoxy.

It’s useful to begin by looking at why unions were allowed to decline in the first place. There are both historical and philosophical explanations for this neglect. Historically, there are two key issues to consider. First, though ostensibly the Republicans are the anti-union party while Democrats support them, there has been a significant asymmetry in how the two parties approach them. Whereas the Republicans have been incredibly aggressive in undermining unions whenever they are in power, Democrats simply play damage control — a succinct breakdown of this process is offered by Thomas Edsall.[4] This means unions go through periods of destruction, as has been seen recently in Wisconsin under Scott Walker, followed by periods of stability during which none of the lost ground is regained.[5]

A second issue has been the long-term shift in areas of employment over the past 40 years. Traditionally unionized sectors of the work, most notably manufacturing, have shrunk, while sectors without strong union membership such as work in service and technology have grown. As Ben Casellman has shown, this trend is irreversible — though overseas employment, spurred by globalization, may have accelerated the decline of manufacturing jobs in the US, the rise of automation precludes any largescale resurgence.[6] This means that to reverse the losses for unions, new sectors must be unionized — in particular, the jobs in service that make up 80% of private sector jobs in the US. This connects to the previous point, since the indifference of Democrats to unions rules out the kind of coordinated concerted effort that would be required to bring about this expansion.

On the ideological side, within American political philosophy conceptions of justice on both the left and right have assigned unions little value. Since Rawls’ seminal A Theory of Justice was published, mainstream debate in American political philosophy has been between libertarianism and the egalitarian liberalism defended by Rawls — the key question, at times the only question, has been to what extent wealth must be redistributed via taxation in a just society. Libertarians are obviously hostile to unions, given how they constrain individual freedom in negotiations between employer and employee.[7] Liberals in the mould of Rawls are also not invested though, since to them unions are merely imperfect and inefficient means to achieve the same egalitarian ends that can be tackled directly through a nice income tax. It’s plausible to think that this ideological dismissal is part of the reason for the Democrats’ unwillingness to expend political capital defending unions.

Given the aforementioned dissatisfaction with longstanding liberal orthodoxy, this is something worth re-evaluating. A good starting point is the early writings of Marx. In his Economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844 he describes the relationship between labour and the good life — how a person’s work profoundly affects their well-being. This is a moral discussion, concerning the value of work, and it is independent from his empirical ideas about the workings of the economy.

Marx views labour as much more of a positive force in a person’s life than we are accustomed to hearing. For him, labour is humanity’s ‘life activity’ — though it initially appears merely a means to an end in that we work in order to get money to buy stuff, he thinks that deep-down it is more than that: it is ‘life-engendering life’, ‘the whole character of the species’. [8] Strong words indeed, though rather opaque. He elaborates on his meaning when discussing the relationship between labour and what he calls species-being. The key idea here is that a person’s identity and well-being is tied to that of humanity generally: “Man is a species-being… because he treats himself as the actual, living species.”[9]

This relationship between an individual and ‘the species’, is not purely abstract, but importantly interpersonal in nature: “Every relationship in which man [stands] to himself, is realized and expressed only in the relationship in which a man stands to other men.”[10] Labour is essential to this since it has a profound effect on how different people stand in relation to each other, and so is central to an individual’s identity. Though the general outlines of Marx’s ideas about labour are fairly well-known, the specifics of its relationship to species being are less discussed — as we will see, it is this concept in particular that underpins the significance of unions.

Marx’s presentation may seem rather esoteric — you can blame that on Hegel — but the central ideas can be put in more tangible terms. The key idea of species-being is that humans are by nature communal — they identify with the society in which they live, and tie their well-being to it, to the success of shared projects, and to their role within the society. One aspect of this is feeling valued by one’s community: self-respect is intimately tied to feeling respected by one’s peers.

A person’s work is one of the central ways they are tied to their community: from hunter-gather societies to the present day, people’s individual labour has collectively produced the means for an entire community to live. This is why labour is essential to species being. Through work, a person plays an essential role in the well-being of their community, so this work is a crucial component of the good life.

Contrast Marx’s picture of value with a rigidly individualist view. Here, a person’s well-being derives from their experiences of pleasure and individual success, along with the success and pleasure of a private network of close family and friends. On this view, the value of labour comes purely from the compensation one receives for it — one sacrifices time and energy in order to afford consumption for pleasure.

The individualist view seems an incomplete picture of the value of human life: being part of a community is important to us; we care about our role in society, not just what we can consume within the private sphere; and, pertinently right now, people don’t just care about how much they possess in isolation but about the inequality they face — this isn’t a matter of envy but of wanting a society in which there is mutual respect realized in material terms, not just in words.

The second insight Marx offers concerns how the modern economy prevents us from gaining this social value from our work. As he famously puts it, we are alienated from our labour — “the worker is related to the product of his labour as to an alien object” — the work no longer ties us to our community and realizes our species-being.[11]

[The worker’s] labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labour is shunned like the plague.[12]

The modern economic setup forces the individualist framework upon us — it makes work a means to an end, allowing for pleasure in private, rather than an intrinsic source of value. What is it about modern labour that leads to this? The changes to economic structure caused by industrialization separated workers from the service to the community their work provides. This can be seen by contrasting an artisanal worker — say, a small-town baker — with someone on an assembly line. The baker provides a clear good for the members of her community — she gives them bread and pastry delights. She knows the people she is serving, produces a product of clear value for them, and has autonomy in how best to provide for them based on her what she sees and hears. This means she can identify with the service she provides and derive value and pride from it.

With the extreme division of labour found in modern manufacturing (and also work in all kinds of large bureaucracy), an individual worker produces no clear product of social value — she just adjusts the length of a screw of unknown purpose. She is serving a vast number of customers who she will never meet; she has no control over how she serves due to the managerial structure she works under. This makes it much harder to tie her work to the community and derive personal value from end product. Conversely, since her community do not fully understand the production process underlying the products they consume, they are unable to appreciate her labour in relation to the goods they enjoy. As Marx puts it: ‘An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labour, from his life activity, from his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man.’[13]

What is the solution to this? Not a return to artisanal labour under feudalism, of course. Instead, Marx argues that workers must own the means of production. What this means is not entirely clear, though it has commonly been interpreted as requiring state ownership of the entire economy. This proposal brings with it a host of additional complications, theoretical and practical. The theoretical problems concern whether such an approach is economically viable — this requires buying into Marx’s economics along with his ethics. The practical problems concern what drastic changes are required to bring Marx’s endpoint about. It requires a level of coordinated, intelligent government action that is completely out of the question at this time.

Unions provide an alternative approach, though their significance has long been over-looked. One reason is that they are even over-looked in Marxist thought. Unions are seen as a necessary means to an end: laying the ground work for the complete emancipation of workers. A just society and a good life for workers is thought to have to wait until capitalism is abolished and workers own the means of production.[14] This has led to a lack of attention to the intrinsic value of unions, even from those who should be most sympathetic. Unsurprisingly, there has been even less discussion in more mainstream American ethics — considerations of labour have generally been left to politically philosophy. Most philosophical debate on ethics has concerned the extent to which people are obligated to help others before pursuing selfish ends, and how these obligations are structured.[15] There has been little attention given to the Marxist idea that certain social structures (including the nature of work) are required for an individual’s good life — it’s generally assumed that one just needs the material resources to pursue the selfish ends of one’s choosing in leisure time. This outlook no longer looks adequate.

Importantly, support of unions is compatible with a range of economic views, since despite what right-wing ideologues claim, they do not undermine market efficiency, only change contours of supply and demand for labour. They at least partially reconnect workers to their community, and so restore their species-being — perhaps this can be a first step to something even better for workers, but if not they still provide great benefit.

Individual workers do not always provide a tangible good for society, but collectively they do — together, factory workers make cars, administrative staff are collectively responsible for a retail product etc. Forming a union ties workers to this product — they can see themselves as part of a team responsible for this significant contribution to society. It gives them a voice as the people making this contribution, so their social role is made visible. Also, as was discussed, it gives them leverage in negotiating with a company’s management, which not only allows them to gain better compensation, but to have influence on the process of production, and the nature of the end product. This regains some of the advantages of the artisan in allowing the worker to feel ownership of the product of their labour, and its contribution to society.

Finally, the union empowers the workers politically so they can take action with parties (supporting or opposing them), lobby to influence policy, and vote as a bloc to increase influence. In all of this, the unionized worker is engaged in the democratic process more directly, since it’s connected with their lived experience, their daily labour. The close-to-home politics of negotiations between unions and local employers are on a spectrum with the national level negotiations with political parties. In this situation, the policies connected with providing better economic conditions for the working class are connected to the workers’ own recognition of the value of their labour, and the role it plays within their community.

To be clear, these conclusions are not just theoretical: we witnessed them in action in the previous decades of high unionization. Vast numbers of workers were politically involved and fought to secure improvements to their everyday working life, and also to pursue the policies of the left. We can now see that they are sorely missed. There is right now an appetite for a revitalized left in America, revealed in the massive protest movement and activist resistance to Trump spreading across the country, along with the huge support for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. Rebuilding the unions can be a central part of this revitalization. It’s time for to make them a priority.

[1] http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/02/23/385843576/50-years-of-shrinking-union-membership-in-one-map.

[2] https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/where-trump-got-his-edge/

[3] https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/the-politics-trump-makes/

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/19/opinion/republicans-sure-love-to-hate-unions.html

[5] On Scott Walker see https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/03/scott-walker-anti-union-man/387283/

[6] http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/manufacturing-jobs-are-never-coming-back/

[7] The most intellectually respectable articulation of Libertarian philosophy is found in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy State, Utopia.

[8] Marx ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844’, in Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. (1978). pp. 75–76.

[9] Ibid p. 75.

[10] Ibid pp 77–78.

[11] Ibid p. 72

[12] Ibid p 74

[13] Ibid pp. 77–78

[14] See Jerry Cohen’s ‘Marx’s Dialectic of Labour’

[15] See Sally Haslanger’s Resisting Reality for a critique of this tendency.