The Future of Unions & the Working Class

James Penfold
Aug 26, 2019 · 6 min read

“I’m goin’ to change my way of livin’, and if that ain’t enough,
Then I’m gonna change the way I strut my stuff!
’Cause nobody wants you when you’re old and gray,
There’ll be some changes made…”

-Benton Overstreet and Billy Higgins, 1921

I am not a union man. I have never been part of a trade union, and neither has any member of my immediate family; my ancestors were pastoralists and small business owners since before they arrived in Australia. I am not ideologically predisposed to be sympathetic to unions either: I am a staunch ‘small l’ liberal, and the allegations that unions are corrupt, inefficient and bullying deeply concern me.

However, I am also the beneficiary of unions. I fully support a minimum wage, a shorter working day and improved worker safety, and I have enjoyed these union-championed policies throughout my working life.

So ultimately, while I do not like unions, I appreciate that they are a necessary counter-weight to the power of moneyed interests in the economy. Much like mangrove wetlands, I think of them as odious, yet absolutely essential. And, also like mangroves, I’m worried that they are about to be swept away by powerful economic forces.

Unionism’s predators, and its shrinking habitat

Essentially, there are three obvious challenges to unions.

Firstly, there is the rise of massive, transnational corporations with union-busting intent. Amazon has a market value of ~1 trillion dollars (about the same size of Australia’s annual GDP), employs about two-thirds-of-a-million people across the globe, and has a history littered with shocking workplace practices. Last year, Amazon released a series of ‘training’ videos to its staff, which essentially urged them not to unionise, told them explicitly to report anyone who was discussing anything vaguely union-related, and stated that failing to do so ‘threatened your job security’. Although Amazon is the current poster child for corporate-thuggery, it would be a mistake to assume that it was the only bully on the playground.

Multinationals are already a problem for unions, because they can threaten to move jobs offshore, but corporations of this size are an adversary of entirely different proportions.

Secondly, there is the rise of the gig-economy. Taken to its fullest extent, it is a very direct interpretation of Adam Smith’s idea that:

“Every man thus lives by exchanging, and becomes in some measure a merchant.”

In its purest form (for our purposes), a ‘gig’ is where a worker and a consumer make a deal directly, bypassing an employer. I don’t ask Uber to call me a taxi - Uber facilitates my ability to ask someone to give me a lift. If this sort of economic relationship became the norm, you might imagine that you wouldn’t go to a cafe for a coffee; you would post an order for a cup of coffee, and some entrepreneurial barista would make and/or deliver it. In doing so, the barista is no longer a worker in the classic sense; they have become a merchant, and are likely to think of themselves as such. While I think it is unlikely that ‘gigs’ will ever take over the entire economy, I don’t think they are going away anytime soon either.

The problem for unions is that the aforementioned barista probably doesn’t want to organise with other baristas, and even if they did, their new relationship with the customer wouldn’t make them a workers’ union anymore - it would be a merchant’s cartel. Secondly, if some baristas are gig-workers, and some are still traditional workers, employed by cafes, the barista union who represents the remaining traditional workers is less powerful, because there is a pool of potential ‘scabs’ (the gig-workers) who aren’t unionised. These are the same problems the Transport Workers Union is currently facing with Uber drivers, and that all unions have had with independent contractors for years.

The third problem for unions is automation. Essentially, there is a real possibility that workers might be made completely redundant in the coming decades. Imagine it’s 2050, and you want to eat a meal. No food? You can get a drone to delivery it. No cutlery? The plate you eat it off was constructed using you very own 3-D printer. Where was the food grown, cooked and packaged? In hydroponic labs and factories, manned by robots.

While this may seem idyllic, this future could be as potentially dystopian as utopian. Does everyone get to live like this? Who still does the limited work that can’t be automated? How are they compensated? Did we trash the planet to do this? What effect does unlimited leisure have on the human psyche? Do we control the robots, or are they controlling us? This might be controversial, but I think it’s inevitable that humanity will eventually get to this point. Perhaps not soon, but eventually, we will have to ask ourselves these exact questions.

Let us, for the moment, imagine that we were in the process of a transition to a partially automated economy. Presumably, as automation increases, there is less and less demand for human labour. Do we retreat from full employment, and only utilise some portion of the population? Instead, should we maintain full employment, but incrementally reduce the length of the working day and week?

These are the sort of questions that unions, and the rest of us, are going to have to start thinking about. Essentially, unions might end up negotiating for the entire working class’s final redundancy package, and they ought to be prepared.

New Solutions to New Problems

So given that unions, an 18th century innovation, are under existential threat from some very 21st century problems, what is the future for workers? How can we organise and protect one another? Essentially, I can imagine three distinct possibilities.

Firstly, what I call the mega-union option. Unions would merge and adapt until they were able to combat Amazon, and other mega-corporations. Presumably, these unions would be trans-national, and possibly across multiple industries. There would be drawbacks, unfortunately, including a likely lack of government oversight (leading to greater possibilities of corruption), as well as too much market power when dealing with small and medium sized businesses, probably causing many to fail, and almost certainly driving up costs for consumers. Also, these mega-unions would pose strategic concerns for national governments.

Secondly, the meta-union option. Conceivably, permanent unions could slowly disappear, and be replaced by impromptu public and legal campaigns against select businesses or industries that didn’t sufficiently protect or compensate their workers. If you were fighting a mega-corporation, a mega-campaign could be organised using social media. If it was a small business (UQ’s Indian Feast, for example), a smaller, local campaign could be arranged. Once it had won, the motive for the campaign would dissipate, and everyone would go back to work. The downsides here are that industrial justice might be quite erratic- social media and public perception are sharp, but brittle weapons, and larger, structural industrial relations problems would likely be neglected without continuous union lobbying.

Thirdly, the sans-union option. As with the previous alternative, unions would be slowly disbanded, but national democratic governments, not public campaigns, would replace them as the main voice of workers. The theory would be that workers are the lion’s share of voters, and hence democratic governments would be sensitive to their demands. There are two risks here: namely, that workers might not be the majority in the future (i.e. the gig economy takes over, or automation causes mass redundancy) or alternatively, that governments are more sensitive to money than votes (and could be bribed by anti-worker interests).

So, as we conclude, what is the future for workers? In short, I’m not convinced that they have one, and neither am I convinced that it’s a good or bad thing. What I know with certainty is that the future is going to be shaped by the decisions we all make in the coming years, and we need to start planning and preparing for it. In all likelihood, I’m going to be proven wrong about the exact nature of the change, but you can bet that 2030 is going to look very different to today, one way or another.

“For there’s a change in the weather,
There’s a change in the sea,
So from now on there’ll be a change in me.
My walk will be diff’rent, my talk and my name,
Nothin’ about me is goin’ to be the same!”

Photo Credit: Emery-Reddy

Photo Credit: The Fabricator

Statecraft Magazine

Statecraft is run by the UQ Politics Philosophy & Economics Society, and is a new home for students interested in understanding the world around us.

James Penfold

Written by

James is the founder and former editor-in-chief of Statecraft Magazine.

Statecraft Magazine

Statecraft is run by the UQ Politics Philosophy & Economics Society, and is a new home for students interested in understanding the world around us.

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