State of the Unions

As I write, outside my window, like the boom of a military drum, smoke bombs explode with startling regularity, sending their wispy white content, pushed and spun by Normandy’s winds, over the heads and between the legs of the crowd in the street. Shrouded by the mist that quickly scatters, the paving stones clatter with the movement of the upbeat motley crew of marchers, studiously impassive passersby, and police officers, who, on black-booted foot or white-and-blue motorcycle, keep a watchful eye on the proceedings. Gilets jaunes? Not this time. The jackets on these protestors, though, were not yellow but red. The procession passing by my window this blustery afternoon is not part of the loosely-defined group of disaffected citizens protesting against the policies of their president, Emmanuel Macron, by taking to the streets in the yellow jackets that the law requires every motorist to carry, creating an effective symbol of outrage against the government. No, this red-vested, red-faced group was one of trade union members, launching their own march to air their own anger and, one assumes, to demonstrate their solidarity with their yellow-vested comrades who had clogged that same street the day before.

Trade unions are an interesting part of civil society. Their influence, popularity, and means of operation, as well as the sectors they serve and the variances between them, act as a microcosm of the wider society they exist in. They reflect, by their very nature, the multiple varying philosophies on class, political organization, business practices, and labor relations – the factors that most clearly define the expression of the question at the heart of politics: how should society be organized?

The answer does not become any clearer through examining how unions practice their trade today, but at least it may give an idea of the issues they face. The ideas that live large in the public imagination may be the nobility of Poland’s Solidarity, or the Winter of Discontent in Britain that swept Margaret Thatcher to power on a union-busting platform, but things today are rather more complex. France’s unions, despite perhaps being the loudest in their class, are not actually anywhere near the most powerful: participation rates among workers as a whole are in the single digits. Four of the five highest-rated countries are Scandinavian (Cuba is the non-Nordic outlier). In the United States, unions have lost the swathes of influence they once held. Participation rates hover around 10%, and they have been further dampened by the actions of the judiciary, which has in recent years tended to rule against union interests. One important case exposed the critical question, or perhaps paradox, at the heart of union membership: the space for individualism in an inherently collectivist organization, and how to cope with the free-rider problem. This case, Janus v. AFSCME, decided in the American Supreme Court earlier this year, ruled that public sector workers who are not union members cannot be compelled to pay fees to the union representing their workforce. The Court framed it as a free-speech issue, stating that even if, logically, labor unions would lobby for causes that would benefit the workforce, it cannot be assumed for certain, and therefore the possibility exists that workers would be paying union fees to further policies they do not support. In short: a person can’t be forced to support causes they do not believe in.

Today, however, the traditional forces of worker organization have changed. Beyond working conditions and wages, company ethics are taking a front seat. Last month, workers at Google offices all over the world walked out of work, protesting against what they saw as inadequate sexual-harassment policies in place at their company, in the aftermath of a devastating New York Times article reporting that senior executives had received huge payouts after leaving the firm over credible harassment allegations.

Outside of size and scope, unions have changed in form as well. The Tech Workers Coalition in San Francisco, for example, conducts advocacy on behalf of the technology employees, who, behind the glittering façade of the firms they work for, face a litany of difficulties in protecting their interests, notably surrounding whether or not they can be defined as employees at all (a UK court upheld yesterday an earlier ruling deciding that Uber drivers are not self-employed and should be classified as employees, with appropriate benefits and protections). Difficulties like these are to be expected, seeing as how ride-hailing firms’ drivers, food delivery-app personnel, and the like are workers in a field that did not exist barely a few years ago. As with any new development in how society operates, rules and regulation must be drawn up through observation and experience, trial and error, and indeed trials and tribulations. As unions evolve, adapting to a more hostile environment and an increasingly skeptical potential membership base, they must also look at how workers in these new sectors are organizing themselves, and how their interests are different to ‘mainstream’ employees. The state of the unions lies in their ability both to step back and to forge anew.

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