Monday, 8 April 2013

If there is hope, it lies in the unions

I'm a bit slow sometimes, but I hadn't realised that Richard Rorty was quite into class politics (he was brought up as a Trot!). I managed to pick up a very cheap second hand copy of Philosophy and Social Hope (on the back of this quote) and have been very interested by the more political essays in it. One of them is "Back to Class Politics", which is basically a defence of the role of trade unions. Quick snippet below:
Unless politicians begin to talk about long-term social planning... economic inequality, and the formation of hereditary economic castes, will continue unchecked... The most important single reason for hoping that American labor unions will become much bigger and more powerful than they are now is they are the only organisations who want to get these questions on the table - to force politicians to talk about what is going to happen to wages, and how we are going to avoid increasing economic injustice. If a revived union movement could get out the vote in the old mill towns, in the rural slums, and in the inner cities, instead of letting the suburban vote set the national political agenda, those questions would be on the agenda.
This chimes with what I've been thinking lately. I personally believe that one of the major negative aspects of Margaret Thatcher's period in office is that the labour movement was enormously weakened. The long-term impact of this is still being felt and, perversely, the affect on wages (ie labour can no longer claim the share of the pie) means that the state has to do more, and the welfare bill is greater. By nobbling the ability of workers to self-organise effectively the Tories shift the balance of workplace power in favour of the employer, and disempowered ordinary employees. That in turn required the state to play a more active role if we didn't want inequality to widen further than it has done.

As John Rentoul blogs 
the breaking of trade union power may well have gone too far: part of the problem with today’s labour market is that low-paid work is so insecure, with zero-hours contracts and so on, that it makes it harder for people to get off benefits.
Given the thoroughly depressing welfare 'debate' of the past week or so, this gives me some optimism about the future. If the debate is shifting on welfare than we either have to accept that economic inequality is likely widen, or we find a way of tackling inequality without the state. I hope we opt for the latter and for me the obvious answer is make it easier for workers to self-organise and, by extension, to expand collective bargaining. (In fact given the distaste for state intervention on both Left and Right, this might even be seen as a 'libertarian' response. The reality that most Right libertarians despise unions suggests that a lot of them are simply sweary Tories) 

It struck me the other day that much of the discussion around low wages sort of hints at this, but few people want to explicitly state what is, to me the obvious conclusion. Maybe one day we'll see 'strengthening trade unions' as a public policy solution to low pay! But at the least a focus on the low pay that requires the state to do so much redistributing may lead more people to think about whether we do need to rebalance workplace power once more. 

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