ADAPT OR DIE
Unions must start providing services their members need.
DO NOT be fooled by events in Europe this week. True, parts of France,
Germany, Austria and Italy have been brought to a standstill by strikes.
True, government efforts in all these countries to reform unaffordable
pension systems are under ferocious attack from tough-talking trade-union
leaders. These things suggest that unions remain, as much as ever, a force
to be reckoned with. In reality, they are not. Unions everywhere are in
decline, and to a large extent they deserve to be.
The first modern unions were founded in the 19th century when class
warfare had some meaning. But the battle to establish workers' rights and
to enshrine principles of proper conduct by employers was won in the
developed world a long time ago. In modern democracies, strikes are a
constitutionally offensive way to advance political arguments. They are
also a damn nuisance. Increasingly, this view is widely shared. As a
result, the distinctively European tradition of unions as a political
movement (often with political parties at their command) is more or less
exhausted. Left-of-centre parties are now more likely to be embarrassed
than empowered by their union connections.
Show them the money
Politics and class warfare aside, unions would still be very useful to
their members, of course, if they succeeded in the more humdrum goal of
driving up wages. But this too is an increasingly difficult task.
Privatisation, deregulation, technological progress and trade are all
conspiring to undermine local monopolies and strengthen competition, and
thus to shrink the pool of economic rent that unions could once tap into.
Unions in their traditional role were pro-worker (at least, so far as
their own members were concerned) but anti-consumer: they wanted high
prices and restrictive practices, because they could extort a share of the
loot. No longer, with one big exception: unions remain strong in
public-sector industries. In that declining sector, taxpayers can still be
made to pick up the bill. Elsewhere, consumers have gained the upper hand,
so there is less loot to share. When workers ask themselves whether the
union is worth its membership dues, they are tending to decide that the
answer is no.
As if all this were not bad enough, the unions have remained stubbornly
(and often comically) old-fashioned. Dominated by men and dogmatic by
instinct, they have been leaden-footed in response to profound changes in
industries and markets. More and more women work, for instance; and ever
more workers of either sex work part-time. You would never know it from a
visit to most union headquarters: these changes seem to have passed most
Would it matter if the unions simply fizzled out altogether, as, on
present trends, they seem certain to? Actually, it would be a pity.
Fortunately, unions are no longer needed to fight the class war, nor can
they any longer expect (outside the public sector) to get their members
paid more than the market will bear. But with a bit of imagination they
might still play a useful role in the modem economy. This would require
them to think harder, or at all, about the services their members or
could-be members would nowadays value.
Advancing a political agenda is not one. Why should workers give a hoot
what their union leaders think of the war in Iraq, say, or Europe's new
constitution? That is not what they pay them for. On the other hand, a
collective voice in dealing with a company's managers and owners does
remain a very useful service - provided that the voice speaks, as most
workers would wish it to these days, in a spirit of outward-looking
co-operation rather than mutually destructive confrontation. And workers
today, facing an array of difficult choices that their poorer and less
sophisticated predecessors were spared, would value honest disinterested
advice on all manner of work-related matters: pensions, insurance, taxes
and benefits, and assorted legal questions. Unions ought to be well-placed
to offer such help. What does it matter, really, if the result is not
necessarily to get an employer, or a government, over a barrel?
Governments deserve much of the blame for freezing the unions' mentality
in the confrontational mode. The legal immunities that unions in most
countries enjoy are a weapon for the war that no longer needs to be
fought. The tasks that modern unions could and should be concentrating on
need no special protection from the laws that apply to everybody else.
Unions are no longer needed (if they ever were) to advance basic rights
through economic blackmail: today's rich countries have better ways of
discussing such matters. Depriving unions of the means to engage in
blackmail, by curbing their legal immunities, would help to channel their
thinking in a more productive direction - before it is too late.
Adapted from The Economist
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