Unions are changing and that should give us cause for hope

Earlier this spring, USiLive ran a story with the gnomic title $15/hour? Done. What’s next? The story originally appeared as an article on the Hack the Union website and the writer, Kati Sipp, who had been the political director of “a medium-sized local (union branch)” in the US, was celebrating the successes of the union-led campaign for a $15/hour minimum wage.

She saw the campaign as a demonstration of a new form of trade unionism, one in which unions no longer locked themselves within the comfort-zone of member benefits and collective bargaining but, as she put it, opted for “pushing the envelope of what’s possible”.

According to Sipp, that meant engaging in a more openly political way with issues like the gender gap, flexible working, corporate financial transparency, and the implementation of regulatory mechanisms to achieve positive outcomes. These ideas, increasingly on the political agenda worldwide, are important to all workers and not just those with a union card.

Well, the world of work is changing and new buzzwords and buzz phrases seem to emerge almost daily to describe the new realities: precarity and the precariat, the sharing economy, microwork and mechanical turks, uberization, on-demand employment, zero hours, negative hours, the gig economy…. Shouldn’t we expect the world of unions to change as well?

When British economist Guy Standing published his influential book The Precariat: The new dangerous class, in 2011, he wasn’t announcing the recent discovery of a group of people with insecure jobs, no guaranteed income, and none of the usual benefits of full-time employment like paid holidays and a pension. Those people had existed for years in the developing world, in the poorest corners of even the richest nations on Earth, and among often overlooked freelance and self-employed workers in occupations from acting to taxi-driving. No, what Standing was arguing was that the burgeoning precariat was becoming a class—a group with common interests (albeit often unrecognised) and a common relationship to the system of wealth creation and distribution.

In traditional Marxist views about class, those common interests and that common relationship focus on the “alienation of labour”—the way in which the only economic resource that workers can always rely on, their labour, is used by bosses to enrich themselves. But today, across the globe, even the workers’ right to labour is under threat. Insecurity and impoverishment have grown with globalisation. You need only think how the unrestrained movement of capital across borders threatens jobs and wages; how digitalisation all to often throws workers on the scrapheap while making billionaires of a handful of privileged entrepreneurs; and how secret trade deals like TTIP, CETA, TPP and TSA are challenging the right of national governments to protect the jobs and wellbeing of their citizens.

Yet insecurity and impoverishment are not enough to make a class, however or by whoever that is defined.

In practice, the important word in Standing’s subtitle is “dangerous”. Our society is divided into a small minority of those who have more than they can possibly know what to do with, and an expanding majority who face the withdrawal of hard won public benefits and services—the commons, as Standing has said—and their immiseration through increased unemployment, underemployment and intermittent employment. This is a recipe for conflict, instability and political extremism.

Standing argues for a new politics to counter the malign influence of right wing and populist governments across the world. He calls it “a politics of paradise, a strategy for enabling the precariat to gain control of their lives, to gain social and economic security, and to have a fairer share of the vital assets of our 21st century society.”

He makes concrete proposals—for example, ensuring “an equitable distribution of financial capital”, developing “a progressive strategy to rescue the commons” and, most widely known of all, providing “every legal resident in society with a basic income as a right”. Standing co-founded the Basic Income Earth Network and his book has probably made him the world’s best-known advocate of the basic income (BI), sometimes known as the citizens’ income (CI).

The basic income is a response to increasing job insecurity and the spread of various forms of on-demand employment, from conventional freelancing to zero-hours contracts. Its supporters argue that unions wishing to fight for a fairer economic settlement should adopt BI as a key demand, although there is certainly evidence of ambivalence towards it within the union movement. Standing does not believe BI is, by itself, a panacea for the ills of globalisation but he sees it as an essential element of his “politics of paradise”.

It’s fair to say that the implementation of a basic income at a reasonable level throughout the world will help address some of the most glaring inequities of the global economy. Standing himself believes that unions have a significant role to play in bringing this about. “I have always been a union supporter and always will be,” he says, “because without collective bodies to represent us, we are all vulnerable.” But he remains critical of “labourism” within some unions today, and sees that as an issue that must be addressed.

“Union leaders have long been among the most vehement opponents of a basic income,” Standing told the Equal Times website in November, 2015. “That has always struck me as sad. When I asked a group of union leaders at a big summer school why that was the case, one responded that he thought it was because if workers had a guaranteed basic income they would not join unions.”

BI’s supporters argue that the evidence suggests that people with a secure basic income are less fearful of the threats of victimisation that often follow union activity. It is certainly true that there is an inverse correlation between levels of union membership and income inequality (see the below diagram from the US Economic Policy Institute, EPI). “Early in the century,” according to historian Colin Gordon writing on EPI’s blog in 2012,  “the share of the American workforce which belonged to a union was meager (sic), barely 10 percent. At the same time, inequality was stark—the share of national income going to the richest 10 percent of Americans stood at nearly 40 percent. This gap widened in the 1920s. But in 1935, the New Deal granted workers basic collective bargaining rights; over the next decade, union membership grew dramatically, followed by an equally dramatic decline in income inequality. This yielded an era of broadly shared prosperity, running from the 1940s into the 1970s. After that, however, unions came under attack—in the workplace, in the courts, and in public policy. As a result, union membership has fallen and income inequality has worsened—reaching levels not seen since the 1920s.”


What exactly causes what is unclear. We can’t be sure whether a decline in union membership encourages growing income inequality, whether a rise in income inequality causes a decline in union membership, or whether there is a third, as yet hidden, factor—a right-wing political ascendancy, for example—that causes both phenomena.

But unions also have other concerns about BI that do not bear any relationship to its potential impact on membership figures.

One is that the introduction of a legally enforced BI may lead employers to decrease wage rates or working hours—both tendencies that can be observed in economies, like the UK’s, promising a reasonable minimum wage. Another, perhaps the most challenging aspect of BI, is that it may create pressure for unions to focus more on broader issues such as the health and wellbeing of their members, worker training and education, the impact of digitalisation, media reform, and campaigning against discrimination within the workforce, or for the rights of asylum seekers. These are often issues with which many unions are relatively unfamiliar, and they are always issues which push unions towards increased involvement in politics.

In many countries the pressure to introduce BI comes, in fact, from political parties, usually minority parties with radical agendas—for example, the Green Parties in Japan, Finland, Ireland, Norway, the Czech Republic, England and Wales, Scotland, Canada and the US; Podemos in Spain; and the Pirate Party in Canada, Australia, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Iceland and Norway. Traditional parties seem reluctant to endorse BI, although the South Korean Socialist Party and the Finnish Centre Party supports BI, the British Labour Party is considering it and it has supporters within the German Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In most countries, the most energetic promotion of BI comes from campaign groups and individual academics and politicians, and it seems that BI occupies the same niche as the Tobin (or Robin Hood) tax, opposition to secret trade deals, reform of the energy market and sugar taxes—good ideas, but either too controversial or with too many powerful vested interests to make for easy politics.

BI has been adopted by advocates on the left and the right. BI’s proponents from the right see it as a means of reducing the cost of public provision of social benefits, or as a staunch against currency inflation. On the left, the typical argument—put forward by US Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright in a 2005 paper titled Basic Income as a Socialist Project—sees BI as a mechanism for addressing the alienation of labour and even empowering workers—a sideways manoeuvre on the road to socialism.

“All of this may seem like wishful thinking,” Wright says. “Socialism in any sense of the word seems so far off the agenda in the American political context of today. And, of course, if I am right that a generous basic income would contribute in a meaningful way to revitalizing a socialist challenge to capitalism by partially decommodifying labor, empowering workers and enlarging the nonmarket social economy, then this may imply that basic income is even more off the agenda than we may have thought. Still, we will not live under the cloud of right wing capitalist triumphalism forever. There will be renewed episodes of progressive, egalitarian politics even in America. And when such episodes occur, basic income should be high on the agenda not simply because of the ways it directly deals with a range of fundamental issues of social justice, but because of the ways it may contribute to a broader transformation of capitalism itself.”

When right wing capitalist triumphalism does subside, perhaps as a result of its own growing internal contradictions, union activism will be critical to the achievement of a basic income. It only stands a chance of implementation if an organised workforce gets behind it. It may take a long time, but unions are changing, and that should give us cause for hope.

More details

Hack the Union: http://www.hacktheunion.org

Wikipedia entry on the Basic Income: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_income

Basic Income Earth Network: http://www.basicincome.org/

Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Social Class’: http://www.britannica.com/topic/social-class

Interview with Guy Standing: http://www.equaltimes.org/most-unions-have-failed-to-respond

Colin Gordon, ‘Union decline and rising inequality in two charts’: http://www.epi.org/blog/union-decline-rising-inequality-charts/

Erik Olin Wright, ‘Basic Income as a Socialist Project’: http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/Basic Income as a Socialist Project.pdf


This is the first of a three part series. Future parts of the series will cover Employment and Self-employment, and Syndicalism and Independent Unions.




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Gary Herman

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