Monday, March 07, 2011

Why Global Labor Unions Have Been On A Decline

Labor unions have been on a declining trend, not just locally but internationally.

Trade or Labor Unions, according to the Wikipedia, is “organisation of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members (rank and file members) and negotiates labour contracts (collective bargaining) with employers. This may include the negotiation of wages, work rules, complaint procedures, rules governing hiring, firing and promotion of workers, benefits, workplace safety and policies. The agreements negotiated by the union leaders are binding on the rank and file members and the employer and in some cases on other non-member workers.”

Labor unions, for me, function as political force, which uses government laws for extracting economic privileges, at the expense of the company owners, non-labor union workers and taxpayers indirectly (such as the GM bailout) or directly (government unions).

The main goal of the labor union is to restrict manpower supply and to raise wages and benefits above market levels. And in doing so, labor unions add to the imbalances in the labor markets, which results to higher unemployment levels and the lack of competitiveness among many others.

For public unions the desire is for more taxpayer funded privileges.

In other words, labor unions thrive on a non-competitive environment.


As shown in the above (interactive) chart by the New York Times, since the 1980s labor or trade union around the world has seen a sharp decline except for a few, e.g. Iceland.

The main reason: rising international competitiveness or globalization.

Cato’s Dan Griswold explains (bold highlights mine)

Economic theory offers a number of reasons why growing international competition would be damaging to the interests of labor unions. More competition in product markets means greater elasticity of demand for labor—that is, global competition means that demand for labor is more sensitive to any change in wages.

Employers competing in global markets cannot simply pass higher wage costs along to consumers in the form of higher prices because consumers themselves can choose to buy substitute products from lower-cost, often nonunionized producers.

Expanding capital mobility means that employers are more able to shift production to lower-wage countries if necessary. A more mobile company is better able to threaten or employ an “exit” option in response to union demands. In the face of product competition and capital mobility, union demands for higher wages can lead instead to fewer domestic union jobs, as has been the case in a number of firms and industries.

In contrast, in markets insulated from robust competition, unions can more readily demand a share of a company’s or industry’s profits without fear of compromising the survival or competitiveness of the employer. Insulated markets create rents in the form of abovemarket profits that unions can then bargain with management to divide between them at the expense of the consuming public.

In short, the more a country is open to trade, the bigger likelihood of the diminished role of labor unions.

There are other non trade factors are involved too.

They include, adds Mr. Griswold, more rapid growth of certain categories of workers, such as women, southerners, and white-collar workers, who are less favourable to unionization; the deregulation of transportation industries; declining efforts of unions to organize new members; government activity that substitutes for union services, such as unemployment insurance, industrial accident insurance, leave policies, and other workplace regulations; the decline in pro-union attitudes among workers; and increased resistance among employers

For me, another very critical factor second to globalization has been the ongoing transition from industrial era to the information age.

Labor unions had basically been tailored for vertical organizational structures. But times are changing. As technology (via the web) becomes more entrenched, the nature of work has gradually been reconfiguring. And this provides lesser opportunity for unionization to take place, aside from the financial incentive or viability to maintain one.

As Alvin Toffler writes in Revolutionary Wealth,

Work is increasingly mobile, taking place on airplanes, in cars, at hotels and restaurants. Instead of staying in one organization, with the same co-workers for years, individuals are moving from project team to task force and work group continually losing and gaining teammates. Many are ‘free agents’ on contract, rather than employees as such. Yet while corporations are changing at a hundred miles per hour, American unions remain frozen in amber, saddle with the legacy organizations, methods and models left over from the 1930s and the mass production era.

In other words, digitalization, automation, robotics and other technology enhancements which raises productivity are taking many people out of the industrial era work. The more outsourcing and specialization takes place the lesser role played by the labor unions.

Investing guru Doug Casey also sees the same,

The good news, however, is that coercive unions are on the way out. They're anachronisms. They're leftovers from the time when people were like interchangeable parts in the giant factories they worked in. People were so replaceable that one person was little better or worse than another – because they were basically biological robots. In the early industrial era, labor was in over-supply, society was poor, and conditions were harsh everywhere. It's understandable why workers felt they had to band together for self-protection. But the industrial era is gone. The assembly line with thousands of workers is totally outmoded. In the global information age, trying to extort high wages for manual labor is pointless. Soon robots will be doing almost everything, then nanomachines will replace the robots. People will only be doing work that requires thought, judgment, and individuality. Those aren't things that can be unionized.

It pays to look at the big picture.

Labor union trends worldwide have not been declining because of culture or politics, but because of economics.


Nonoy Oplas said...

Labor unions want huge perks and benefits because they intend to become "employees forever". Modern workers are more ambitious, they want to hop from one job to another until they find a really satisfying position and pay. Or they wish to become employers themselves someday.

Filipinofreedomfighter said...

I agree with the part about horizontal organization structures threatening labor union coercion. Its really amazing how technology is outrunning the state to the point of visible obsolescence. But on the other hand, globalization has not only meant economic integration but also political integration and state centralization. What is threatening to civilization is that we have never been this close to world government than at any time in history. The parasitical class will not give up so easily. Its a war between the makers and the takers, as it has always been.