Op-Ed by Brian Pavlac
Citizens Voice, Wilkes-Barre
Published: June 25, 2011
Unions are dying in America. Their percentage of the workforce has declined from about 32 percent 60 years ago to under 12 percent today. Many of those that remain are under assault, especially since new Republican governors have targeted public employee unions.
Some of the death of unions results from many people seeing unions as unnecessary. In the last half of the 20th century, governments have indeed spread some of the benefits of unionization to the public by legislating protections of paid holidays and vacation, minimum wages and overtime, safe workplace conditions, etc.
Increasingly, though, unions are not naturally declining, but being murdered. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, corporate executives, and their political allies who have never liked the power assembled in union activity are more motivated than ever to finish them off. Many conservatives hated the recent successful bailout of GM and Chrysler because it allowed the auto unions to survive. Businesses have also deliberately moved factories and offices to states and countries whose laws and customs limit unionization.
Why are they trying to kill unions? Laissez-faire economists say that unions make us less competitive in international markets (although most of our competitor industrialized nations have higher rates of unionization). Corporate executives say the high union wages and benefits cost too much (although corporate profits and executive salaries are now at near-record high levels while median household incomes remain stagnant or in decline). Governors say public unions are bankrupting their states (although lack of tax revenues in an economic slump is more to blame). Libertarians condemn unions as evil socialist collectivization.
True, unions use collective bargaining to empower workers who as individuals would be in a weak position to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. Is that so bad?
Unions indeed arose more than a century ago because too many businesses used to exploit workers. As the industrial revolution geared up, business leaders often put profit before humanity. Sound business policy was to pay workers too little to survive, as a lethal poverty prevention measure called the "Iron Law of Wages." Owners could feel virtuous, while they reduced the surplus population (in the words of Charles Dickens). Early industries, supported by governments, opposed any and all efforts of workers to unionize.
In 1935, the American government finally supported unions with the Wagner Act. While that law and the National Labor Relations Board it created supports unions in name, it creates all sorts of difficulties for unionizers. Meanwhile, governments still often side with corporate interests over the workers.
And now the Supreme Court has dismissed a class action suit against Wal-Mart, further preventing workers from acting together for their rights, even without unions.
Maybe unions are too weak to survive these days. Yet, the wealthy interests of capital should not have a monopoly in the marketplace. Instead, I suggest that workers create a voice using the tools of capitalism.
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em! Since the economic and political powers-that-be despise unions, workers should instead incorporate. Then these new worker corporations will sell the services of workers, in turn negotiating, signing, and enforcing contracts, and making profit, for their own benefit.
Ironically, the modern corporation is also a collectivist organization. Governments first created them by law a century and a half ago, as a new way to structure economic enterprises, increasingly replacing the traditional family firms and partnerships. Corporations are artificial people, financed through capital collected by selling stock, run by professional managers, who are, in turn, supervised by a board of directors. Unlike normal human beings, corporations might never die - as long as they continue to make profit, they might exist forever.
What else are corporations but collectives of stockholders and managers who then employ workers to provide goods and services?
I've been inspired by ads I've heard lately proclaiming the advantages of incorporating, even for individuals. Some states, like Wyoming or Delaware, offer ease of incorporation, lack of corporate taxes, and lax regulation and supervision. And we all know how much businesses and the courts respect contracts with other corporations!
I'm not a lawyer, so the incorporation of workers and citizens to better recognize their interests may not be easy or possible. If the current laws allow it, then someone can find a way; if new laws need to be passed, the corporate interests may stop this idea from moving forward.
Either way, I see no alternative to the growing dominance of American society by the wealthy and well-connected armed with their lawyers and accountants. If our society continues to favor artificial profit-making corporations over quality of life for genuine individual human beings, then only corporations will be our future.
Workers of the world, incorporate! You have nothing to lose, but your humanity. The courts, politicians and businessmen are already taking away your dignity and livelihood, anyhow.
[Brian A. Pavlac is a professor of History at King's College, an Episcopal Priest, and the author of "A Concise Survey of Western Civilization: Supremacies and Diversities throughout History."]