This article is specifically NOT about unions. But they will be mentioned, a lot. This is because over a hundred years of exposure to Leftist economic philosophy has conditioned us to think solely within the adversarial paradigm of the rich versus the poor, the struggle between huge corporate interests versus consumers, workers, and even the environment. Unions and government are seen as a balancing force to keep Capitalist excesses in check, and the battles of lockouts and strikes have filled every classroom with as much weight as military campaigns and scientific discoveries.
The seemingly ubiquitous examples of oppressors and oppressed cannot be ignored — it appears to us as ultimate proof the Marxist model of struggle in all its incarnations is not theory, but some undeniable law. And when I recently criticized the examples of why we need unions as always from a world long since passed, Jim Shanor, a colleague of mine, was eager to correct me, and rightfully so:
I feel strongly about the exploitation of working people. If you want to see how modern corporations operate without restraint, drop into Nairobi any weekday morning about 4:30 am and see the throngs of people, tens of thousands, walking from their slums to the industrial areas for their 10 hour day job. They sometimes walk 8 miles to and 8 miles from work in large groups of poor men, guys with families, getting $2 a day, no benefits, no safe working conditions. All for processing and packing your food on behalf of Del Monte or Dole or your favorite coffee or tea. If they try to organize for better wages or better conditions, the international “Global Economy” hires thugs to mow them down, arrest them, and/or present their cases in the media as “extremists and trouble makers.” While they are walking, six or eight of them might share a cigarette in a group for luxury. They eat a piece of bread and drink a cup of tea for breakfast to work on all day. They sleep during the lunch hour instead of eating: too expensive. They pick up a clump of wild spinach and some white corn flour on the way home for the wife and kids to eat. The spinach is called “sakuma wiki.” (Push the week). I understand it is similar in places where Nike makes those fancy shoes. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods make a lot of money to market them, but the workers live worse than slaves. That is today, 2011, not some ancient time when unions might have been more “justified.”
Of course, I don’t live in that world, he does. Okay, it’s all part of OUR world. But why is it so different there? He and others assert that the game is no different in America or Kenya, but the difference in everyday existence between the two is too great to be one simply of scale. At least some significant conditions must be qualitatively different between New York and Narobi.
But back to the stock answer: Is the absence of unions really the problem and therefore the solution? More abstractly, is a counter-force always necessary to curb excess (the vice of “greed” that Capitalism is so stigmatized with), or can the conditions under which the force operates change to moderate it into a benefit for all, with fairness (social justice) instead of oppression? Is there a third option, transcending the power of a corporation locked in mortal conflict with the power of collective bargaining? Can they coexist without one having to dictate the terms of “fairness” to each other?
To answer that question, we have to break from our two-dimensional assumptions and look at the larger economic and even social environment. How did this become apparent? Not only was there a potency in Jim’s first-hand testimony (he lives in Africa), but a striking resemblance in particular ways to examples from American history — the Railroad and Coal Mining industries in particular. There are less extreme examples, but these are analogous to Jim’s narrative in unambiguous, definable ways.
There is no choice
From company towns to villages with nothing more than a factory nearby, if you want to work, you may only have one choice (and therefore no choice). With no competition, it’s an employer’s whim that sets the terms of the business relationship, so long as there are many more workers than jobs anyway. It is this single condition that best justifies the description of slavery.
However, this is not an example of a Free Market. In fact, there’s no market at all, just a single supplier of wages. If and when other employment opportunities arise, from without or within the community, there is a shift toward a worker’s market, or at least some natural rule of supply-and-demand for wages and workers becomes inevitable.
There is no usable personal wealth
This is not about cash on hand, but assets. Generally more true in the Developing World than the Old West, in places where poverty shows no sign of relief, there is no accessible mechanism for documenting the ownership of land or other assets. Without this, there is no way to leverage assets through banking. And without Capital, it is nearly impossible to buy land, a rule no different than getting a mortgage in the States. This has also been a longstanding issue on American Indian reservations, where mobile homes are the norm since the land itself — owned by the Nation (tribe) — cannot be used as collateral.
This is being addressed in America, but also in India through massive micro-loan programs started by Indian philanthropist bankers. Programs are also available online for people around the world to loan (not donate, mind you) small amounts of money so cottage industries can get the equipment they need to start actually moving forward economically, both personally and improving the quality of life in their communities through a greater availability of goods, services, and even jobs. THAT is the literal, correct definition of Capitalism.
Some economists are even starting to realize that it is not Free Market alone that allows for prosperity, but the existence of an accessible banking system. However, even then it can be thwarted by excessive government regulations with regard to both land and business ownership. A common example of this is Egypt, but I have argued elsewhere that in America, regulation serves to hinder small businesses in favor of large ones who not only can (and most certainly do) dictate legislation through campaign contributions, but only the bigger players can handle the paperwork.
There is little or no accountability
People speak of safety regulations — and safety is a real concern — but it is not the laws themselves but the consequence creating real justice. A system of tort law with simple principles removes the need for most regulation, since a company is either liable for something that could have been prevented or it is not. The disclaimers and awareness of workers regarding the hazards of their jobs would be the deciding factor, not books of arbitrary or industry-serving regulations with the eternal quest for loopholes. And if there is competition for workers, people will have choose their own balance of how dangerous and rewarding their job will be.
But the system must be impartial and accessible to all. Government corruption turns many a blind eye, selling out their own people. In Africa and around the Developing World, national resources — and the workforce surrounding them — are sold to the highest bidder, funding the coffers of dictators. In America, the court system favors those who can afford the most justice, even if legislative loopholes did not protect corporate entities, or those personally responsible thanks to a corporate veil of protection.
The conditions, not the cause, dictate the solution.
The greatest exploitations of Africa’s resources and peoples today is not de Beers or Western oil companies, but China. Ravenous for materials such as copper and cobalt, they run factories Old South plantation-style, with Chinese overlords and not a moment’s broken stride in production when workers die in an accident. If we are so convinced the plight of the worker worldwide is Capitalism, do we call the Chinese endeavors “unfettered Maoism”? I am personally convinced yet doubtful it will be accepted that this one point should end the debate that it is NOT the economic system but rather the social and political context that determines the plight of the laborer. Controlling or reforming large corproations as the “cause” of poverty will do nothing but free slaves to be even deeper in poverty than before.
It doesn’t matter that the West expanded faster than the Free Market or court system. It doesn’t matter that post-colonial Africa sold themselves out to the highest bidders and now China is doing it’s own form of colonialization without apology. We know healthy relationships between large corporations and communities can exist without the threat of worker revolt. But we also need to learn that there is no need to play that game if the social and political conditions are there, not just stability, but the absence of oppressive regulatory power in the hands of the few — those who can be bought with campaign contributions or coupons for arms.
What strangle-hold could a multi-national corporation have on a thriving community that didn’t need them specifically to survive? How would a union decrease dependency on such a corporate presence? In the last decade or so, we have seen African power companies displace foreign ones, sidestepping the dirty politics around them to move forward for the benefit of all (and that means profit, too). Wherever government is stable yet not intrusive, advancements have been made. Wherever they are not stable or too intrusive, it’s “business as usual”, prey for powerful organizations, Capitalist or otherwise.
All of this suggests one thing: The labor-management paradigm must be broken. It’s about the lives of human beings, not paychecks and dividends, and we ought to see the bigger picture. And that bigger picture includes building up communities through investments (Capitalism) at the very bottom and keeping government in its rightful place of not dictating but protecting true freedom in the marketplace (Free Market). If there will be social justice — in Africa or anywhere in the world — this is how it will come. However imperfect life may be even then, no other solution comes close.
It is important to consider that possibility that unions generally did not change the conditions by which worker’s rights improved, only the ability to collectively bargain (read “bully”) wages from employers — it was about money, rarely fairness or even safety.
The ethics are so simple and yet rejected by so many: Employers have the right to pay workers what they want to, if they can find them. What power do workers have? The freedom to choose their wage through the freedom of choosing their profession and employer.
The only problem is when there is “price fixing” for wages, either on the part of the employers in the community (such as company towns) or industry-wide unions and minimum wage laws. Addressing the abuses of Capitalism with Unions is fighting one evil with another, and frankly, neither deserves the spoils since the consumer and whole economy suffers no matter who wins.