28 October 2006

A Casualty of Globalization: Death of the Unions

Der Spiegel
The following is an obituary.

The death, though, was never publicly announced -- and the tragedy is compounded by the fact that the closest relatives are keeping it a secret. But that does not alter the truth: Trade unions, as we knew them, are dead. The protector of the underdog is no more. What passes for a union today does not have the power to provide shelter.In fact, even the estate executors need protection. Unions once saw themselves as a buffer against the whims of the executives. They made sure that wages were fair. They also functioned as the political voice of society. Today, such unions are a thing of the past.

The development of a global job market, the appearance of 1.2 billion new workers and the readiness of millions more to work at any cost has robbed the job brokers of their once-powerful position.For decades, they had access to unparalleled treasures: The well-educated industrial worker was irreplaceable; the industrial robot was not yet intelligent enough; and the masses of today's competitive jobseekers were trapped behind walls and barbed wire, and sometimes simply hidden in the morass of Asian slums. These people were denied participation in Western job markets, a state of affairs which kept the price of Western labor high.

It was child's play for union negotiators to force employers to pay higher wages. The factory owner had no choice but to buy labor from the unions, because while there was a national and -- in the best case -- still a Western job market, there was no global job market that could provide the industrial skills necessary. Workers were scarce after both World Wars, and unions had a virtual monopoly on the commodity. They milked it for all it was worth.


Der Spiegel is posting these extracts from a new book War for Wealth: The Global Grab for Power and Prosperity. It's uncomfortable reading, especially in an Australia where Howard clearly believes that social democracy is about to join the Leninist state and planned economy in the trashcan of history.

On the other hand, if Howard really were surfing towards destiny, he might be able to tell the truth occasionally and not need to constantly scare us into wetting ourselves before we re-elect him.

Cue Saruman, despatching his fighting uruk-hai:

A new power is rising! Its victory is certain! March to Helm's Deep! Leave none alive!

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I bit presumptive. The unions will only die if they don't adapt and already they're showing signs.
The best example is the global campaign being run by services unions in the US, Australia and NZ around improving the conditions of cleaners, targetting multinational firms.
More innovative action and global co-operation will continue not only their relevance but their strength as a force for social change.

Alan said...

I agree the unions are making changes, but I'm not sure it will (in the near future, anyway) overcome the emergence of a global job market where the employer can easily export jobs to low wage countries. In the long term, people in China, India etc etc are going to find they can command better wages for their labor. Short of exporting jobs to Zeta Reticuli (although I understand the evil Grays of that planet are heavily unionised) at some stage capital will run out of desperate people ready to work at low wages.

It took a couple of generations for Western corporations to export their labor-gouging techniques to the Third World. Hopefully, the union movement will adapt a little faster.

Anonymous said...

Funnily Marx explained what happened in such a situation. They invest in technology to replace labour because it's cheaper.

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