The One Thing To Know

7 05 2010

It occurs to me that there is only one thing you need to know to understand why unions and collective bargaining are good for the vast majority of people: the Black Death ended serfdom in England.

If that sounds, say, insane, bear with me.

After the last wave of the Black Death in England, by some estimates 60% of the population died. That’s more than one out of two people. The result was an immense labor shortage, allowing serfs to demand higher wages and outright buying their way off of the  land and into cities. Feudalism in England was essentially dead within two hundred years, and an incipient, mercantilist capitalism took its place.

It wasn’t entrepreneurial spirit, it was a catastrophic labor shortage that allowed people to reappropriate wealth downward by themselves through mutually consented to bargains. Not that there wasn’t a good share of violence–peasant uprisings and what not–but for the most part it happened incrementally. Feudalism didn’t explode, it decayed and crumbled.

The purpose of class-wide unionism is to give the widest number of people the ability to create artificial labor shortages for the purposes of bargaining. This is something that is regularly done by all different groups. For example, the academy creates standards for accreditation and subjects applicants–particularly doctoral candidates–to rigorous and often subjective evaluation by members. Electricians create standards and exams and often apprenticeships that are required for accreditation in order to ensure quality of the profession. Doctors do the same thing. In both cases (doctors and electricians), more people are qualified to perform these jobs than actually are able to practice them. That is what we want: otherwise you wouldn’t know if you were hiring some quack or pyrhomaniac.

Professionals and tradespeople therefore have an advantage in the employer-employee bargaining relationship that the rest of the economy does not have, while at the same time those professions and trades create the barriers to entry that ensure their value in the marketplace. The relative value of professionals and tradespeople also requires a large class of unskilled labor. Given that unskilled labor is a necessary condition of the economic model that so benefits these groups, it is unreasonable to deny them–either formally or in practice–any advantages they can get for themselves in bargaining.

Maybe an industrial unionist shouldn’t be comparing unionism to the Black Death. But in these dire times for unionism, we’ve gotta go with whatever we got.


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