Open-Source Unionism and Labor Scarcity
Ned Resnikoff has been putting out some really fascinating work lately. His writing on small-R ‘republicanism’ and non-domination is really excellent, and a nice twist in the broader debate over what sort of form liberalism in America ought to take.
Ned has two very smart posts up that I’d like to comment on a bit. The first is a discussion of open-source unionism which, I think, fits pretty well into the broader framework of free-market unionism. The second is a response to my discussion of neoliberalism and organized labor from the other day. Riffing off of my points on artificial labor scarcity, Ned writes:
Erik’s left out some other important ways we can create labor scarcity. Trying to boost employment through good monetary policy is one, as Matt Yglesias has repeatedly pointed out. Yesterday Peter Frase made another proposal: lower the cost of being unemployed through a better social safety net. If people are guaranteed some minimum level of income, and if they don’t have to worry about losing their health care coverage, then many of them will voluntarily opt out of the labor supply. Some might become freelancers, artisans, or small businesspeople. Others might choose to raise their kids while a spouse brings home the bacon. Either way, that’s a solution that allows non-union labor to pursue their own interests without competing against union workers for the same jobs.
Granted, expanding the social safety net on the federal level sounds pretty implausible right now. But that doesn’t mean good things can’t happen on the state level — recall that Vermont just recently became the first state to institute a single-payer health care system. Recall also that in regions where unions still have some clout, they can lobby for social welfare expansion. There’s little that can be done on the federal level for now, but local strongholds of both organized labor and general social democracy could have a positive ripple effect.
If you broadly favor one or the other — the social safety net or organized labor — it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to exclude the other from your agenda. Clearly, we need to reconceptualize and refine both: that’s why I’ve used this space to push for open source unionism and address the welfare state’s “shameful revelation” problem. But institutional problems don’t negate first principle moral imperatives. Certainly not when those institutions can be reformed.
In some sense, Ned is making the pity-charity liberalism case here. Using monetary policy and a wicked-good social safety net to ensure that everyone is well-enough off to avoid being mired in poverty and focus on growing the economy sounds like Will Wilkinson or Matt Yglesais. I think Ned’s notion of a sort of positive labor scarcity is pretty compelling, though. Rather than create barriers to entry into the labor pool, create incentives for parents to stay home with their kids and for people to start small businesses, become artists, and so forth. I think something like single-payer healthcare would vastly increase the ability of working Americans to take risks like starting up a business or pursuing a creative career, for instance.
I’m less certain Ned is making the case for increased union density. After all, if markets are free and we have decent growth, and the state is doing the hard work of freeing workers from domination by employers (which, in the American context, would be largely freeing us from employer-based health insurance at least at first) then what is the real compelling need for more unions? If we have something like a negative income tax or a wage subsidy in place for low-income workers, what is the compelling case to have more union density – especially if we work to end corporate welfare and democratize the markets, taking the advantage away from the big corporations and giving it back to a more competitive, fluid and diverse market of innovators and start-ups.
I think that the real problem here is that we have this very particular way of thinking both about the corporation and the union that really needs to evolve. The corporation of the post-war era – the big General Motors and General Electrics of the world – is a dying breed (though certainly the big corporation will not go out without a fight). So too are the big unions of that era, which is why I’m much more comfortable with the idea of open-source unionism. If workers in a diverse, ever-changing, high-tech service economy want to organize they’re not going to be able to rely on the post-war corporate unionism model of the past, and nor should they.
I’m not 100% sure how workers ought to organize in today’s economy to be honest, but I think it’s going to need to go far beyond simply organizing the existing workplace. Workers and citizens should try to – quite literally – take back the means of production, not through violent revolution, but through new technology, open-source manufacturing, and the potential of worker cooperatives.
While the state and the corporate economy chug along, and we argue over safety nets and defense budgets and so forth, the emerging open-source economy will grow alongside it, both here and abroad. Micro-manufacturing, alternative currencies, and the ever-growing peer-to-peer economy will continue to subvert, intentionally or not, the status-quo. Organized labor will need to be as open-source as the open-source economy, which is why I am more a fan of worker co-ops than of the big political unionism that has defined labor for the past sixty or so years.
Obviously the anarchistic open-source economy is at odds, to some degree at least, with the welfare state. I guess I’ve come to the opinion that we have to work on two levels. On the one hand we operate in the world of the political, where we argue over the ways the state ought to operate. The decisions made in this world have a very real impact on people. Wars are started. Programs for the poor are funded or defunded. Children make their way through public schools. Whatever the merits or wickedness of the state, we are largely stuck with the one we have and any changes on that front will be slow but will have real impact. On the other hand we have the world of the possible, and in that world we are guided by our idealism and by the emerging, often unimaginable, potential of human ingenuity.