In Praise of Leisure and the Pitfalls of Unions

Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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27 Responses

  1. NewDealer says:

    I don’t think anything replaces unions and think we are going back to a bit of a gilded age economy because of several decades of attack on unions. We see that the last vestiges of strong unions are liable to encourage outrage rather than solidarity even among the left. This is a classic example of Jay Gould’s (possibly not real) claim that he could “put one half the working class against the other half”

    The potential of a BART strike in the Bay Area is a recent example. I have a very liberal acquaintance who supports universal healthcare and is all around pretty liberal but he seems to be against the Union and a strike because of damage it does to the economy. He recently made a facebook post about how BART employees pay only 194 to contribute to their healthcare like it was the Tea Party venting against “moochers”. I told him that he was falling for a classic management trap and that we should fight to regain what everyone used to have instead of just taking it away from those who have it still.

    I think the big issue with how the post-employment future is how we see wealth and the libertarian and neo-liberal solutions still fit a very classical paradigm of how we see wealth and labor. The current view is that wealth should be a product of labor and those that are willing are those who should be wealthy but increased automation and technological advances are rendering more and more people’s labor as unnecessary. New jobs are being created and these jobs pay more but fewer employees are needed. Kodak employed over 100,000 people at the height of Kodak’s success. Instagram employed less than 50 when they sold to Facebook for a big sum.

    Minimum incomes and redistribution still favor a concept of wealth belonging to those who labor for it while acknowledging that you just can’t let people starve because there is no work. It is rather a feeling of noblese oblige. What we need to do is change our entire concepts of wealth and ownership.Report

    • Ethan Gach in reply to NewDealer says:

      “The current view is that wealth should be a product of labor”

      Is that not the view of unions?Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Fair point.

        I am pro-union and I think what unions are great for is collective bargaining and this often requires the work-stoppage (aka strike) power.

        Collective bargaining is a way for typically low-influence employees to have more equal bargaining power with management. There is a “freelancers union” but they don’t really work for collective bargaining. They help with some insurance stuff perhaps. You need to be able to strike to make unions effective. Striking should not be done lightly but any threat of scabbing is going to destroy collective bargaining.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        If I recall the last ten years lately, wealth is the product of…wealth. Twenty years, really. If you’re rich, you got a LOT richer — finance, baby.

        If you worked for a living, well — your wages didn’t keep up at all.

        I do wonder. All those soaring productivity gains — if I’m two or three or four times more productive than my predecessors, why am I not paid in proportion?

        I wasn’t pro-union back in the 90s. I am now, despite working in a field where there are no unions and never have been. Even me, in a field where talent is still head-hunted and I have more leverage over my wages than most — to upper management, I’m a cost. They thirst to cut me — I don’t generate wealth, I’m a parasite on it.

        They want software written as cheaply as possible. The fewer coders at the least pay is their goal, their sacred duty to the holy shareholder. Bonuses? Raises? Pshaw. I should be groveling at their feet, thankful they’re not cutting my wages. *eyeroll*

        Seriously, I keep reading about CEO bonuses and record profits and wondering “Why is it we don’t get raises?” Bonuses? Why does the CEO get millions and we get crappier benefits?”

        Because workers are a cost. A necessary evil, to be tolerated as little as possible.

        Not a terribly sustainable viewpoint, in my opinion. Personally, I would prefer unions to the OTHER method of dealing with massive inequality — I mean surely bargaining and profit-sharing through wages beats the pants off the alternative of very, very, very angry voters dividing the world between “rich” and “poor” and redistributing it that way.

        I mean, Trump or Romney might be rich — but they just get the one vote.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Ethan Gach says:


        Someone of the most anti-union people I have never met were computer programers. They saw themselves as being skilled craftsmen and thought that unions were for unskilled and uneducated laborers. This was a while ago though.

        I’m a lawyer so that is a bit different. We are high-skilled service workers and rates can vary based on type of matter and client. There can be a contingency fee, billable hour, flat fee, etc.

        Wealth is interesting. I have a friend who makes distinctions between finance and capital-gains wealth and income wealth. Income wealthy people are lawyers, doctors, some business owners (like a fashionable shop or very popular bar), etc.
        These are still “working class” people according to my friend. They might work for themselves but they still rely on income for their lifestyles.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Programmers, well…we had a good run, just recently. We were head hunted. We could leverage offers against each other. There was far more demand than supply, and even hacks could command good money.

        So to the average programmer, the notion that you couldn’t go to your boss and demand a raise by threatening to change jobs was…alien. No need for unions when leaving your job meant having a better paying one in a few weeks, at most.

        People project themselves onto everything. So obviously if it works for programmers, it works for everyone, so unions MUST be just full of lazy people who were so crap at their jobs they never got raises without union thuggery.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Morat, you need to get out of the cube and be a consultant. At least you’ll be getting paid what you’re worth. Being a corporate drone is good for a few years, while you learn how a business is run. Beyond that, it’s not worth the trouble.

        Software probably does need a guild, if not a union. Too many incompetents out there, dragging down the profession. I suppose there are incompetent lawyers and plumbers and electricians, too. They’re not only regulated, they regulate themselves. As long as software puts on airs and wanders around, acting like it’s All That, all the while refusing to adhere to any meaningful standards, it won’t organise. I’m sick of what I see out there. But then, I have a strong stomach. Being paid properly means they have to respect my opinion.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Blaise: I have a family. My wife’s a teacher — in Texas — where the pay is crap and the benefits worse.

        Plus, I rather enjoy WHAT I do. If this whole ACA exchange thing actually works, consulting might actually be viable.

        Honestly, I’d rather just be an academic. I have my own interests in computer science, and the happiest I’ve ever been as a coder was exploring them when I was getting a Master’s on the side. (The job I was doing then was kinda…boring, so I got a Master’s so I could do some fun programming. I love me some machine learning).Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Wealth is the product of investment. Labor is an expense.Report

  2. BlaiseP says:

    what replaces the political potency of unions in a post-union environment?

    On a theoretical basis, the Employee-Owned Corporation.Report

    • Ethan Gach in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Serious question: do you think that “populist” shareholding is a viable means of lower classes asserting their power through capital-based coalitions?Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Hard to say. Depends on the nature of the stock itself, hence my king-sized caveat Theoretically. As the worthy Jaybird points out below, ESOP owners can be as stupid and short-sighted as anyone else.

        But some corporations make it work. The key, it seems to me, is to get management and workers on the same side of the table and the customers on the other. Ownership does seem to motivate people where mere wages won’t: whatever it takes to convince the employee he’s got a stake in the success (or failure, again, see Jaybird below) of the corporation.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Employee owned business is interesting. I think they can work for very small ventures but things would probably descend to chaos for larger orgs.

        I’m sure there have to be some co-ops in the Bay Area that thrive. There used to be an employee-owned movie theatre near me. It lasted for a good 20 or so years before shutting down.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        That’s a good point, ND: beyond a certain point, it may differ with each firm, competent leadership is needed, someone to steer the ship. I’ve watched successful consultants try to start their own businesses, hiring on people. They can round up gigs and keep coders working — but I’ve never seen it work out very well. I can’t speak to other industries, confining myself to my own, but lots of professionals group themselves together in an LLC type corporation.

        And then there’s the problem of entrepreneur crews whose babies grow up to become monsters. The founders, who nurtured the baby into a profitable enterprise by attending to every detail, can’t continue along those lines. Sometimes tech types don’t make very good executives. Success is every bit as dangerous as failure in some respects. Someone has to be in charge, with sufficient mandate to make the tough decisions. One or two successful ideas don’t make someone into a competent leader.

        This isn’t universally true, of course. Some corporations do just fine running an open book operation, with everyone paid from the proceeds. I ran my restaurant like that for years, engendered loyalty with it, but then, I never had more than six, eight people on the payroll. There’s a downside to that approach: employees come to resent other employees who aren’t perceived to be pulling their weight. Lots of drama. Hard to fire people in such circumstances but it’s possible, if enough of the crew is dissatisfied with one person’s participation.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        The employee owned co-ops I know of tend to be in what can be politely called “hippie” businesses. Food co-ops, coffee shops, record stores. They tend not to be accounting firms or construction firms.

        Here is a worker-owned cooperative that has been around since the 1970s. It is very San Francisco:

      • BlaiseP in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        There are many different forms of employee ownership. The co-op is just one. Parsons Corporation, one of the largest construction outfits in the world, is an ESOP. Of course, it was also run by a mensch, Ralph Parsons.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Awhile ago there was an article in the Atlantic that said that one potential solution to the problem of income inequality was to make sure that everybody owns at least a bit of capital.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

      the Employee-Owned Corporation

      I knew of a handful of these in the 90’s. Without exception, they sold themselves to a big competitor or went public and everybody danced on their way to the bank as they let the door hit them in the ass on their way out.

      The ones that didn’t fail within a couple months, anyway.Report

  3. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    but increased automation and technological advances are rendering more and more people’s labor as unnecessary

    It’s rendering simple labor unnecessary. The growth of the information/service economy needs simple manual labor less & less. I would think that Unions should working to provide considerable education assistance to members (especially the big ones) so they are not as easily made obsolete.Report

  4. LeeEsq says:

    The problem is that for most of human history was “those that don’t work, don’t eat to paraphrase the NT. Even the most passionate anti-capitalist like Vladimir Lenin believed in it. We are rapidly approaching a situation where we really don’t need most people’s labor. Maybe we are just going through a painful readjustment phase like all other periods of technological advancement but I doubt it. What we need to do is reconsider how we view “those that don’t work, don’t eat”.

    Reducing the work week is one way to increase employment but that only works if prices for goods and services are really low or wages increase to.Report

  5. Damon says:

    Ethan, let’s dispense with the absurd notion that the US is has “market capitalism”. It doesn’t. It’s “Corporatism” at best.

    That is one reason why things do not change. It’s the ultimate in regulatory capture.Report

  6. Will Truman says:

    It’s too bad that this didn’t generate more comments than it did. There’s a lot in here to think about.Report