In Praise of Leisure and the Pitfalls of Unions

idle machineryMark Linsenmayer outlines Bertrand Russell’s case in “In Praise of Idleness” for a shorter work week. Writing in the early 20th century, Russell spent most of his essay confronting the moralistic arguments against leisure. After all, idle hands are the devil’s tools and so on.

In the early 21st century though, the bigger issue concerning work and leisure is simply a dearth of jobs. Unemployment is still above its “natural” level in the U.S., as well as many other ostensibly rich European countries (Austria and Germany are notable exceptions).

And even as unemployment in the U.S. continues its all-to-slow decline, wages continue to stagnate and many of the full-time jobs that vanished in the 2008 recession are only coming back in the form of part-time ones. Despite the fact that labor continues to stall however, businesses overall are doing quite well. Record profits for some, strong trading on Wall Street, and steady increases to productivity even while its cost remains constant mean that those on the supply-side of the affair are doing markedly better than their counterparts.

Linsenmayer sees the dilemma as a systematic one. Either something about the market or the welfare state will fundamentally need to shift in order to ameliorate the growing disconnect between the jobless, working, and middle classes, and everyone else.

But this still fails to meet the political challenge that our broken economic system poses whereby our current job situation maims the majority of people (not just the working poor or jobless) and is unsustainable over the long term. Yes, you do what you can, but don’t fool yourself that simply making different consumer choices is going to reform much of anything.

On this question, I find little comfort in pro-labor solutions because they don’t solve the more fundamental issues I see with market capitalism. Whereas libertarians in favor of minimum incomes, and neoliberals who support hyper-reditribution through the tax code, see a path forward that does something to liberate individuals from the constraints of market arrangements, most union approaches are less progressive by comparison. Instead of pushing back against the labor-capital relationship they simply seek to re-balance it. The problem is one of wages and checks and balances in the workplace, rather than the workplace itself.

This isn’t to say that I’m anti-union. And certainly if I worked in a setting where unionization made sense, I would embrace it as my first line of defense against economic exploitation. But while the union withers as a tool for amassing and exercising class political power, I think it’s important to guard against being hitched to any particular union’s narrow self-interests. What’s a few dollars increase in the minimum wage when compared with free minimum health care, daycare vouchers, or a more robust food stamp program? And besides, what good’s a union when you’re unemployed?

The question that arises then though is what replaces the political potency of unions in a post-union environment? In many ways, the Internet gives the power to organize to everyone, not just those who are part of market-based organizations (corporations, merchant groups, unions). But will that be enough to ever alter the campaign finance laws, and litany of other election regulations, which favor incumbents, elites, and the rich, no matter which side of the aisle they’re on?

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27 thoughts on “In Praise of Leisure and the Pitfalls of Unions

  1. 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.

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      • 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.

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      • 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.

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      • Morat20,

        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.

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      • 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.

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      • 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.

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      • 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).

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

    On a theoretical basis, the Employee-Owned Corporation.

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      • 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.

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      • 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.

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      • 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.

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      • 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:

        http://www.rainbow.coop/about/

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      • 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.

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      • 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.

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    • 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.

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  3. 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.

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  4. 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.

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  5. 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.

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