The Future of Trade Unions (Cont'd.)

European Straits #28

Nicolas Colin

Dear all,

The great Albert Hirschman told us about what it takes to move the needle: voice AND exit. Voice is about making your voice heard: participating in a townhall meeting, demonstrating on the streets, or when you demand to see the shop's manager. Exit is about taking refuge in the other option: you vote for the other candidate, or go to that other shop across the street, where prices are cheaper, inventory is larger, and employees are nicer.

Historically, trade unions have been concerned mostly with supporting workers so that their voice is heard by employers. This was consistent with what jobs were all about in the 20th century: a continuous career spanning over years, if not decades. Because workers had the same employer for years, voice was their preferred option, with quitting their job the solution of last resort. But now jobs have radically changed. We switch jobs more often. We're even enjoying it. And as pointed out in 2014 by Adam Davidson, in our current “Failure Age”, businesses close down at a higher frequency anyway: so you can’t plan on spending your entire career with one single employer anymore.

As a result, exit has become less frightening than it used to be. Quitting your current job is about precipitating the inevitable; switching jobs is the new normal. This all changes the relative opportunity of the two Hirschman levers: exit is not the last resort anymore; it has become more desirable.

So how come unions keep on supporting workers on the voice front only—bargaining with employers, going on strike, demonstrating, doing everything they can mostly to save their members’ jobs? I think it’s time we imagine unions that support workers as they switch jobs, unions that would provide their members with all the resources necessary to find inspiration (‘What should I do?’), train (‘How can I acquire new skills?’), find a new employer (‘When do I start?’), relocate (‘I need an affordable house close to my new workplace’).

I can hear your doubts: that's not what unions do; they should stick to what they do best; the market or state should be in charge of the rest. And yet it wouldn't be the first time unions reinvent themselves. In the US, they once went from defending skilled (mostly white) craftsmen to defending the interests of all industrial workers whatever their skills, industry, and origins. The industrial union paradigm was so different, a new entity had to be founded (the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which later merged with the old craftsmen’s American Federation of Labor).

So why not convert to supporting the growing population of workers for whom exit has become a viable and desirable option? The job of those new "exit unions" would be to make employers feel the pain of their employees leaving instead of bargaining. They would support workers in their transition from one job to another, ideally at the pan-industrial level. They would organize the draining of entire industries that treat workers badly: good luck with retaining workers in low-quality jobs (e.g. coal) when powerful unions orchestrating their switching to a more attractive, faster-growing industry (e.g. solar).

Exit unions would also weigh in the endless debate on affordable housing—because to switch jobs, you need to be able to relocate where the jobs are, including in urban areas where housing prices are currently skyrocketing. With strong, innovative unions joining the fight for affordable housing, my guess is that many obstacles to building more, loosening zoning rules, and maintaining rents at a sustainable level will disappear.

I see no reason why it would serve the interests of white-collar and high-skilled workers only. As proved by the retail and food industries, you need motivated and caring employees at every level of the income ladder. This is especially true in an economy dominated by proximity services (food, retail, hospitality, healthcare, personal care, last-mile logistics), where the majority of jobs will be about caring for people rather than making things.

I’m convinced unions played the most critical part in building the middle class in the past age of the automobile and mass production. Now we have to reinvent unions so that workers gain leverage in the current age of ubiquitous computing and networks. Designing policy to do so will be one of the most political challenges of the coming decades.

Since we’re in August, I assume you have time to read, so let me recommend the related articles so that you make your own opinion:

Warm regards (from Berlin, Germany),

Nicolas