Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Calpundit comments on the California supermarket strike-cum-lockout, noting, among other things, that

if corporations -- or entire industries -- are routinely allowed to bargain on behalf of a large number of owners and shareholders while workers are allowed to represent only themselves, no honest bargain is possible. Individual workers have no leverage in such a situation, and wages are inexorably pushed to subsistence levels.

(Which is an old argument -- see below -- but I digress).

Regarding supermarket workers, though, there's a bit of a problem -- it isn't so much that the handwriting is on the wall for them, as that the self-service checkout stations are on the floor, slowly creeping into several Shaw's owned supermarkets around here. There aren't very many yet, but we've all seen how these trends start. (In response to this point in his comments, the Calpundit himself notes that shelf-stocking jobs aren't going away soon. It's more proper to say that they aren't going away yet -- autonomous robots are getting cheaper and more capable, and "empty pallet x onto shelf y" isn't that hard a job. Not now, not next year, but in ten years or so automated restocking is likely to be cost-effective, even cheap).

So, sooner or later, those supermarket workers are all going to need another job, in a different industry. And their union isn't exactly well positioned to help them get it, since it is a food service workers' union, tied to the jobs that are going away. Which is a particular instance of a general problem -- our unions right now are trade unions, which work only for the benefit of the members of the union, and not for the benefit of the labor force as a whole. Which can lead to deals that injure the interests of other workers -- sometimes even other workers for the same company, as in the sadly common union contracts which give new hires a different, lower pay scale than current union members. Just as seriously, it can add inefficiency to unionized business, as the unions insist on maintaining unnecessary positions, obsolete work rules, and so forth, to benefit their workers, at the inevitable expense of the customers of the business and the economy as a whole.

It would be nice if they took a broader view -- heck, it would be nice if management took a broader view, as Toyota has, trying to find new business to find new business for plants and even subcontractors which it expects to be running short of work in coming years -- but in America, that may be too much to ask. (Indeed, things were actually worse at the turn of the last century, when many nascent unions were openly racist).

Another alternative is for some broader force -- say, the government -- to do something to defend the interest of the work force as a whole -- say, passing minimum wage laws -- in order to defend the interests of the workers in a manner that doesn't set up distorting effects between one sector and another. Which was one of Franklin Roosevelt's ideas in the New Deal. Expounding the kind of conservatism that runs our government these days, it seems Bob Bartley doesn't like it, though as usual for commentators of his ilk, he isn't letting the facts get in the way of a good argument. But I'm guessing, he isn't really thrilled with labor unions either. So, how to defend the interests of the workers?

Well, here, once again, is Adam Smith, from the Wealth of Nations, on what things are like when the workers have no defense, speaking of current conditions in the Britain of his day when labor unions were effectively banned:

What are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the wages of labour.

It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. ...

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is everywhere a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals. We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things, which nobody ever hears of. Masters, too, sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution, and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do, without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people.

Maybe Bartley thinks that a return to those days would be a good idea.


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