Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Tolerable coercion

Why is it tolerable in a free society to have unions that can force contracts on corporations?

First, unions only provide some counterbalance to the power of corporations. Especially in today's global economy, they constantly have to give away previously negotiated benefits.

Unions themselves are much more democratic than even publicly traded corporations. Majority rules in strike authorizations and contract ratification. Shareholder proxies are dominated by the few and seldom determine anything of importance. I use them to withhold votes from Bushists - Robert Gates used to sit on a lot of Fidelity boards - but I always knew that was merely symbolic, and lately it's not worth the effort to find big Republican contributors and vote against them. But I've never yet seen competitive slates for the board of any fund or corporation.

Last and perhaps most important, the "free" market that conservatives adore, the invisible hand that uses greed, uh, self-interest to solve all problems, does not exist. The whole theory relies on atomic economic actors, which you'll only find in labor markets. Corporations for their part exist to escape competition. They don't want to compete; they want to win. So each corporation tries set up its business environment to avoid direct and dangerous competition with other corporations.

Most working people don't have that option. It's pretty rare to be Michelangelo or Bob Gibson or Louis Pasteur. And not one of them even was able to negotiate full value for his unique abilities, especially not Gibson until his teammate Curt Flood went to battle against the reserve clause.

Unions are a good thing - with occasional ill effects like most good things. We need more of them.

No comments: