What Happened to Unions?

Trade union procession, 1918

Trade union procession, 1918 (Photo credit: State Library of South Australia)

The Atlantic has an interesting article which offers an explanation of the decline of unions. They pin it on technology. Yet while the facts they relate are true, I think there is a deeper explanation. It seems to me that unions thrive where workers can be treated as interchangeable parts. This is easy to see on assembly lines and also in the construction trades where one qualified electrician (for example) is the same as another. There simply is little opportunity to be rewarded for being an outstanding worker – there is little meritocratic effect. The teachers’ unions claim that teachers can’t be objectively evaluated, making teachers interchangeable parts. Ditto for pilots. I can’t think of an area where unions have thrived where the workers can’t be viewed as interchangeable. And where jobs are interchangeable, there’s a lack of bargaining power and the opportunity for abuse. This is why unions have been successful.

The technology argument described in the Atlantic seems true inasmuch as technology has both created and destroyed the conditions for interchangeable workers. It seems likely that this will continue and we will see some vocations become more interchangeable and others less so. Some areas that have been heavily unionized will become more so, while other areas which have never been unionized will become more so. The area to watch might be artificial intelligence.



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