Can unions and strikes still make a difference?

Here is an article about how workers and strikes in a recession:
“Europe’s Strikers More Scarce in the Recession ”,8599,1914328,00.html

In the U.K., the Office for National Statistics says there were just 756,000 working days lost to strikes last year, way down from the million or so days lost in 2007. As of May, the figure stood at just 32,000 days for 2009. Even assuming an upsurge in the summer, that’s a long way from the kind of industrial mayhem Britain saw in 1979, when almost 30 million days were lost to strike action. It’s a simple case of reasoning, experts say. “When workers feel confident in their job security is when they are more likely to strike,” says Gregor Gall, a professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire.

In general, this is part of the ongoing downward spiral for labor that is just getting started. As automation increases, like through better robots or 3D printers, and as improved designs come along that take less effort to put together or last longer, there will be even less need for paid labor. So, the people who still have jobs will be afraid to strike or in other ways rock the boat. So, they will let themselves be exploited more and more just to keep food on the table. Because worker usually get fringe benefits, and because it takes money to hire and train workers, even as unemployment rises, it makes economic sense for companies (up to a point near collapse) to work the workers they have even harder, for less money, than it does to hire more workers, even at low wages. Increased worker suffering (including by worker’s families and communities) becomes just one more negative externality that business owners can pass on to society, socializing the costs of their business while privatizing the profits.

Possible counters to this trend include:
* government regulation of working conditions including hours (like in France);
* a basic income so that workers have a choice not to work (forcing employers to make jobs better to attract workers); and
* companies realizing that overworked workers produce products with lower quality or less innovation, and so voluntarily limiting hours and improving working conditions.

So, it would seem that strikes will be less and less likely in the future as a general trend, although it is possible that one big national or global strike might happen at some point when people realize that major positive social change is going to be now or never.

Any strike will be pointless in the long term unless it is about structural reform in our economy and society. Just striking to get slightly higher pay (or just to keep what one has) or to get slightly better benefits, which has been useful to many groups in the past, is not going to be very effective in the long term if these other trends continue towards decreasing the value of labor relative to automation and improved design.

What good is it to get more money and more benefits for fewer and fewer remaining workers while they wait for their own jobs to be lost to automation and improved design? Yet, this has been the strategy of most unions for many years. The failure of the US American automakers in Detroit shows how, in the long run, unions creating private welfare states within individual corporations does not work well anymore for union members or anyone else in society these days. The companies become less competitive relative to other companies that pay less and embrace automation and better design, and so they fail, taking all the union jobs with them.

We are possibly past the point where union actions related to single companies make much sense. If unions are to have any major role in the future, it may likely be as part of larger efforts to rethink the underlying basis of our economy and society, like by somehow being part of a national effort for a basic income, or comprehensive single-payer health care reform, or reforming education, or things like that.

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