A little about unions –
Since the strike’s been over, I’ve put a bit of my research hours into unions. Very interesting. Medieval guilds, you say?
History of trade unions
The traces of trade unions’ existence could be traced from the eighteenth century, when Western society (with most changes occurring earliest in Britain) witnessed a transformation from an agrarian culture with craft-based production to a culture shaped by the first industrial revolution. Some of the changes brought on by this new order, such as new work methods and downward pressure on traditional wage structures, sparked rising alarm in the crafts and guilds of the time, who feared encroachment on their established jobs.
Additionally, the rapid expansion of industrial society was to draw women, children, rural workers, and immigrants to the work force in larger numbers and in new roles. This pool of unskilled and semi-skilled labour spontaneously organized in fits and starts throughout its beginnings, and would later be an important arena for the development of trade unions.
Origins and early history
Trade unions have sometimes been seen as successors to the guilds of medieval Europe, though the relationship between the two is disputed. Medieval guilds existed to protect and enhance their members’ livelihoods through controlling the instructional capital of artisanship and the progression of members from apprentice to craftsman, journeyman, and eventually to master and grandmaster of their craft. They also facilitated mobility by providing accommodation for guild members traveling in search of work. Guilds exhibited some aspects of the modern trade union, but also some aspects of professional associations and modern corporations.
Additionally, guilds, like some craft unions today, were highly restrictive in their membership and included only artisans who practiced a specific trade. Many modern labor unions tend to be expansionistic, and frequently seek to incorporate widely disparate kinds of workers to increase the leverage of the union as a whole. A contemporary labor union might include workers from only one trade or craft, or might combine several or all the workers in one company or industry.
Since the publication of the History of Trade Unionism (1894) by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the predominant historical view is that a trade union “is a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment.” A modern definition by the Australian Bureau of Statistics states that a trade union is “an organization consisting predominantly of employees, the principal activities of which include the negotiation of rates of pay and conditions of employment for its members.”
Yet historian R.A. Leeson, in United we Stand (1971), said:
“ Two conflicting views of the trade-union movement strove for ascendancy in the nineteenth century: one the defensive-restrictive guild-craft tradition passed down through journeymen’s clubs and friendly societies,…the other the aggressive-expansionist drive to unite all ‘labouring men and women’ for a ‘different order of things’… ”
Recent historical research by Bob James in Craft, Trade or Mystery (2001) puts forward the view that trade unions are part of a broader movement of benefit societies, which includes medieval guilds, Freemasons, Oddfellows, friendly societies, and other fraternal organizations.
Trade unions have been accused of benefiting the insider workers, those having secure jobs, at the cost of the outsider workers, consumers of the goods or services produced, and the shareholders of the unionized business. Those who are likely to be disadvantaged most from unionization are the unemployed, those at risk of unemployment or workers who are unable to get the job they want in a particular line of work.
Dr. Charles Baird of California State University East Bay argues from a pro-free-market perspective that labor is a commodity, and unions essentially operate by centralizing labor, forming a monopoly on the commodity. This monopoly on labor has the same negative effects as any other monopoly., of reducing the amount sold (in this case, this means increasing unemployment) raising the price in the short term and decreasing efficiency.
In the United States, the outsourcing of labor to Asia, Latin America, and Africa has been partially driven by increasing costs of union partnership, which gives other countries a comparative advantage in labour, making it more efficient to perform labour-intensive work there.
Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize winning economist and advocate of laissez-faire capitalism argues that unionization produces higher wages at the expense of fewer jobs, and that, if some industries are unionized while others are not, wages will decline in non-unionized industries.
Unions are sometimes accused of holding society to ransom by taking strike actions that result in the disruption of public services.