Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Unions

Introduction

An important issue in politics, especially Swedish politics and especially Leftist politics, is that of (trade) unions. For the time being, however, I will have comparatively little to say on that issue relative “party politics” (for want of a better phrase), various activist and/or hate movements, issues with suppression of civic rights, whatnot, and I will mostly confine myself to the single, more survey-style and highly incomplete, treatment on this page. The reason is that unions are too often a poor fit within the regular party systems and are not always so much idealistic and ideological as egoistical and pragmatic, and as the main damage done by unions is through factors like being a hindrance to the functioning of the economy and market forces, the damage done to travelers, and similar. Indeed, the fit is sufficiently poor that I was a little hesitant about putting this page in the category Politics. Unions are also less influential in many or most countries than they were in the past.


Side-note:

Why travelers? Surprising as this might be to future readers, there is currently, in 2024, and in the years leading up to now, a massive issue with strikes in the transportation sector, especially around airlines/airports and train companies, and in a manner that does massive damage to third parties, including innocent passengers. The problems have been particularly large in Germany, where I live and where it is currently justified to speak of an outright threat to the overall economy (already weakened by many years of political mismanagement, the COVID-countermeasure era, politician-created inflation, and an unnecessary energy crisis).

My recollections of the somewhat more distant past does not contain this problem, however, and chances are that things will improve again.

Also see some of the below discussion.


In a bigger picture, we have to differ between unions-as-they-are and unions more generally. Below, I deal almost exclusively with unions-as-they-are. While my implicit conclusion is that unions-as-they-are are a net evil in this world, and by a large margin, I do not necessarily extend this to the general case. It could certainly be that some sufficiently idealistic, well informed, competent, cooperative, whatnot, union would be a net good.

Various types of unions

A particular complication with unions and their treatment in politics is the widely varying politicization, ideology, whatnot, of unions. They range, be it nominally or in actuality, from the strongly ideological (e.g. syndicalists) to purely pragmatic member organizations, from genuine member organizations to covers for or allies with organised crime (especially, in the historical U.S.), from genuine member organizations to vehicles for the personal success or personal agendas of the leaders, from the organizationally independent to extreme intermingling with some political party (note Sweden below), etc.

(Some sub-topics will recur below.)

Sweden’s dual Left

The Swedish Left was, for most of the 20th century, dominated by the dual and intermingled forces of the Social-Democrat party (SAP) and LO, an umbrella organization that covers most of the Swedish blue-collar unions.

A particular evil, until 1991, was “kollektivanslutningen”—the collective and automatic enrollment of all covered union members as members in SAP. This severely reduced political freedom and provided SAP with a considerable artificial inflow of money. It was, then, hard or impossible to be a union member without supporting SAP, even for those whose politics went in another direction. (But the Swedish Left was strongly Marxist and it might often have been assumed that no worker could or should have any other political stance than what, in a Marxist framework, was prescribed by class—ergo, the workers were only forced to act the way that they “should” voluntarily have done.) The matter was made worse by strong union rhetoric that those not in the unions were free-loaders, who received the “benefits” that unions fought for without paying their dues. which could make life hard for independent workers. (This is largely a crock of shit, of course, as unions often do more harm than good. Cf. below.)

In a next step, there was a massive problem with LO influence on the politics of the SAP, as this aid needed a payment. A particular atrocity was “Löntagarfonderna”, largely pushed through by LO against resistance from SAP. This scheme amounted to a socialization/collectivization through the backdoor, by using the profits earned by a business to buy shares in that business in the name of a worker/union controlled fund. Fortunately, the actual implementation was somewhat watered down and the life of this atrocity approximately limited to the 1980s. Even so, great harm was done and great controversy caused.

(The list of various misdevelopments in the Swedish labor markets is very long. The image projected, at least in Sweden, of a great success of cooperation and whatnot was very wrong.)


Side-note:

A private, but off-topic, annoyance is the way that Swedish unions have begun to use occupational designators as proper names for themselves, e.g. in that the painters’ union presumptuously and all-inconclusively refers to it self as “The Painters” (“Målarna”). The worst of the worst, a truly inexcusable abuse of this idea, is “The Leaders” (“Ledarna”), which seems to mostly organize middle-managers. Even “The Bosses” (“Cheferna”) would have been bad—but “The Leaders”?!?!?

(The U.S. “Teamsters”, mentioned below, might follow a similar idea.)


Crime

The U.S., at least, has a long history of ties between unions and organized crime, and (in stark contrast to Sweden) less to politics. This, especially, with the notorious “Teamsters”. Reading up on Jimmy Hoffa and his period in charge is quite illuminating. (Note: Reading. Movies like “The Irishman” might give the right big-picture impression, and were my original motivation to read up, but must be taken with a grain or two of salt even when it comes to the non-speculative parts.)

While the ties to “proper” politics are weak, there is a history of political graft and influencing, in the mutual-back-scratching family. The idea of vote buying might be more explicit than in e.g. Sweden and Germany, and the U.S. does have a long history of corrupt politics, often based on controlling specific voter blocks, as with “Tammany Hall”.

Unfair methods

Many issues with unions arise through the use of highly unfair methods. (Even aside from e.g. injured customers and disrupted market forces.)

The idea that unions would have the “right” to enforce their strikes and other actions onto non-members, to prevent others from working is inexcusable. Ditto the “right” to block customers from entering premisses. Ditto the “right” to block access for in-coming or out-going deliveries. Etc. This type of disturbance of business goes well beyond what can reasonably be considered compatible with even a right to strike—it is no longer a matter of “Give me more money [less hours, or whatnot] or I won’t work!” but of “[...] or I will sabotage your business!”. This is not one iota better than, say, a protection racket.

Likewise, even non-blocking protests can do considerable harm in an unjustifiable manner. For instance, marching around with placards while shouting slogans outside a place of business can negatively affect the work inside the building and make customers scratch an intended visit.

Particular absurdities include sympathy strikes and the German “Warnstreiks” (“warning strikes”). To the latter: Instead of a “proper” strike, with full declarations of a striking state, the (in Germany) necessary union-wide vote (“Urabstimmung”), whatnot, this gives the union leadership the ability to stop work for a shorter period (say, a single day)—and to do so on a very short notice. This, in the end, is nothing but a harassment of the employer and, arguably, one that is more damaging than a shorter regular strike, as the employer’s ability to adapt to the circumstances is reduced. They are certainly more damaging to third-parties, e.g., in recent times, train passengers. (And note how train passengers suffer from the same low ability to react and adapt in time.) Apart from, extremely unfortunately, being legal, these warning strikes have more in common with wildcat strikes than with proper strikes.

Even the idea of a strike, as such, is highly dubious in today’s world and even in a system of collective bargaining. A justification might well have been present in older days or, today, in exceptional circumstances, e.g. an unconscionable health or safety issue. For normal bargaining, however, it shifts too much power to the unions. In a sane system of collective bargaining, we would have statements like “We want X percent more money—or we all look for jobs elsewhere!”. What we do have is “[...]—or we go on a strike!”. (Note the asymmetry with individuals negotiating: Why should unions have access to bargaining tools that are not available to individuals?)

(Some words on “closed shops” and other related topics follow below.)

FIFA-ization

A recurring problem with organizations is that they often leave their ostensible purpose behind in order to become tools for the purposes of their leaders, often in a highly corrupt manner, often in a manner directly damaging to those whom they truly should serve. The world of sports is filled with examples; unions are another, very common source of examples. (I first remarked on this problem with regard to the likes of FIFA, long before the 2015 scandal, UEFA, IAAF, etc; hence, the label.)

At the end of the day, there is no guarantee that a union actually tries to work for the best of its members. (And when it does it is not necessarily successful or is only successful at the cost of others. Cf. the discussions of monopolies and Economics below.)

A potentially interesting example is the German GDL, responsible for most of the aforementioned train strikes. I have heard claimed (but do not vouch for the correctness) that the true motivation is an internal struggle with another train-centric union. In effect, some side-effect of the strikes, be it actual success, mere publicity, or something else, would help GDL extend its dominance and reduce competing unions to unimportance. (With reservations for my understanding: collective bargains only take place between the German Railways and the single largest union in any given sub-field or within any given subsidiary, which makes it important for power-hungry union leaders to reach that “largest” everywhere that they can.)

Concern for third parties

A complete lack of concern for the interests of third parties is often manifest, as with e.g. the repeated cases of traffic strikes in Germany or (around the time of writing) in the British NHS. There seems to be no understanding that others are hurt and, very interestingly, that these others might now view the unions in a negative light.

In some cases, I would go as far as suspect that the unions attempt to damage the reputation of the respective employer. The intent might then be to ruin the reputation of the respective employer; the actual result is that the reputation of the unions is ruined—to the point that even those who (usually, ill-advisedly) sympathized with the unions at the begin of a conflict no longer do so at the end.

Monopolies

Common issues include various forms of monopolies, monopoly-like situations, and other restrictions on competition. The unethical attempts to block others from working during a strike (cf. above) are a good example. Other cases include e.g. attempts to form “closed shops” that only allow union members to be hired and absurd regulations of the “Only we janitors are allowed to change light-bulbs!” kind. Generally, unions very often work on an insider–outsider basis, be it with regard to membership or employment, so that the insiders have something of a monopoly and profit at the cost of the outsiders.

In another direction, collective bargaining through unions often implies a bargaining monopoly, which limits the flexibility of the employed, who usually have little choice but to accept the union-negotiated rates. This implies that someone highly competent and valued-by-the-employer cannot use his good standing to bargain for a higher remuneration than the lazy and incompetent. Likewise, it implies that a young applicant looking for his first position cannot get a foot in the door through a lower initial remuneration (beyond what age, experience, whatnot categories that the union might have negotiated). Ditto someone fresh out of jail and viewed with scepticism by prospective employers. Ditto the housewife coming back to work after two decades of raising children. Etc.

Then we have the type of bottleneck-control exerted by many unions or groups of employees and the resulting leverage. Consider air travel and the security checks: The security checks are a low-value activity, are performed by low-level grunts, and are dwarfed by the actual flight in terms of importance to the journey. However, if the security checkers go on strike, the entire chain of air travel is blocked, giving them an enormous leverage.

Economics

The influence of unions on Economics is an extremely wide field. To give just a few of the most common major issues in a highly abbreviated form:


Side-note:

Not every issue will necessarily occur everywhere, as union methods and attitudes vary somewhat. Resistance against technological progress (cf. below) might be an item with particularly many exceptions.

I have not attempted to draw a border between what is caused by collective bargaining and what by unions, per se. This, in part, because they tend to go hand in hand; in part, because the effects are often partially from both. I have also not made an attempt to differ between unions as they almost invariably tend to be/behave and how they could be.


  1. Unions reduce the effect of market forces, which, in turn and among other things, reduces overall growth. This especially when it comes to allocation of resources (e.g. who works where).

    From a more business point of view, unions often lower the profits of their employers, which can, depending on the situation, prevent expansion, lead to unnecessary bankruptcy, or similar. In the long term, this can be a strong net-negative for the union members, themselves.

    (This item is sufficiently generic that it contains at least portions of each of the other items.)

  2. Unions serve insiders at the cost of outsiders (also see elsewhere). A particular common issue is that higher remuneration for the insiders is bought at the cost of higher unemployment among the outsiders.

    Some truly egregious examples can be found among U.S. longshoremen, who sometimes earn several times what equivalent workers elsewhere receive—and do so through union power and restrictions.

  3. With industry wide bargaining, as is common in e.g. Sweden, a similar effect to the previous item can result in greater salaries in successful companies, while unsuccessful companies go bankrupt, causing unemployment among those who work for the “wrong” company.

    (Absurdly, this was partially a deliberate Swedish strategy for portions of the 20th century.)

  4. Unions distort or remove incentives in various directions, e.g. through preventing performance-based remunerations.

  5. Unions can lead to wasteful employment, e.g. in that the incompetent cannot be fired or in that union rules force the performance of easy tasks of a certain character by someone in a specific group (e.g., again, in that only a janitor may change a light-bulb).

  6. Unions hinder technological progress through a Luddite mentality.

    (A particularly interesting case is the U.K. Wapping dispute in the 1980s. Here the printers’ union tried to prevent computer technology that allowed journalists to create printable text without manual type setting—something already, at the time, widespread outside the U.K. and an absolute given by the 1990s.)

Abuse for political purposes

The problems with political unions are not limited to Sweden (cf. above), and it is not uncommon for unions to e.g. make donations to parties/candidates/causes whatnot using money that ultimately comes from membership fees—even when the recipients might be seen as negatives by some or many of the members. The workers, then, have the choice between not being union members and seeing their money go where it does not belong or, even, where it acts against their own best interests. This the more so in jurisdictions where non-members are still forced to pay money to the union based on the (largely fictional) claim that they would otherwise be freeloaders.


Side-note:

A law to prevent unions from engaging in politics would be an interesting idea, but one hard to push through and enforce, and also somewhat concerning from a “freedom of association” point of view. (It would also be a historical oddity, seeing how unions and the union movement often began in a political context.)

A more restricted take, however, might be possible and even outright recommendable, in that (a) member fees underlie considerable restrictions in use, (b) no quasi-monopolistic union (say, one that is the sole representative in a certain “shop”) may be politically active.

(Even in the last case, however, some leeway might be needed. For instance, lobbying for a worker-safety improvement might be allowed even while giving donations to a particular candidate is illegal.)


A more perfect union

There are a great many positive things that unions could do, but which often are viewed as secondary or are entirely neglected. Better unions could focus on (relative the employers) issues like preventing mistreatment of individual employees, safety standards and ergonomy, whatnot, and (relative the members) educational opportunities, counseling, advice on labor law, etc.


Side-note:

The potential benefits from work on safety standards and ergonomy need not be limited to a specific employer. An excellent example is the TCO monitor standard, which had a considerable worldwide effect, and was created by the Swedish TCO (a more white-collar parallel to the aforementioned and more blue-collar LO).


Vice versa, there are quite a few things that unions could abstain from or do differently. To give concrete examples is trickier in this area, especially as unions are not clones; however, much can be covered on a more abstract level by commonly occurring attitudes-to-be-avoided like short-sightedness, belligerence, technology hostility, and the many points of criticism above, e.g. the lack of concern for third parties.