Since the dawn of the industrial age, the organizations representing the workers have been locked in two battles with the enterprise owners: one for a safe working environment and the other for a share of the wealth created.
The first battle is the one that unions can fight and need to win. The people who know the hazards of their workplace are the workers who work in them and, quite rightly, they have the full support of their fellow citizens in demanding the remediation of any deficiencies. The hollowing out of regulatory agencies that support the workers’ right to a safe workplace has resulted in the aggregious exploitation of unorganized and organized labor alike.
The second battle is unnecessary, and the result of a misunderstanding about the power of democracy. To the extent that there is widespread support for a “living wage”, it reflects a natural inclination in all of us that the contribution of one’s labor should, at least, deliver the bare necessities of a peaceful life. Beyond the satisfaction of basic needs, the support for a principle of sharing the wealth created by some becomes distinctly frayed and disfused. This is also a natural impulse and reflects our personal experiences of achievement and the pursuit of our interests.
When unions demand a share of the wealth created by the organizations they work for they are treading the narrow path between natural fairness and natural enterprise. They have the support of the populace for the former and are fighting against common instincts when they stray into the latter. The answer to this conundrum is to be found in the politics of their society, it is in the hands of the very people they represent. A taxation system that assures everyone of the basic essentials of life is there for the asking when the majority of people are workers living in a democracy.
As proposed in the Standards of LIFE, a simple tax system that dedicates income tax revenues to meeting the basic needs of all, satisfies the fair demand for a fair share of the combined wealth of the society. The battle should be to help the workers see that the ballot box, not the picket line, is the way to achieve their aspirations for a livable life. It is completely unnecessary to fight, against the grain, trying to force enterprise owners to meet the need for basic services. The owners are focussed on competing and innovating and that means keeping costs as low as possible and their focus on their markets, not the social needs of their workers. Successful enterprises are those that make the most of the knowledge, ingenuity and insights of their workers, but this is not the same as ownership, risk taking and entrepreneurship.
Legislation, that supports safe workplaces, and a taxation system, that meets society’s basic needs, are both the domain of government; and governments are elected by the people. So stop asking corporations for what they are disinclined to provide and start asking yourself why you’re not giving yourself what you need. Unions should mobilize their members, to mobilize the majority, to elect a government, that will deliver the standards of life to all.
Unions might find themselves allied with the owners in an endeavor that delivers fairness while freeing corporations from responsibility for the fabric of their society. Adoption of the principles and policies of the Standards of LIFE has the potential to create just such an alliance, around a common purpose that satisfies different interests, because the Standards of LIFE delivers social justice without blunting the driving force of enterpise.
What’s more, if the workers have their basic needs met then the employers have to work harder to attract employees and that means better and safer workplaces.