Towards a more perfect union.

My feelings on organized labor are eccentric, to say the least. In theory, I’m pro-union. Labor of all stripes should have the freedom to collectively bargain. The problem is, so should employers, and that means that once an employer reaches a certain size, it can employ the Wal-Mart stratagem of “You’re all fired, we’ll close the store if we have to.” in response to unionization.

You can propose laws to curb this behavior, but they’ll run into the exact same obstacle as every other employment law; blatant lying, and the fact that it’s really hard to criminalize something that’s legal absent a specific motivation or mindset. As long as we have at-will employment and employers maintain an average size above a certain level, it can be made extremely hard for certain segments of the population to unionize.

Of course, there are a bunch of other laws, too. Unions have a mandated free-rider effect going on, in that they can’t legally advocate for benefits that would not also go to non-union members. This has the predicted effect of driving unions to concentrate their efforts in areas where they can get full shops, if not closed shops, and trades for which bringing in full-time scabs would be expensive and costly.

I feel like there’s a missed opportunity here, probably due to the dueling laws which distort what unions can form and definitely due to the extended propaganda efforts both for and against unions. I feel like my own industry could benefit from a programmer’s union, that focused mostly on professional standards, internal accreditation, and providing open-source tools for the world (union and non-union) to benefit from. A union which could help its members keep up with the state of the art in security and development features, which had not the message “Hire from us only or we’ll attack your business until you do.” but “Hire from us because we do a good job of identifying competent programmers, and do not extend our seal of approval to non-competent programmers for political reasons.” would be crazy-ass valuable. And while my people aren’t really naturally joiners, a union that focused both on improving the discipline of CS and managed to walk the walk for a while seems like it would pick up a fair amount of the old guard of programmers.

There’s probably a basic idea why there aren’t more open, distributed unions. Maybe they tried this earlier, and the whole organization collapsed when no one could agree on whether the official union editor would be VI or EMACS.

Huh. And maybe the answer to that is multiple unions competing with each other, both on reputation and attracting new members. If monopolies are bad for firms, they’re bad for labor as well; what happens when there are three major unions in an area with non-non-compete clauses drafted, so that losing your contract with one means you have a two-way bidding war rather than a three-way bidding war?


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