The ‘Adversarial’ Nature of Unions

One of the strangest objections to the presence of unions in the workplace is that unions make the workplace adversarial, that they introduce conflict into the relationship between the worker and the manager (or between the two classes), that rather than letting workers and management concentrate on maximizing output (or throughput) and enterprise profit, which would then ultimately translate back into prosperity for all concerned, the union imposes an externality, a transaction cost by virtue of its fundamentally oppositional nature.

The so-called ‘adversarial nature’ of the union should not be surprising. Management and workers’ incentives often do not align, especially when the employing entity is not employee owned or incorporated i.e., it is a standard  enterprise where the economic power of capital is concentrated in a small group of owners. The goods to be maximized and minimized–wages and profits for instance–by the parties in this relationship are different and often orthogonal; it is not entirely unexpected that management and workers’ actions would bring them into conflict with each other. This situation is an almost straightforward consequence of the acceptance of two axioms pertaining to such a workplace: a) that it brings together two parties of grossly disparate economic power, with both aiming to maximize their standings in those stakes and b) that this encounter will often be a zero-sum game. Conflict seems inevitable under these circumstances.

(A little historical perspective is useful here. Early hostility to unions from management was systematic; it found a significant legal edge thanks to sympathetic courts that, having internalized the mantra that unions were irritants to markets blamed them for declining profits whenever they occurred. Indeed, the sometimes violent, protracted, and bitter history of labor relations in this country suggests that to note and object to the adversarial nature of unions is to merely note the aggressive posture of one of the two parties in an extended, hostile, and a yet-to-be-resolved conflict: at best it makes note of the obvious, at worst it seeks to obfuscate understanding of the forces that conspire to keep the workplace a space for worker control.)

What is most interesting about this almost-aesthetic distaste which underwrites the objection to the conflict-engendering union–the only one to be indicted of the charge of adversarial behavior–is the contrast it intends to conjure up with an imaginary union-free workplace, one that is productive, low-cost, profit-producing, a harmonious vale of workers and management working peacefully together with shoulders to the wheel. Such union-free workplaces in the real world, of course, now free of the friction created by the presence of the union, almost invariably do poorly on those reckonings of worker quality most beloved of unions: worker job security, inflation-pacing wages with annual raises, safe and regulated workplaces. It turns out that conflict in the workplace might be the price workers and management have to pay if the widespread ubiquity of collectively owned economic entities does not become a reality and the workplace continues to showcase relationships between powerful, capital-owning management and economically precarious worker forces.

One comment on “The ‘Adversarial’ Nature of Unions

  1. […] I’ve noted in my posts on labor unions (here; here;  here; here; here), there is a curious rejection underway–in the strangest of places, […]

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