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In this lesson we will take a very brief look at Unions. Where do they come from, what is their history and, more importantly, their reasons to exist. Following this, we will peer into the future and determine if Unions actually have one. Don’t be surprised if you find out that diamonds may be forever but Unions are not.

 

IN THE BEGINNING

The historical roots of Unions can be traced back to the 14th century. However, its modern history begun with the industrial revolution.

During the industrial revolution, this new thing “industry” was being invented. As such, people stumbled ahead into new problems and new concepts without any point of reference, particularly in the labor camp. This was very hard to do. As there was no experience,  no unions or labor laws, industrialists imposed their demands as far as they could. People had very long shifts, young children were hired, wages were ridiculously low and at the same time labor conditions were appalling, to say the least.  There were many accidents and deaths, there were no vacations or sick leaves, long hours and long shifts. Essentially, what the industrial age wanted to do in the very beginning is to industrialize human beings.

In other words, they were trying to run human beings as machines and that attempt necessarily lead to bad-to-horrific working conditions. Machines don’t complain, have to eat, need to breath, get tired or need a break. Why should humans?  These facts and that way of thinking were at the epicenter of the problems workers complained about.

In addition, there were other more subjective issues. According to the workers, wages were too low and factory owners were exploiting them. In the very beginning and to a certain degree this was true. History can testify to this fact because many factory owners became very rich but their workers were kept in the same conditions as the industries with low profit margins.

Therefore, and to that extent, the complaint of the workers was solid.  However, it is to be noted that even in those circumstances workers kept flocking to industrial work in new industrializing cities.  Which meant that in their point of view, they didn’t considered themselves to have been so-called exploited or abused by an industrial job. Furthermore, such jobs –even considering all the drawbacks-  were much preferable to dying of hunger, thirst, disease or exposure somewhere else.  This is something quite reasonable.  People move where they find better conditions; people do not flock to places with worse living conditions. This denotes a large level of acceptance.

 

A UNION IN BORN

The conditions we described above were far from being ideal and so, in essence, those were the roots of the labor movement.  People wanted to have a better life, but most importantly, people wanted to have a share of the profits.

Many experiments have been run over time to answer this question: what do a worker prefer, better working conditions (e.g. shorter hours) or higher wages? The answer: higher wages.

In the end, when one goes to the very core of the complaint, the complaint is always economic. This makes sense. Any person can understand that it is preferably to work harder in a more difficult job at a greater pay, than to work lightly in an easy job for a low (and unsatisfactory) pay. It is a matter of incentives. Wages are the most important incentive out there. Working conditions and benefits come in a distant second. Why is this? Because given sufficiently higher wages, a worker can protect him/herself in the job and also purchase all the “social benefits” (medical, dental, etc.) one needs.

At the time, this lesson had not been yet learned and there really was no practical way to share profits. Most companies were private and only a few ones were public. Share prices were completely, totally and utterly beyond the purchasing power of a worker, even assuming a worker would know what a share was.

So no, there really wasn't any practical way of sharing profits.  That was then.

And so, in order to support these demands for profit sharing, many political theories came into play.  Most notably communism, which stated that the fruits of labor should be shared amongst the workers and not by the people who provided the capital.  This was very appealing to workers because not only sided with them, but it provided the theoretical basis (however flawed) on which to base their points of view.

In addition,  we also need to take into consideration the fact that women were considered second or third rate workers, receiving much lower wages and much less so-called social benefits (when there were any to have).

For all those reasons, theoretical and practical, the labor movement became very active.  Originally, it was a movement. People talking, sharing ideas and finding coincidences. Groups were formed, leaders appeared, organizations were born, decisions were made. This is how Unions were born.  Out of necessity, to seek better wages in a system where they had no options, in a system that was totally biased towards the capitalist’s side.

Through Unions, workers achieved many improvements and forced the world to learn few lessons, and that was OK. That was then.

However, by now these lessons should have evolved, albeit they did not. The culprit? The Democratic system which is stuck in their ways, blocking a truly free market.

Note: please see the Glossary if you are unfamiliar with certain words.

Continue to Diamonds May Be Forever But Unions Are Not - Part 2

 

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