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October 24, 2006

Comments

Hmm, maybe my disgust at the smell of microwave popcorn is based on self-preservation.

Labor unions were one of the primary political forces working against national health care programs through the late 40's on through the 60's. Health care was (and is) the primary employer-provided benefit and losing influence over that would have weakened their position over their members.

Auto unions fought against mandated factory health and safety standards since they viewed that as tipping more power to management over the floor bosses.

Unions have done a lot of good historically. But for the last 50 or so years, their record is decidedly mixed with the balance, in my view, being negative.

Unions, like most organizations, have over time become focused on their own self-preservation. Structurally, their incentives do not remain aligned with the workers after the first few years of existence. I think those structural flaws are exacerbated by the legislation in place giving a particular legal status to a very flawed organizational setup.

Of course, on the flip side, I think that the elimination of the principle of limited liability for the management of corporations would be a good start. If managers knew that negligance wouldn't mean a civil suit against a corporation but a criminal suit against them, I think you'd see a much better alignment of worker and management interests.

By the way, I should clarify that I currently lean against national health care and would take direct liability over most defined safety regulations. I merely chose those two as relevant in the context of the harm to which you seemed to be suggesting unions as a solution.

"But these results show that one is decidedly less perfect than the other."

If one believes that workers are as likely to report coercion from their peers as from management. Also I can imagine some jobs where I would be more concerned about my peers' good will than my boss's - of course no one's going to trip me into a particle beam in my lab or put a source in my desk.

Anyway, I don't understand why it's not a basic constitutional right (1st amendment?) to join a union. And I thought it had been shown that companies end up doing better if their employees are unionized, so I don't understand why this is even a topic of controversy.

Freedom of association is already a basic constiutional right. You can join whatever club you want and call it a union if that suits you. Any employer trying to limit those associations outside of work time should be harshly sanctioned. But employers should be free to make employment contracts without legal mandate to deal with a particular club. If employees wish to leave en masse due to decisions made, that's their choice. If they wish to say that they will only continue to work if the employer negotiates with their representative rather than them, that too is their choice. None of these choices are helped by adding layers of legal encumbrance.

If, as you claim, unions are good for business, then over time a larger percentage of businesses will be unionized. I'd be curious to see a link on those studies, though. My assertion would be that unions are good in some situations and bad in others. The historical tide has simply moved against them for the moment. I think that alternate forms of worker organization are more likely to be useful than unions as we know them, but conditions could fall back into patterns favoring unions.

If employees wish to leave en masse due to decisions made, that's their choice. If they wish to say that they will only continue to work if the employer negotiates with their representative rather than them, that too is their choice. None of these choices are helped by adding layers of legal encumbrance.

I feel that this would make for an organization as ineffective as the United States would be if we had to continually decide en masse that we should have some individual being President over us, instead of being bound to one by the Constitution. President's unpopular? I guess Europe gets to set the WTO rules by itself, then.

"If, as you claim, unions are good for business, then over time a larger percentage of businesses will be unionized."

Only under the rather counter-intuitive assumption that people behave rationally and live in rationally-organized societies. The kind of situation where everyone would be clamoring for a national version of the best available successful example of health care provision, the V.A. system - even people with vested interests in the status quo.


I'm sure people here will link to data supporting and/or disputing my claim - probably to posts on ObWi...

surely this is exactly the situation OHSA was created to prevent ? maybe we should all send the head of OHSA a copy of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" - dipped in diacetyl.

But that doesn't diminish the fact that this man's injuries could have been easily prevented if he'd been some simple breathing protection and trained in its use, either a half-mask respirator or maybe even a simple sdust mask would have done the trick.

"OK: so this chemical is lethal, and OSHA did a study establishing this back in 2001."

Nitpick: it's disabling, but I wouldn't use the word "lethal". It's LD50 in mice subjects was 250 mg/kg (mouse model), or 1,800 mg/kg (rat model): it's about as lethal as tylenol and a bit less than caffeine. But if I was handling neat caffeine or acetoaminophen, I'd expect a respirator to be supplied. The low lethality (as opposed to morbidity) is probably one of the reasons why OSHA is f**king around on setting a standard. Also, the big difference in LD50's between different animal models makes me think that there are not a lot of good studies on the toxicology of the substance. It's harder to gauge toxicity using morbidity (i.e. a non-lethal end-point) rather than lethality, so if there's that much disparity between LD50 results in similar animal models, then toxicity data effects inhalation exposure on the lungs is probably scarce and ambiguous.

USA: I was basing 'lethal' on this: "Rats exposed to diacetyl at levels similar to those in factories suffered major lung injuries, according to 2001 reports by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Half died within six hours." Nut I'll update.

Also, note this from the article:

"Hallagan said most flavor companies today have respiratory health plans in place that take into account proper engineering and ventilation of the workspace and include annual medical exams for workers, information and training sessions for workers, and personal protective equipment.

Rick Tourtillott, safety and environmental manager for Chr. Hansen, said that the company provides pulmonary function tests to workers and that employees are educated on the hazards of the chemicals.

But Harper, the Chr. Hansen employee, said he was never warned that the butter flavor might blind him.

"They said that it would dissolve in your body, that it wasn't harmful," he said."

Noumenon,
Are you suggesting that unions should have control over their members to the point that they can't leave? Because in any voluntary organization people always have the choice as to whether to follow the dictates of the organization. The correct analogy is not having to constantly decide whether someone is president, but whether or not we wish to remain members of a particular club or health plan. If we like what the club is doing or the benefits the health plan is providing, we maintain our membership and pay our dues. If we don't, we leave. This really isn't much different from the current situation except that I don't think the peculiar legal status assigned to unions is beneficial.

rilkefan,
So, because people behave irrationally, you'd like to organize society for them? Even ignoring that for a moment, your claim is false. All I need is the assumption that relative efficiency will win out, not that the system is composed of rational actors (still an assumption, but a different one). As long as some businesses have unions (empirically true), if there is an advantage to that, those businesses should tend to relatively expand. I can go so far as assume pure random business choices in this regard and, if there's an advantage to unions, their numbers should increase over time.

On the issue of your claim that unionized businesses are more successful, even if you can't find evidence, I'm curious where you heard this. I'm so used to hearing the opposite that it struck me as a unique claim.

"Hallagan said most flavor companies today have respiratory health plans in place that take into account proper engineering and ventilation of the workspace and include annual medical exams for workers, information and training sessions for workers, and personal protective equipment."

This to me seems like it could have been the start of a case for negligance. Eliminate the corporate shield against liability and management would have been rushing to at least match the industry safety norms, if not exceed them (just to be (personally) safe). No union will ever align interests so effectively (and, as I noted previously, they have in fact worked against OHSA and mandated safety standards in the recent past).

yorvium,
appreciate you taking the other side here, but but let me back up to something you first wrote:

Unions, like most organizations, have over time become focused on their own self-preservation. Structurally, their incentives do not remain aligned with the workers after the first few years of existence.

What organizations have a better chance of having their incentives aligned with the workers?

lj,
I think that eliminating the limited liability protections accorded to corporations is the best single step you could take. Right now, management gets to operate and negotiate under conditions where mistakes made by them are absorbed by the corporation. Workers are directly exposed.

Leveling the field in that way is less vulnerable to coruption than trying to grant special legal powers to unions as a way to balance out the special legal powers granted to corporations. Under those conditions, power will come down to who has the most money to influence the political and legal processes. Even an idealized union will lose those battles. Real-world unions are as likely to be fighting against their workers (remember health care and safety standards).

I think that eliminating the limited liability protections accorded to corporations is the best single step you could take.

Hey, sign me up! I agree with that completely, but I also think that is making the perfect the enemy of the good (or perhaps the best we can do in the current circumstances)

My feeling is that unions are as flawed as the people who make them. But to try and imagine the sort of tectonic shift it would require to have corporations give up those special legal powers makes me think that unions are the best we are going to get.

I totally agree that the chance of that particular change is... not great :).

But, the unions' track records lead me to think that they're worse than nothing at this point, at least as they're currently organized.

My experience may be unique, but over the last 5 years, I'm not sure if any of my friends or family have stayed in the same industry, let alone the same job (except for the grad students, but theirs is not to reason why). Even an idealized union of the current company or industry forms would not be able to help.

I too used to pro-union, but reading about their late 20th century track record (in most detail about the auto and steel industries) somewhat soured me. As I've noted, their moves to block universal or portable health coverage as a way of maintaining power over the workers was a pretty fundamental betrayal. Moves to block federally mandated safety standards since those would increase the power of management were equally craven.

Frankly, I think that unions need to transform themselves to maintain relevance. One idea would be a union which acted more like a service organization. In exchange for dues, members would get health care, some sort of constant training program, and perhaps some kind of job transition assistance. Such unions might still negotiate with individual employers, but might be most effective acting as placement agencies for their mobile members. Especially if the union itself were providing basic health coverage and training, such individuals might be far more desirable to employees enhancing both the value to worker and the bargaining position of the union.

Actually, that's kind of an interesting thought. Care to shoot some holes in it so that it can improve? :)

"So, because people behave irrationally, you'd like to organize society for them?"

No, I'd like to have a society that obeys the rule of law and is governed in a sensible responsible way. If you prefer anarchy, fine, color me skeptical.


"I can go so far as assume pure random business choices in this regard and, if there's an advantage to unions, their numbers should increase over time."

Again, that's unwarranted. It's like the story of the peacock - you'd think the shorter-tailed ones would be fitter (more likely to survive) and should take over, but it doesn't happen that way. I'm claiming that the business decisions are non-random and counterproductive. As for the source, if someone here doesn't chime in I'll have to resort to google when I have a spare minute.

"If you prefer anarchy, fine, color me skeptical."

Nope, no preference for anarchy here. I apologize for starting the sniping with my comments.

"I'm claiming that the business decisions are non-random and counterproductive."

So your argument seems to hinge on two main points. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

First, you need these business choices to in fact be counterproductive. I've argued above that unions are actually bad for workers. You don't have to dispute that, you just need to show that they're actually good for businesses (an interesting reversal of positions).

I don't think you'll have much trouble showing that historically unions have been beneficial. Early 20th century examples are easy enough and I think that unions played a valuable role in that time. But the record over the last 50 years seems equally clear in the opposite direction. Unions have resisted modernization, plant safety (I think it has business value), environmental improvements, and have hurt the competitiveness of industries where they've been strongest. One case study, Nucor versus the rest of the US steel industry.

Second, you need to show some structural element that causes unionized businesses to be selected against regardless of the hypothetical business advantages of unionization. Once again, easy enough historically where you had direct collusion between major employers to stop unionization (including undermining businesses that did unionize). But, we haven't seen anything so obvious in quite some time. I can think of some possibilities (capital markets undervaluing unionized firms, reluctance to deal with unionized firms, etc), but nothing that pans out empirically (in my quick checks). It's easy enough to show that many businesses have worked against unions. But, for your peacock story to hold, you need to show that there is a systemic bias so strong as to overwhelm the benefits of unionization (whatever you show those to be).

Hm, you've actually put a pretty high burden on yourself with the structure of your claims. I can't even help you out by pointing to my own statistical sources. I know a number of case studies, but I've never pulled back that level of generality. If you can back up your claim, I admit it would quite change my perspective on modern labor relations.

Frankly, I think that unions need to transform themselves to maintain relevance.

I think it can be argued that every organization needs to transform themselves because of advances in technology, changes in demographics and the pervasiveness of information technologies. So the fact that unions have to transform shouldn't be thought of as a fatal flaw.

Interestingly, here in Japan, where demographics and a changing labor market is undercutting labor (which was never as strong as it was in the US because Occupation officials were worried that labor would be too influence by Communism) there are a number of ideas that are being tried out. F'rex, labor unions are now attempting to provide longer term social relationships, so that the agreement between a union and its members lasts past retirement. Certainly labor here hasn't been against national health care, and unions have often functioned as the absolute last line of defense for workers, especially in a culture that uses peer pressure to an unprecedented degree. While I think there are some problems revealed by a history of modern US labor relations, I think it is unwise to assume that this history is set in stone.

Furthermore, unions are naturally suffering from the move away from traditional industries that provided lifetime employment to a variety of service industries (both traditional and new) which need a new model of labor organization. That any efforts are undermined by corporations (which more clearly have a rationale that doesn't necessarily include the protecting the worker) shouldn't be taken as a clarion call to claim that unions are an idea whose time has passed.

lj,
A new model of labor organization is precisely what I was arguing for (clearly badly, if that was not clear). I tried a couple of times to specify that I was refering to company and industry unions. I actually think unions, perhaps by another name and certainly of another form, will be critical going forward. My own tossed possibility was to move to what might historically have been more thought of as mutual aid societies while taking advantage of the very trends that are currently crippling the company and industry unions. But, different organizations work under different conditions. I don't at all think history is set in stone. That sense that what worked 50 years ago must still be the correct answer is precisely what I was arguing against. We have to be willing to try new possibilities.

I do disagree with one claim you made:
"corporations (which more clearly have a rationale that doesn't necessarily include the protecting the worker)"

I think that corporations in modern labor conditions (increased mobility, focus on knowledge work) have an incredibly large incentive to protect their workers. Increasingly, knowledge is the primary asset of many corporations. Corporations that fail to treat their workers well can lose those workers easily. As the global balance of capital and labor continues to shift towards capital, labor gains new leverage and new opportunities.

On Japan, I was reading a couple of months ago about the Japanese system of company unions and how that had grown in concert with the post-war promises of lifetime employment. How do you see that changing as Japanese businesses adjust to changing conditions?

A new model of labor organization is precisely what I was arguing for (clearly badly, if that was not clear).

Nah, I probably didn't read it as carefully as I should have. Apologies.

How labor needs to reorganize is an interesting question, but I see a lot of structural impediments to permitting labor to do that in terms of how government and big business define the playing field, so I'm thinking that labor has to protect whatever power it has at the moment, rather than risk giving some things up for the promise of a better ability to intervene in the workplace.

About how much corporations are willing to look at their workforce as a valuable commodity, I think the exceptions prove the rule. I've never seen a company say they are holding the line on layoffs because their workforce is too valuable to let go. I think there are some enlightened companies, but I don't think it gives them a sufficient edge in the marketplace to give them an evolutionary advantage (to mix terms)

Japan's labor movement is really interesting, because there are a number of assumptions that are different from the US and most Western countries, as well as a 'tatemae' (surface appearances) facet and a 'honne' (true feelings) side.

A friend of mine who used to be working with unions in Tokyo and is now back in the US wrote this article which points to the main agent of change, which is dealing with female contracted workers. According to Japanese tax law, one person (the head of the household) is assessed a certain tax rate, while the second wage earner gets hammered after earning a certain amount. This often has women on these kinds of contracts just not coming in work for the last month if their income is approaching the danger zone. That is mentioned in this article, which gives a current view of some of the new 'worker's collectives' that might be what you have in mind as replacements to the current labor unions. This PDF talks about Japanese unions and institutional change in the postwar era.

Lastly, here's a fun site if you have some Japanese and even if you don't, can be pretty interesting. It is a collection of labor posters from Japan, with the translations, with phrases like 'workers of the world, unite!' and 'Overthrow the recession inducing Yoshida cabinet! and "protect our brothers at Hitachi!'

Eliminate the limited liability corporation and you destroy a huge portion of the world economy, unfortunately. (It is unfortunate, I think.)

Without limitation on liability, here's what happens:

Enron's energy subsidiary decides to manipulate the California energy market. A few mid- and top-tier executives are caught on record cackling about the misfortunes it'll inflict on little old ladies. This comes to trial. The corporation is found guilty of a criminal conspiracy against California, and held liable for the many billions of dollars of damage caused by the conspiracy. Many more billions, in fact, than the corporation has. Telephone operators, janitors, and motor pool workers find their assets confiscated, their homes seized, and their incomes in perpetuity garnished to help pay the bill. Furthermore, half the people posting here find that their pension funds, mutual funds, or other investments had a stake in Enron. They lose all of that, and thousands more, and are also subject to ongoing penalties until the bill is paid.

With the limited liability corporation:

The corporation goes out of business. Telephone operators and the others lose their pensions. Stricken, they have to find some alternative now, but they don't lose anything further. The same is true for the ObWi posters here, who may now seek out better-managed investments.

Limited liability wouldn't be necessary if the world were free of both bad luck and evil intent, or if it had both but we were omniscient, or even gifted with reliable precognition. Unfortunately, none of those conditions apply. Which means that we will always face the problem of people who acted in good faith and are involved in a loss they can't repay. If there is no limitation on liability, then nobody will commit to any activity where the risked amount is more than a small fraction of their total assets, and the world economy is many, many times that.

And there are limits to how far you can tinker with the liability, too. You might think it very sensible to say that senior executives should be held responsible for the corporation's business, and I'd agree...except what happens when an employee goes postal, or turns out to be Ted Bundy, or the next Karl Rove on his way up? Or, for that matter, makes unfortunate decisions because of what turns out to be adult-onset diabetes? If there's no limit on the boss' liability, nobody's going to want to take the position without a level of intrusion into workers' lives that isn't feasible for more than a handful of employeesa nd that employees aren't going to want, either.

In practice, we're stuck jiggling concerns within limited liability. (My own pet fix would be to fix fines at $X or %Y of corporate income, whichever is greater, to cover the problem of fining both Joe's Corner Shop and General Motors.) If there are alternatives that take into account the cascading complications of doing without it, they haven't yet been offered in the centuries since the LLC came into being, and there would be massive reward for doing so.

Ahh, Bruce, coming in to pop that bubble. Well, it would have been nice to imagine.

Some synchronicity over at FDL.

Belive me, LJ, I hate to do it. I think that the cover of limited liability makes all kinds of bad stuff possible. But apart from the buinss history, which is fascinating, it takes (at least, it took me) a while to realize how much limited liability fits with waht I regard as an essential standard of justice:

You should be judged responsible only for what you can reasonably know about and that you can control.

Unlimited liability can meet both those for only trivial cases.

An Associated Press article on September 5, 2007 reported that recent warnings to popcorn factory workers about the dangers of lung disease from diacetyl exposure, have now been extended to consumers. Symptoms of this disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, sometimes referred to as “popcorn lung” include:

* Fixed airway obstruction
* Scarring of the lung
* Inflammation of the lung
* Dry cough
* Shortness of breath
* Diminished lung
Were you or loved one exposed to Diacetyl in the workplace?- CLICK HERE

An Associated Press article on September 5, 2007 reported that recent warnings to popcorn factory workers about the dangers of lung disease from diacetyl exposure, have now been extended to consumers. Symptoms of this disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, sometimes referred to as “popcorn lung” include:

* Fixed airway obstruction
* Scarring of the lung
* Inflammation of the lung
* Dry cough
* Shortness of breath
* Diminished lung
Were you or loved one exposed to Diacetyl in the workplace?- CLICK HERE

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