The existence of unions has been explained as the need for individual workers to have a voice when negotiating with the power wielded by capitalists. In his paper “Working Class Power, Capitalist Class Interests, and Class Compromise” professor Erik Olin Wright explains,
both workers and capitalists are internally heterogeneous as social categories, and this heterogeneity also impacts on their material interests. Capitalists are differentiated by sector, geographical scope of transactions (local, national, multinational capital), and many other factors; workers are differentiated by such things as sectors, skills, and the nature of the firm in which they are employed, not to mention race, gender and other non-class forms of social division. The material interests of real workers and capitalists are certainly affected by these dimensions of internal differentiations.
Writing from a Marxist perspective, Wright concludes,
The relationship between working class power and capitalist class interests remains a reverse-J relation, and capitalists will thus always be tempted, when historical opportunities occur, to try to move to toward the “capitalist utopia” of weak working class associational power. This option needs to be foreclosed in order for the new possibilities of productivist class compromises to become attractive to capitalists. Closing off this option requires state intervention, and this implies that removing the “low road” path of an atomized working class with relatively low wages and low skills ultimately depends upon the revitalization of a mobilized political forces supporting an effective economic program of “associational productivism.”
So, in Wright’s view the state must intervene to force the unionization of workers on private firms so that the workers will be highly skilled and productive. Otherwise, capitalists will use their power to only hire unskilled cheap labor. So union workers are happier, better paid, have better skills and are more productive, and thus are a benefit to the capitalists. But the greedy capitalists will shoot themselves in the labor foot every time if the state doesn’t intervene.
If this all makes sense to you, then Colleen M. Kelley’s letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal is right up your alley. It seems the WSJ ran a piece critical of the unionization of TSA workers and Ms. Kelley, who is National President of the National Treasury Employees Union (one of two unions vying to represent TSA staff) responded, providing labor union logic for how a union will help not only TSA workers but travelers as well.
Ms. Kelley writes that collective bargaining will not only improve employee working conditions but “create a more stable, professional and productive workforce.” She goes on to instruct us that “employees organize and bargain collectively because they care about public service and want to make it better.”
Most travelers don’t know this but the TSA has a high attrition rate as well as “significant injury rates,” “low employee morale,” and “uneven application of rules from airport to airport.” I can’t in my wildest dreams imagine how a single TSA worker could be injured on the job, let alone many of them. But travelers stare into the face of low TSA morale each and every time they travel by air. And anyone who flies a lot knows there are differences between the various airport TSA requirements and procedures.
So it’s curious that union president Kelley would write, “it is easy to forget that the piecemeal private company approach to airport security contributed to the tragic events of September 11; that is what led to the creation of the TSA.” The TSA is piecemeal itself and not all that effective in stopping box cutters from making it onto flights.
By the way, Kelley says the first responders to the World Trade Center after the attack were union members, “and their collective bargaining agreements in no way kept them from risking their lives to save others.” She makes no mention of the acts of heroism of many non-union members that were working inside the towers when the planes hit and had the guts and presence of mind not to just escape but to help others.
“When workers have a voice in their workplace, everyone wins,” Ms. Kelley concludes her letter with a flourish. Where is the capitalist power structure in this struggle for TSA worker rights? There is none. The TSA is state intervention itself writ large and yet its employees require associational power to improve their working conditions and morale. And we are supposed to believe that unionizing TSA employees will make air travel more efficient and pleasurable for the consumer?
Karl Marx himself wouldn’t buy this nonsense.