Some Thoughts On Labor On Labor Day

When one looks back over the history of the development of the modern economy from the agricultural age, to the industrial age, to the information age, the development of a strong labor movement has to be one of the signature events. Capitalism, taken to its excesses, does not allocate economic value fairly to all participants in the economic system. The workers, slaving away to build the railroad, the skyscraper, etc, provide real and substantial value to the overall system and yet, because they are commodified and interchangeable parts, they don’t always get their fair share of the economic value they help to create. So the labor movement provides the market power that each worker individually cannot provide.

The emergence of the middle class in the developed world in the 19th and 20th centuries has as much to do with the emergence of a labor movement as it has to do with anything. And a growing middle class in turn drove economic development as the obtained earning power was spent on needs like homes, cars, education, etc.

I am a fan of the idea that labor needs a mechanism to obtain market power as a counterbalance to the excesses of markets and capitalism. I think we can look back and see all the good that has come from a strong labor movement in the US over the past 150 years.

However, like all bureaucratic institutions, the “Union” mechanism appears anachronistic sitting here in the second decade of the 21st century. We are witnessing the sustained unwinding of 19th and 20th century institutions that were built at a time when transaction and communications costs were high and the overhead of bureaucracy and institutional inertia were costs that were unavoidable.

One has to think “if I were constructing a labor movement from scratch in 2015, how would I do it?”  My colleague Nick Grossman coined the term “Union 2.0” inside our firm to talk about all the organizing tools coming to market to assist workers in the “gig economy.” But I think Union 2.0 is way bigger than the gig economy. The NY Times has a piece today on workers in a carwash in Santa Fe organizing outside of the traditional union system. One can imagine leveraging technology, communications, and marketplaces to allow such a thing on a much larger scale.

I don’t know how much the traditional union system taxes workers to provide the market power they need. But if its like any other hierarchical system that we are seeing replaced by networks and markets, the take rates are in the 20-40% range and could be lowered to sub 5% with technology.

That’s a big deal. And I suspect we will see just that happen in my lifetime. I sure hope so.