Why I Like Trade Unions (Potentially)

Last week brought three interesting comments on trade unions. On Thursday, a sociology professor Wiesława Kozek, who as a guest took part in the meeting of parliamentary panel “Fair Community,” indicated that the lack of mutual trust is the cause of the small number of trade unions in Poland (7%) and reminded of the economic relationship which has been a riddle for the Right for many years and the main argument for a redistribution for the Left, namely: the poor consume a bigger part of their income than the rich. It means that if you want to stimulate economy in crisis you should increase the pays of people who earn the least and who will immediately spend money on necessities – while the better-off will keep their increased income in a safe place.

On Monday, Wiesław Gumuła – the president of the Cracow branch of National Bank of Poland (NBP) and a lecturer at the Jagiellonian University – who took active part in a seminar in the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), noticed that the weakness of German trade unions was one of the causes of the crisis in Greece: Schröder’s success in stimulating their economy brought disproportionately small benefits to workers. Had they got more money, the German consumption would have increased, the imbalance of trade would not have been so considerable and German investments in Greek securities would have also been smaller. Gumuła also spoke about a rapidly increasing discrepancy between the real and the virtual (financial) economy. This problem would be less serious if a bigger part of the added value found its way into ordinary workers’ hands.

This morning (that is on Wednesday 27th of March), Wojciech Maziarski said in TOK FM that the demands of people who went on strike in Silesia are aimed at millions of Poles – including Maziarski himself – who have learnt to function somehow with junk contracts. If trade unions succeed and junk contracts disappear, millions of people will find themselves out on the streets and a real trouble will start.

This is the most convincing praise of trade unions. The negotiating power of a single worker is in principle smaller than the one of a big company which employs him or her. Such a situation took place in English spinning mills in 19th century and we have the same situation in contemporary Polish media. What can we do? We can grit our teeth and allow unfavourable changes of work conditions, or increase our negotiating power by cooperation with other people who are in the same boat, that is, by creating a trade union. Maziarski, who is a classical liberal, finds the second solution hideous: negotiating standpoints with competitors is a tricky collusion and an unfair action against an entrepreneur, who (thanks to the risk taken and an inborn creativity) plays a crucial role in creating social wealth.

If someone has ever wondered what Karl Marx meant by the name “false awareness”, here is the answer: the last bastion of dignity and subjectivity is a conviction that one is an equal partner in negotiations for your employer. The majority of Poles live with such illusions. These are the Poles who trust their bosses rather than colleagues and who surprisingly often – despite the longing for more or even too protective state – consider trade unions dodgers, who batten on ordinary losers’ contributions.

Meanwhile, strong trade unions can not only increase bargaining abilities of journalists, who are paid for every line of their text, or cashiers in supermarkets, who are made to work out a more excessive quotas, but they can also stabilise economy on a large scale. It is true that when trade unions demand bigger share in a product, they reduce the profits of enterprises – but at the same time they increase domestic demand and create a basis for a more permanent, even if slower, growth. That means that they have a stabilising function – and the strength of this influence depends on the position they are allowed to take. Too strong trade unions can freeze free-market economy, while too weak trade unions will not protect anybody from overheating of the economic situation and from speculative bubbles. If we have problems regulating “temperature” by means of interest rates, then why don’t we do it by means of labour law? In the times of slowdown it would mean loosening norms and decreasing the role of trade unions – but in Poland we cannot do that because both parameters are already very loosened and restricted. But it will be worth remembering when the economic spring comes.

Translation: Anita Stradomska

Proof – reading: Katarzyna Różańska