A Philosopher's Blog

Corporations & Unions

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 25, 2011
Socialists in Union Square, N.Y.C. [large crow...

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

To grossly oversimplify things, the conservative view is that corporations are good and unions are bad. To use one example, the governor of Wisconsin is busy lowering taxes for corporations while trying to reduce or eliminate the collective bargaining rights of state employees.

In some ways the dislike of unions is historical in origin. Unions were often associated (in reality or in the minds of the corporate types) with Communists and anarchists. Unions are, obviously enough, almost always considered left wing in nature. After all, they tend to support the workers rather than the businesses.  This, of course, gives folks who are for corporate profits a good reason to oppose unions-unions often push companies to pay more, to provide more benefits and to not employ child or slave labor.

Interestingly enough, corporations and unions can actually be seen as being essentially the same. First, both are organizations that aim at benefiting their members. Corporations aim to maximize profits while unions aim to maximize the benefits for their members. They both organize to do this, although corporations rely primarily on financial power and unions rely more on weight of numbers. Second, both are often harshly criticized for trying to do what they are supposed to do-at least when they go too far. Corporations are typically attacked for trying to maximize profits via means that are regarded as wrong-such as exploiting workers, cutting corners in safety and so on. Unions are most often criticized for trying to get as much as they can from corporations and this is seen as harming the corporation in particular and the economy in general.

In terms of the classic stereotype, corporations are supposed to dream of having slave laborers toiling around the clock in horrible conditions while toxic waste is spewed into the very mouths of spotted owls. Unions, of course, are supposed to crave a world in which corporations funnel all their money to the workers, who show up only to collect their pay and to pilfer office supplies.

While these stereotypes do not generally match reality, there are legitimate grounds to be critical of corporations and unions. Both have done and will do bad things that harm the general good. However, both also provide goods that are worth having. Corporations provide a means by which people can organize in order to make money. Unions provide a means by which people organize to prevent themselves from being exploited and mistreated by those who wish to make money. Ideally, the two would serve t0 balance each other-the corporations would work to keep the unions from becoming too excessive while unions do the same for corporations.

While it is easy (and often fun) to blast corporations or unions, it is well worth considering the value of each and the need to have both. At least for the time being.

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18 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on February 25, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Let’s not forget that multinational corporations can simply pack up and move their operations to another country if they don’t like it here. Hence the push to make corporate tax rates comparable to those in the rest of the world.

    A good job is the best way to redistribute wealth. A shortage of labor is the best way to raise living standards for those at the lower end of the economic ladder.

  2. WTP said, on February 25, 2011 at 9:54 am

    And you ingore the most important factor, the reason either the unions or the corporations even exist, the end consumer. If the end consumer chooses to take their business elsewhere due to either high costs or poor quality, both the union and corporation lose. Yet which of the two entities is more responsible for meeting the needs of the customers?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 25, 2011 at 10:37 am


    • Asur said, on February 25, 2011 at 10:45 am

      “Yet which of the two entities is more responsible for meeting the needs of the customers?”

      Either both or neither, depending on what sense you intend ‘responsible’; the former if you mean efficient cause, the latter if you mean duty.

  3. WTP said, on February 25, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Unions? Really? Do unions decide what products the company will produce? Do unions set the specifications for how those products will work? The vast majority of unions don’t even design the products. Do unions set the prices of the products? Do unions determine the marketing strategies? When the product fails or causes harm, who gets sued, the unions or the corporation?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 26, 2011 at 12:22 pm

      Who do does all the actual work?

      • WTP said, on February 26, 2011 at 5:26 pm

        Running the corporation isn’t “actual work”? Do you think corporate managers just sit around in their board rooms smoking cigars and drinking brandy all day? When one of your students comments in such a way that makes it apparent that they are oblivious to the amount of time you spend in course development, class preparation, test/paper grading, and faculty responsibilities, do you not find that amusing? Standing in front of a class and lecturing is what, 1/3 of your job perhaps? Just because you don’t see the rest of the iceberg doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

        Again, if the product is flawed who is held accountable, the corporation or the union?

        Odd position for a philosopher to take. Management = Philosophy + Responsibility

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 28, 2011 at 2:22 pm

          I’d say doing the work is generally more work than managing the work. Of course, workers and management can be slackers just as they can be hard workers.

          Flawed products can be the result of many factors, including the leadership chocies and the manufacturing.

          • WTP said, on February 28, 2011 at 9:21 pm

            How so? Are you measuring work only in foot-pounds or joules? There’s much more to managing than just managing “the work”. There’s managing the supply chain, the finances, making sure you have the cash to make payroll, pursuing dead-beat customers, negotiating with suppliers, meeting the various OSHA and environmental requirements, acquiring new customers, staying on top of the latest technology changes, knowing your competition, etc. All of these things and many more, management must do or labor will not have a place to work.

            As for the management of labor itself, as you know from your comments about students, people can be a pain in the ass. They can be extremely unreliable, they don’t show up on time, etc. but you still need to have the right number of people available to get the job done yet not too many for the work load expected. Keeping people busy during slack in demand. Getting the most out of people when demand temporarily spikes. When workers think they’re being treated unfairly relative to other workers, you have to assess if they are right and if so, address the slacking other party. If not, you need to straighten out their perceptions. Most psychologists can’t manage that. Not to mention morale problems, justified or not, etc. etc. etc.

            And again, if you have a problem with your car, do you contact Toyota/GM/Honda/Whoever or do you call the UAW? Who is responsible to the customer?

            • WTP said, on August 29, 2013 at 7:37 am

              Battim’s comments brought me back here. This comment was made 2 1/2 YEARS ago. Magus, TJ do you think Mike has learned anything in 30 months?

            • Douglas Moore said, on August 29, 2013 at 9:50 am

              “Are you measuring work only in foot-pounds or joules?”

              I was going to make the exact same analogy, then I saw you made it. You made several other points, which I will connect to the only managerial experience I have: Being an NCO in the Army.

              1) As you state, people are a pain in the ass. Many days, I feel exhausted, even though my joules output was probably not that high, outside an hour of morning physical training. Unfortunately I constantly have to keep some people motivated to work, and keep them operating within the rules. The system is supposed to work in this way: Those most able to motivate themselves and others get promoted. After being promoted to NCO rank, it took me a while to learn to manage people, to “delegate” as the Army says. I was trying to do all the work I’d done before, plus manage people, and I was exhausting myself. An NCO must train soldiers, mentor them, prepare ratings for soldiers and NCOs subordinate to him. He must make sure everything is running smoothly around him.

              2) Some could use their rank to do less work, as Mike seems to believe is the case. However, in the Army at least, the people who get promoted the fastest really do seem to be the hardest workers and that ethic for the most part does not disappear when they get promoted. The idea is to promote people with innate qualities. Senior people in the Army may be jackasses, but usually they’re very hard working jackasses.

              3) You make the point about balancing legitimate complaints against whining. This is one of the toughest. Sometimes, it’s always mission first. The US Army must be prepared to do very difficult things sometimes. But there must be balance. I spent the last 8 months working every day and being generally pissed off. The Army knows this will happen. Now it’s giving me time off, and I feel better about things. That’s balance. That takes managers who have a clue.

              4) Surely Mike thinks things like writing and teaching are work, and hard work. A guy breaking his back in a lumber yard for much less than Mike makes could not do what Mike does even if he wanted to. It’s not always about absolute work output, however we measure that, it’s about capabilities. Some are digging ditches because they have no other skills. Yes, digging ditches sucks, but someone has to do it.

              5) WTP makes several points about responsibility. This is a big deal in the Army. More Army parlance: “An excuse has a zero foot blast radius.” More simply stated: ” I fucked up. As the senior guy here, it’s my fault.” When something goes wrong in the Army, we don’t only look at the Private who messed up, but the leaders around him. Was there a failure to train? Did the NCOs ignore safety rules? Did the NCOs fail to communicate?

              5) Mike should be open to the vision I have of managers: They are philosopher kings. They must juggle many things at once, with wisdom. They achieved that position because of wisdom and experience, in theory. I began as a Private. It sucked. I worked hard and showed some competence, I got promoted. How else can it be?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 29, 2013 at 12:30 pm

              People vary in how they use their rank. Some leaders act like leaders and take on appropriate work. Others like to use their rank to get others to do their work for them. Being a good leader is very hard work-you have responsibility for your people and you have to ensure that what you do and what they do is done right. Being a bad leader is easy-just dump work and blame on those beneath you. Unfortunately, getting into a leadership position and being a good leader often require rather different skill sets. For example, people who spend their time actually doing their job are often at a disadvantage to those who are busy networking and making connections.

              The value of work is not measured by how hard a person works, but by the results. For example, a student who does badly on a paper will often say “but I worked soooo hard on the paper!” Some professors will joke about the old “E for effort”, but I’ll usually make the point that I have to grade the paper based on the quality of the paper and not on the hours put into it. I worked really hard on some really crappy papers that got me exactly the crappy grade I deserved. Same with running: it is not how hard a person has to work to run, but the results. My worst races tended to be those I worked the hardest at because I was already exhausted from something else or sick.

              As you note, there is also the commodity factor. Almost anyone can work a shovel or flip a burger, but few people can design a computer, repair a heart, or write a book worth reading. However, people should still get what their work is worth, even if they are flipping burgers.

            • Douglas Moore said, on August 29, 2013 at 9:54 am

              “A true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship” (The Republic).

            • WTP said, on August 29, 2013 at 1:37 pm

              Thanks, Magus…I’d really like to get back to this but I’m tied up until the weekend. Interesting to see Mike mate his “However, people should still get what their work is worth” vs. his FOUR, count ’em, FOUR articles on minimum wage that dance around or never address who, what, or how the determiniation of this “worth” is established.

  4. anamericangirl said, on June 30, 2011 at 1:03 am

    Just thought I would tell you greedy People, The Corporations and, Unions you are working for have all became very Rich ( thanks to you idiots) will soon be leaving our Country therefore you will be left without a job and when you go to look for another, if they find out you were in the Union they will never hire you, afraid you may go psycho on them like you have everyone else that given you a job. Soon you will understand the truth about your Communist Union When its too late.You have no freedom anymore. They even tell you how to vote. You are all a bunch of Soro’s Puppets that have lost your American values. I only Pray when the walls come tumbeling down on you your Children are not there to see it. Good luck and may God bless you all!

    • battim (@battim) said, on August 29, 2013 at 2:05 am

      its true. sadly. an adjustment is happening. as the standard of living for developing nations rises there will have to be a transfer. it won’t be great for american labor in the long run. or it will cycle back. or we will become more of a provider of the innovative class which will require a lot more discipline from our youth in regards to their education and social intelligence to thrive on for the long haul. america does one thing in volume better than anywhere on the planet…higher education. so we have that. but they are getting a bit greedy as well. we will work it out. so far we always have. just gonna take some growing pains.

  5. DudeManBro said, on October 6, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    You’re an idiot. How’s that for an argument? Go watch some more Glenn Beck.

    • battim (@battim) said, on August 29, 2013 at 1:58 am

      glenn beck is seriously your intellectual compass? voltaire, rousseau, locke, decartes, burke, madison, adam smith, thomas aquinas….all available…for free on the interwebs…and you turn on glenn beck? #braindead

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