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Union busting, then and now

['Eastern Passages - Russell Wangersky']
['Eastern Passages - Russell Wangersky']

Pendulums swing. It's in their nature.

Some generations see strong unions as necessary for the public good to move forward: others argue for the necessity of unfettered business, the right for everyone to make their own deal. Right now, in North America, it certainly seems like the pendulum is moving away from trade unionism.

But not everywhere. The City of Seattle has passed an ordinance that would allow Uber drivers - and other contract drivers - to form unions. Uber is arguing that its drivers are independent contractors who set their own terms for employment, including when and how much they want to work and that is part of the particular beauty of Uber.

Now, driving a cab, formally or otherwise, isn't necessarily the same as working in a 1900s Appalachian coal mine - at least, not on the face of things.

But it is interesting to look at the current arguments made by Uber, and those made by the coal barons of West Virginia. During a period known as West Virgina's Coal Wars, open conflict broke out as the United Mine Workers of America tried to unionize southern West Virginian mines in the period between 1912 and 1921.

The mine owners had a clear reason for not wanting unions: they wanted to set their own terms of employment for miners - including, of course, pay - in an effort to stay as low-cost producers.

Levelling the playing field between employer and employee could hurt that.

And some of their solutions involved considering their employees in a remarkable way.

The Hitchman Coal and Coke company treated its employees as a form of independent contractor as well, making each of its miners sign what came to be known as a "yellow dog" contract. In it, each independent miner agreed not to join the United Mine Workers of America or do anything to join or form a union - you could call it a great way to divide and conquer.

Miners signed: it was that, or not work for the company. Plainly put, it was that, or not work at all.

Individual miners were at a huge disadvantage when it came to wanting better working conditions or pay: they could simply be fired, and nothing would change.

Uber and other competitors in the "new" economy like to argue that the world has changed - they argue that there is a great freedom in being an independent supplier.

The world hasn't changed completely - but the pendulum has swung in a way that puts anyone who is likely to become an "independent contractor" in the economy at an extreme disadvantage in the balance between employer and employee. The fact is that Uber drivers want to fight Uber's unilateral move to cut fares that Uber drivers can collect.

As "independent contractors," they have very little chance of making a persuasive argument that they are being underpaid: literally their only way to get Uber's attention is to collectivise. Arguing that Uber drivers must remain as individuals is no different from hiring them under a "yellow dog" contract that makes them promise not join a union. And "yellow dog" contracts? They were eventually outlawed by the U.S. government - in the forward-looking time of 1932.

One signature element of the "new economy," be it Airbnb or Uber or any number of individuals providing contracted services under a greater internet umbrella? Being a very little bug in a very large ant farm will always make you easy to step on. And that's a very old economy indeed - the economics depend on it.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media's Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@tc.tc

 

Some generations see strong unions as necessary for the public good to move forward: others argue for the necessity of unfettered business, the right for everyone to make their own deal. Right now, in North America, it certainly seems like the pendulum is moving away from trade unionism.

But not everywhere. The City of Seattle has passed an ordinance that would allow Uber drivers - and other contract drivers - to form unions. Uber is arguing that its drivers are independent contractors who set their own terms for employment, including when and how much they want to work and that is part of the particular beauty of Uber.

Now, driving a cab, formally or otherwise, isn't necessarily the same as working in a 1900s Appalachian coal mine - at least, not on the face of things.

But it is interesting to look at the current arguments made by Uber, and those made by the coal barons of West Virginia. During a period known as West Virgina's Coal Wars, open conflict broke out as the United Mine Workers of America tried to unionize southern West Virginian mines in the period between 1912 and 1921.

The mine owners had a clear reason for not wanting unions: they wanted to set their own terms of employment for miners - including, of course, pay - in an effort to stay as low-cost producers.

Levelling the playing field between employer and employee could hurt that.

And some of their solutions involved considering their employees in a remarkable way.

The Hitchman Coal and Coke company treated its employees as a form of independent contractor as well, making each of its miners sign what came to be known as a "yellow dog" contract. In it, each independent miner agreed not to join the United Mine Workers of America or do anything to join or form a union - you could call it a great way to divide and conquer.

Miners signed: it was that, or not work for the company. Plainly put, it was that, or not work at all.

Individual miners were at a huge disadvantage when it came to wanting better working conditions or pay: they could simply be fired, and nothing would change.

Uber and other competitors in the "new" economy like to argue that the world has changed - they argue that there is a great freedom in being an independent supplier.

The world hasn't changed completely - but the pendulum has swung in a way that puts anyone who is likely to become an "independent contractor" in the economy at an extreme disadvantage in the balance between employer and employee. The fact is that Uber drivers want to fight Uber's unilateral move to cut fares that Uber drivers can collect.

As "independent contractors," they have very little chance of making a persuasive argument that they are being underpaid: literally their only way to get Uber's attention is to collectivise. Arguing that Uber drivers must remain as individuals is no different from hiring them under a "yellow dog" contract that makes them promise not join a union. And "yellow dog" contracts? They were eventually outlawed by the U.S. government - in the forward-looking time of 1932.

One signature element of the "new economy," be it Airbnb or Uber or any number of individuals providing contracted services under a greater internet umbrella? Being a very little bug in a very large ant farm will always make you easy to step on. And that's a very old economy indeed - the economics depend on it.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media's Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@tc.tc

 

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