← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

“Technological Unemployment” and the Writers’ Strike

photograph of writers' strike sign

On September 27th the monthslong writers’ strike concluded. Writers worried that ChatGPT and similar text generation technologies will lead to a future in which scripts are no longer written by humans, but manufactured by machines. Certainly corporations find the technology promising, with Disney, Netflix, and other major entertainment companies vacuuming up AI specialists. Holding signs saying “AI? More like AI-Yi-Yi!” and expressing similar sentiments, writers fought to secure their place in a rapidly changing technological landscape. And when the smoke cleared and the dust settled, the Writers Guild of America had won a surprisingly strong contract. While it does not prohibit the use of AI, it does ensure that human writers will not become the mere handmaidens of computerized text generators – editing and refining machine-generated content.

From the flood of garbage ChatGPT has sent into the internet to the multiplying complexities of intellectual property, Artificial Intelligence is, in many ways, a distinctly modern challenge. But it also follows a well-worn pattern: it continues a long legacy (and revives an old debate) regarding the labor market’s ability to absorb the impact of new technology.

John Maynard Keynes, the famous British economist, used the phrase “technological unemployment” to describe the mismatch in how quickly human labor could be replaced by technological innovation versus how quickly new uses for human labor emerged. For Keynes, this was essentially a lag-time problem caused by rapid technological shifts, and it remains controversial whether “technological unemployment” causes an overall drop in the employment rate or just a momentary hiccup. Regardless, for workers who lose their jobs due to the adoption of new technology, whether jobs are being created just as fast in some other corner of the economy is rather beside the point. Because of this, workers are often anxious, even adversarial, when marked technological change makes an appearance at their workplace.

The most famous example is the Luddites, the British machine-smashing protestors of the early 1800s. With some textile manufacturers all too willing to use new technologies such as the mechanized loom to replace and undercut skilled laborers, workers responded by destroying these machines.

“Luddite” has since become a term to describe a broader resistance to (or ignorance of) technology. But the explanation that workers resistant to their employers adopting new technologies are simply anti-technology or gumming up the gears of progress out of self-interest is too simplistic. Has “progress” occurred just because there is a new product on the market?

New technology can have disparate effects on society, and few would assert that AI, social media, and smartphones deliver nothing but benefits. Even in cases where technological innovation improves the quality or eases the production of a particular good, it can be debatable whether meaningful societal progress has occurred. Companies are incentivized to simply pocket savings rather than passing on the benefits of technological advancement to their employees or customers. This represents “progress,” then, only if we measure according to shareholder value or executive compensation. Ultimately, whether technological advance produces societal progress depends on which particular technology we’re talking about. Lurking in the background are questions of who benefits and who gets to decide.

In part, the writers’ strike was over just this set of questions. Entertainment companies no doubt believe that they can cut labor costs and benefit their bottom line. Writers, however, can also benefit from this technology, using AI for editing and other purposes. It is the writers’ assertion that they need to be part of the conversation about how this technology – which affects their lives acutely – should be deployed, as opposed to a decision made unilaterally by company leadership. But rather than looking to ban or destroy this new technology, the writers were simply demanding guardrails to protect against exploitation.

In the same 1930 essay where he discussed technological unemployment –  “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” – Keynes raised the hope of a 3-hour workday. The economist watched the startling increases in efficiency of the early 20th century and posited, naturally enough, that a glut of leisure time would soon be upon us. Why exactly this failed to materialize is contentious, but it is clear that workers, in neither leisure time nor pay, have been the prime beneficiaries of productivity gains.

As Matthew Silk observed recently in The Prindle Post, many concerns about technology, and especially AI, stem not from the technology itself but from the benefits being brought to just a few unaccountable people. Even if using AI to generate text instead of paying for writers could save Netflix an enormous amount of money, the bulk of the benefits would ultimately accrue to a relatively small number of corporate executives and major shareholders. Most of us would, at best, get more content at a slightly cheaper price. Netflix’s writers, of course, lose their jobs entirely.

One take on this is that it is still good for companies to be able to adopt new technologies unfettered by their workers or government regulations. For while it’s true that the writers themselves are on the losing end, if we simply crunch the numbers, perhaps shareholder gains and savings to consumers outweigh the firing of a few thousand writers. Alternatively, though, one might argue that even if there is a net societal benefit in terms of resources, this is swamped by harms associated with inequality; that there are attendant problems with a deeply unequal society – such as people being marginalized from the democratic political processes – not adequately compensated for merely by access to ever-cheaper entertainments.

To conclude, let us accept, for the sake of argument, that companies should be free to adopt essentially whatever technologies they wish. What should then be done for the victims of technological unemployment? Society may have a pat response blaming art majors and gender studies PhDs for their career struggles, but what about the experienced writing professional who loses their job when their employers decide to replace them with a large language model?

Even on the most hard-nosed analysis, technological unemployment is ultimately bad luck. (The only alternative is to claim that workers are expected to predict and adjust for all major technological changes in the labor market.) And many philosophers argue that society has at least some duty to help those suffering from things beyond their control. From this perspective, unemployment caused by rapid technological change should be treated more like disaster response and preparedness. It is either addressed after the fact with a constructive response like robust unemployment insurance and assistance getting a new job, or addressed pre-emptively through something like universal basic income (a possibility recently discussed by The Prindle Post’s Laura Siscoe).

Whatever your ethical leanings, the writers’ strike has important implications for any livelihood.

Glacier Northwest v Teamsters: Employer Property and Worker Rights

photograph of construction workers on break at job site

Tensions had been simmering between Glacier Northwest and its employees. On August 17th, 2017, drivers for the company loaded up their cement-mixing trucks with freshly made cement and drove off for delivery. Mid-delivery, a strike was called and rather than deliver cement as expected, 16 of the truck drivers drove back to the yard. They kept the drums running, left their vehicles, and the strike was on. Seven of the 16 drivers expressly notified management they would be returning to the yard with loaded trucks. While none of the trucks were damaged, the cement was wasted and Glacier Northwest sued Teamster Local 174, their employees’ union, for $11,000 dollars in a Washington court. The case ultimately made it before the Supreme Court.

This seemingly minor lawsuit hinges on the question of whether labor disputes should be handled by the National Labor Relations Board or state courts. The NLRB has expertise on labor matters and is generally viewed as more supportive of workers than many state courts  — although this somewhat depends on the president, as the Board members are presidential appointees. But, on June 1st, the Supreme Court released its decision in Glacier Northwest, Inc. v Teamsters, placing the case back in the hands of the Washington State Supreme Court, with their blessing to continue the lawsuit in state court.

This complicated decision in a complicated case continues the trend of the current court ruling in opposition to organized labor, most notably in Janus v. AFSCME. (Although as many commentators have noted, the Glacier Northwest ruling falls short of the most anti-labor ruling that could have come out of the case – one which workers’ rights advocates worried would unleash a flood of state-level litigation in response to strikes.) As stands, it still provides a path for employers to sue their employees for damages in state court if they fail to take reasonable precautions to protect their employer’s property from foreseeable and imminent harm caused by a strike. How wide or narrow this path is remains unclear.

Lost in the tortuous proceduralism of Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters is a more fundamental ethical question: how should employer’s property rights be weighed against workers’ right to organize and strike?

An extreme perspective that strongly prioritizes property would be that workers are “allowed” to organize and even strike (as in, such actions would be legal), but they are on the hook for any losses and property damage that results. The consequences of striking would be enormously onerous to workers, and employers would be subject to legal remedy to “reverse” harms caused by a strike. Under such a standard, strikes would be both risky and less impactful. The takeaway is that for the legal right to strike to be meaningful, workers must have some protection from the economic damages caused by their actions.

One somewhat legalistic approach essentially dodges the question of balancing property rights and workers’ rights. The idea here is that striking workers are simply not working, and therefore owe nothing more to the company than if they were out sick or a random person on the street. It follows then that striking workers are not responsible for the harms that result from a strike, as long as those harms result directly from stopping working. If grocery store workers go on strike, and in addition to a bunch of lost sales all the fruits and vegetables spoil, they would owe nothing to the company. Why should this be their responsibility any more than the responsibility of an employee that stayed home sick?

What workers cannot do under this perspective is take any steps to cause property damage to their employer beyond damage that results from not working. Workers cannot go on strike, grab torches, and burn down the factory.

This is in fact very close to how the National Labor Relations Board views damages that result from strike. It can quickly get deep in the weeds. (Which Justice Jackson incidentally raised as an argument to let the National Labor Relations Board do it rather than state courts.) What about situations that are strategically timed or contrived to produce maximum damage? Does it matter whether the situation is contrived as opposed to merely carefully timed? Could workers walk off the job partway through a dangerous smelting process and let the factory burn down? Or, as came up frequently during oral argument before the Supreme Court, could ship workers sail a boat into the middle of the river and then abandon ship?

The National Labor Relations Board’s solution – and this language is reflected in Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters – was to say employees must take “reasonable precautions” to avoid these kinds of serious harms to persons and property. This leads to its own complex discussion of what counts as reasonable precautions, and to which specific harms they should apply.

A different approach would be to say that the balance between property rights and workers’ rights is simply the wrong issue. What we should care about is not these ostensibly competing sets of rights, but rather the balance of power in the workplace. The idea here is that workers’ rights and protections don’t exist on some definitive list, but in relation with what is required for workers to have agency at work. The philosopher Elizabeth Anderson has noted that uses (and abuses) of power are allowed in the workplace which we would find intolerable from the government. The question then becomes what tools do workers need in the workplace. (To Congress’s credit, a goal of equal bargaining power was explicitly included in the National Labor Relations Act.)

Strikes are large and flashy and can lead to a myopic analysis where the harms of striking are on full display, but the harms that made the strike necessary – from underpayment, to bad-faith bargaining, to poor working conditions, to undignified treatment – are invisible. Workers may not have direct legal redress for these harms. Instead the assumption is that the right to organize and strike provides workers tools to resolve these harms on their own.

Crucially, the intent of a strike is not primarily to cause economic damage to the employer. The intent of a strike is to bring the employer to the bargaining table and achieve certain goals in the workplace. The leverage of a strike is that it causes economic or reputational harms to the employer. What matters is that companies know their employees are allowed to engage in strategically timed strikes. When workers are generally weak in comparison to their employers, as is the case in modern America, it may make ethical sense to be generous with what strike tactics are allowed, not to hurt employers, but to provide employees with the tools to negotiate with their employers as equals and prevent harms in the workplace.

A final, more human-centric approach would be to simply say that workers’ rights should have priority over their employer’s property rights. The thrust of the approach is that worker agency, dignity, and self-determination are more important than employer property. This intuition is heightened in cases with larger corporate employers where no one suffers major personal harm associated with the loss of company profits or property. The intuition becomes ethically grayer for small, closely held businesses and more extreme property loss. Note though that the consideration here is the human harms associated with property loss, not the property loss as such.

On this approach, the primary reason a strike should not be strategically timed to burn down a factory or leave a boat stranded in a river is because such an action endangers people, not property. (This leads to its own balancing question on strikes that can cause public harm, such as nursing strikes, as has been previously discussed in the Prindle Post.) Placing workers’ rights over property could still lead to legal complexity in individual cases, but it would set clear priorities. Courts should protect the agency and dignity of workers.

Right-to-Work Laws and Workers’ Rights

photograph of worker's tools arranged with US flag background

Once a bastion of organized labor, Michigan has had a controversial right-to-work law on the books since 2012. On Tuesday, March 14th, the Michigan Senate approved a bill that would repeal it. Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has already stated her intent to sign. With surging union approval ratings, some labor supporters cautiously hope this could signal broader pushback against the decades-long right-to-work initiative.

But what exactly are right-to-work laws, what case can be made for them, and why are they opposed by unions which generally support workers’ rights?

Right-to-work laws bear little relationship to a more colloquial understanding of the right to work as the right to seek and engage in productive employment. The term comes from  a 1941 editorial by editor of The Dallas Morning News, William Ruggles. Ruggles’s “right to work” was the right to not have to join a union as a condition of employment. His ideal was spun into a multi-state campaign by the corporate lobbyist turned right-wing political activist Vance Muse. This is still generally what right-to-work means in the United States.

In the words of the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation:

The Right to Work principle–the guiding concept of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation–affirms the right of every American to work for a living without being compelled to belong to a union. Compulsory unionism in any form–“union,” “closed,” or “agency” shop–is a contradiction of the Right to Work principle and the fundamental human right that the principle represents. 

More precisely, right-to-work laws regulate the kinds of agreements that can be made between unions and employers known as union security agreements. These security agreements require certain measures of union support as a condition of employment. The typical ones are the closed shop, where only members of a certain union will be hired; the union shop, where employees must join the union as a condition of employment; the agency shop, where employees who choose not to join the union have to pay a fee to cover those union activities that they benefit from; and the open shop which imposes no conditions. (Closed shop agreements were made illegal by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.)

Most contemporary right-to-work laws – currently implemented in 27 states – forbid union shops and agency shops. Union membership cannot be a condition of employment, and non-union members cannot be required to pay agency fees.

The ban on agency fees has generated especially strident opposition from unions. Under the American policy of exclusive representation a union is still required to protect and negotiate on behalf of those employees who choose not to join it. Unions charge non-members agency fees, also known as fair share fees, to defray the cost of representing them. Banning agency fees creates an incentive for workers not to join the union, as they can still reap many of the benefits.

Numbers matter for unions. Employers may be more responsive to concerns about pay, benefits, and safety when many workers come together and voice them. It is uncontroversial right-to-work laws harm unions, and labor organizers argue this is the true purpose of such laws.

According to their advocates, right-to-work laws have two major selling points. The first is that they secure the rights of association/contract of the individual worker in contrast to “compulsory unionism.” The second is that right-to-work laws help the broader economy by attracting businesses to states. These very arguments were made by advocates of the Michigan right-to-work law, such as Republican State Senator Thomas Alberts.

Ostensibly, on freedom of association grounds, workers should have the right to join or not to join unions. On freedom of contract grounds the state should not be interfering with agreements between workers and employers. However, these defenses are incoherent on their face. As multiple scholars have pointed out — including Peter Vallentyne in these very pages — union membership or agency fees are simply a condition of employment and all sorts of conditions of employment are allowed, provided both parties agree to them — from drugs tests to uniforms. If an employee does not like the particular conditions on offer, the freedom of contract/association narrative goes, then they can choose a different job.

One can coherently argue the additional options provided by right-to-work laws are good — it is good for employees to have the option to join companies with or without union membership and with or without agency fees.

But right-to-work laws are not protecting the right to association or contract. Nor does so-called “compulsory unionism” appear obviously more compulsory than other work requirements, even if union membership is perhaps a more substantial requirement than uniforms.

What about the economic argument for right-to-work laws? Are they simply good policy, either for workers or for the state economy? Here the story is more complicated, and it is challenging to isolate the effects of right-to-work laws from the general political and economic background of states. On the one hand, it is often found that right-to-walk laws negatively impact wages. On the other, some studies find that through making states more attractive for businesses, overall state economic benefits compensate for potential lost wages.

The economic argument is treacherous ground though. For the essential claim is that by decreasing the power of workers and unions, states can lure businesses away from other states with more robust labor protections — a race to the bottom. An equally effective response would be to simply ban right-to-work laws at the national level, as some legislation proposes to do.

These arguments not withstanding, the debate at the heart of right-to-work is really a larger question concerning organized labor. There is a compelling historical case that the right-to-work movement in the United States has predominantly been about limiting union power and only nominally about rights or ethics. Similarly, for union supporters the main argument against right-to-work laws has always been that they hurt organized labor.

While requiring union membership as a condition of employment need not violate workers’ rights, most organizers would agree that it is preferable for workers to join and form unions independently. The agency shop, in which employees do not have to join but have to pay for some services, is especially antithetical to the historical intent of unionization. A union, after all, is an organization of and for workers; it is not simply a paid negotiator. Some problems of American labor, such as the tensions caused by exclusive representation, do not occur in many European countries which operate under a very different model. Perhaps there is room for a deeper rethink of what legal landscape does best by the American worker.

The Right to Strike

photograph of teacher's strike signs

2023 has already been an eventful year for strikes and labor.

On January 10th the United States Supreme Court heard Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The court is now deliberating whether to strip certain legal protections from striking workers. On January 19th France erupted in strikes and demonstrations over plans to raise the retirement age. On January 30th the U.K. House of Commons voted in favor of a controversial anti-strike bill. It now moves to the upper chamber of parliament for further deliberation. On February 5th an agreement was reached in Woburn, Massachusetts after teachers went on strike in violation of a state law that prohibits public employees from striking. On February 8th Temple University administration informed striking graduate workers it would be cutting their tuition benefits. The administration had already begun to cut their health insurance.

This raft of labor-related actions foregrounds a fundamental question: Should there be a right to strike?

Broadly speaking, a strike is a deliberate work stoppage in pursuit of some aim or goal. Strikes are often the last tactic employed by unions and workers, and occur after other pathways have failed, after negotiations have broken down, or, in the most serious cases, because of intolerable or inhumane labor conditions. Going on strike is mentally and physically exhausting, and workers face pay loss and potential retaliation. Strikes can involve violation of contracts, public inconvenience, and the occupation of employer property. Despite this, the history of labor organizing testifies to the significance of striking as a tactic for improving working conditions and securing workers’ rights. In short, strikes are worth careful ethical consideration.

Currently, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 grants U.S. private sector workers the legal right to strike, although there is a thicket of riders, limitations, and provisos surrounding this core legal right. The right to strike in the United States can also be signed away in collective bargaining agreements (contracts between unions and employers) through no-strike clauses. The situation becomes yet more complex at the state level as, in many states, public employees such as teachers cannot legally strike at all.

But my aim here is not to debate whether specific strikes are justifiable (some surely are and some are not). Rather, the query is whether it should be, at a minimum, legal for most workers to go on strike in most situations. (There is considerable room for nuance regarding what a right to strike should look like and what kind of regulation should accompany it.)

Courts in democratic countries have long held that workers should enjoy freedom of association and accordingly a right to form organizations (such as unions) – they should possess the liberty to engage in activities to change and improve their workplace. This alone, however, does not obviously lead to a right to strike. For unions could be permitted and yet some range of potential activities, such as strikes, prohibited. If anything, strikes – causing intentional (if perhaps justified) economic harms to employers and often community inconvenience – appear notably distinct from actions such as petitions and demonstrations.

The ability to strike shares a complex relationship with bargaining and negotiations. At first glance, a right to strike seems out of step with the freedom of employers and employees to make agreements as they see fit. If workers want to be able to strike, then they can (presumably) elect to work for employers that allow strikes under certain conditions. The implicit argument is that the state should not be interfering in an agreement freely made between an employee and their employer, and therefore the state should not grant a right to strike over and above what is explicitly agreed to in a contract.

The counterargument is that a right to strike is an important pre-condition to a fair contract. Employers usually have significantly more material and economic power than their employees, as well as easier access to expert advice and legal counsel. Consequently, negotiations between workers and their employers occur from a position of inequality. This has been explicitly acknowledged in U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation (1937). Countering this structural imbalance is a major reason workers join together into unions and engage in collective bargaining (see my previous article on Unions and Worker Agency)

From this perspective, it is only on the backdrop of robust workers’ rights, including the right to strike, that legitimate negotiations between employees and their employers can occur at all.

The philosopher David Borman has expanded this line of thinking, arguing that the right to strike derives from a more fundamental right for self-determination. He holds that “by striking, workers declare their right to self-determination within economic life, the right to cooperatively determine the rules and conditions of labor which affect them in essential ways, materially in psychologically.”

An alternative approach is to look at the impacts of striking and decide if there is a public interest in enshrining a right to strike. Not every strike is won, but strikes can assuredly help striking workers secure better pay and conditions. But what about the broader public? Anti-strike legislation and policy often argue the public harms of strikes justify restricting or limiting the right to strike. For example, new proposed legislation in the U.K. which would enforce minimum service levels is supposed to “ensure the safety of the public and their access to public services.”

Undoubtedly, strikes can be inconvenient. Strikes are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, associated with short-term harm. Transportation strikes increase car accidents as more people drive and patients admitted during nursing strikes have worse medical outcomes.

What this does not tell us is whether there is a longer-term salutary effect. The very same labor conditions that drive nurses to strike, such as understaffing, can have documented negative effects on patient outcomes. Striking workers — such as the 7000 New York City nurses who went on strike in early January — often stress the ability to do their job effectively as a motivating factor.

Granting that working conditions matter to job performance, and strikes can improve working conditions, a right to strike may be, on balance, worth it for the broader public.

There is also a problematic underlying assumption here, namely, that hospital administrators care about patient outcomes, but nurses don’t; that Tories in the U.K. parliament care about public transit, but transportation workers don’t. This assumption fails to take employees seriously as people who can take pride in their work.

Unfortunately, there is little long-term research on the broader societal impacts of strike policy. Nonetheless, the historical impact of organized labor including diminished economic inequality, the 8-hour workday, and workplace safety legislation, creates at least a suggestive case that a legal framework that supports labor organizing, presumably including the right to strike, facilitates the public good.

The effects of strikes and strike regulation deserve thorough empirical analysis, but the initial case for a right to strike on public policy grounds is compelling.

One last consideration. It is often said that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences (this statement has been critically analyzed by The Prindle Post). By this same token, there could be a legal right to strike, but no protections for striking workers. So striking workers would not be jailed or fined by the state, but they could be fired, replaced, sued, and otherwise interfered with. The problem with this stance is it makes striking enormously burdensome and risky for workers, and many of the arguments for a right to strike depend on it’s occurrence being a live possibility. If there is to be a right to strike, it must be supported by enough legal protections such that the right can be meaningfully exercised.

Unions and Worker Agency

photograph of workers standing together, arms crossed

The past few years have seen a resurgence of organized labor in the United States, with especially intense activity in just the past few months. This includes high profile union drives at Starbucks, Amazon, the media conglomerate Condé Nast, and even MIT.

Parallel to this resurgence is the so-called “Great Resignation.” As the frenetic early days of the pandemic receded into the distance, workers began quitting at elevated rates. According to the Pew Research Center, the three main reasons for quitting were low pay, a lack of opportunity for advancement, and feeling disrespected. Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich even analogized it to a general strike, in which workers across multiple industries stop work simultaneously.

Undoubtedly, the core cause of both the Great Resignation and growing organized labor are the same – dissatisfaction with working conditions – but they are also importantly different. The aim of quitting is to leave the workplace, the aim of unions and strikes are to change it. They do this by trying to shift the balance of power in the workplace and give more voice and agency to workers.

Workplaces are often highly hierarchical with orders and direction coming down from the top, controlling everything from mouse clicks to uniforms. This has even led some philosophers, like the noted political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, to refer to workplaces as dictatorships. She contends that the workplace is a blind spot in the American love for democracy, with the American public confusing free markets with free workers, despite the often autocratic nature of the workplace. Managers may hold almost all the power in the workplace, even in cases where the actual working conditions themselves are good.

Advocates of greater workplace democracy emphasize “non-domination,” or that at the very least workers should be free from arbitrary exercises of managerial power in the workplace. While legal workplace regulations provide some checks on managerial power, the fact remains that not everything can or should be governmentally regulated. Here, worker organizations like unions can step in. This is especially important in cases where, for whatever reasons, workers cannot easily quit.

Conversations about unionization generally focus on wages and benefits. Unions themselves refer to the advantage of unionization as the “union difference,” and emphasize the increases in pay, healthcare, sick leave, and other benefits compared to non-unionized workplaces. But what causes this difference? Through allowing workers to bargain a contract with management, unions enable workers to be part of a typically management-side discussion about workplace priorities. Employer representatives and union representatives must sit at the same table and come to some kind of agreement about wages, benefits, and working conditions. That is, for good or for ill, unions at least partially democratize the workplace – although it is far from full workplace democracy, in which workers would democratically exercise managerial control.

Few would hold that, all things being equal, workers should not have more agency in the workplace. More likely, their concern is either that worker collectives like unions come at the cost of broader economic interests, or that unions specifically do not secure worker agency but in fact saddle workers with even more restrictions.

The overall economic effect of unions is contentious, but there is little evidence that they hobble otherwise productive industries. A 2019 survey of hundreds of studies on unionization found that while unionization did lower company profits, it did not negatively impact company productivity and decreased overall societal inequality.

More generally, two assumptions must be avoided. The first is that the interests of the workers are necessarily separate from the interests of the company. No doubt company interests do sometimes diverge from union interests, but at a minimum unionized workers still need the company to stay in business. This argument does not apply to public sector unions (government workers), but even there, unions can arguably lead to more invested workers and stronger recruitment.

The second assumption to avoid is that management interests are necessarily company interests. Just as workers may sometimes pursue their personal interests over broader company interest, so too can management. This concern is especially acute when investment groups, like hedge funds, buy a company. Their incentive is to turn a profit on their investment, whether that is best achieved by the long-term health of the company or by selling it for parts. Stock options were historically proposed as a strategy to tie the personal compensation of management to the broader performance of a company. This strategy is limited however, as what it does more precisely is tie management compensation to the value of stock, which can be manipulated in various ways, such as stock buybacks.

Beyond these economic considerations, a worker may also question whether their individual agency in the workplace is best represented by a union. Every organization is going to bring some strictures with it, and this can include union regulations and red tape. The core argument on behalf of unions as a tool for workplace agency is that due to asymmetries of power in the workplace, the best way for workers to have agency is collective agency. This is especially effective for goals that are shared widely among workers, such as better pay. Hypothetically, something like a fully democratic workplace (or having each individual worker well positioned to be part of company decision making) would be better for worker agency than unions. The question of whether these alternatives would work is more practical than ethical.

There can be other tensions between individual and collective agency. In America specifically, unions have been viewed as highly optional. The most potent union relationship is a “closed shop,” in which a union and company agree to only hire union workers. Slightly less restrictive is a “union shop,” under which all new workers must join the union. Both are illegal in the United States under the 1947 Taft Hartley Act, which restricted the power of unions in several ways. State-level  “right to work” laws go even further, forbidding unions from negotiating contracts that automatically deduct union representation fees from employees. The argument is one of personal freedom – that if someone is not in the union they should not have to pay for it. The challenge is that the union still has to represent this individual, who benefits from the union they are not paying for. This invites broader questions about the value of individual freedoms, and how they must be calibrated with respect to the collective good.


The author is a member of Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition – United Electrical Workers, which is currently involved in a labor dispute at Indiana University Bloomington.

“Cruel Optimism,” Minimum Wage, and the Good Life

photograph looking up at Statue of Liberty

In early May, executives from the fast casual restaurant Chipotle Mexican Grill announced that the company would be raising its average hourly wage to $15 by the end of June. A few weeks later, Chipotle also announced that its menu prices would be increasing by about four percent to help offset those higher wages (as well as the increasing costs of ingredients). This means that instead of paying, say, $8.00 for a burrito, hungry customers will now instead be expected to pay $8.32 for the same amount of food.

While you might think that such a negligible increase would hardly be worth arguing about, opponents of a minimum wage hike jumped on this story as an example of the supposed economic threat posed by changing federal labor policies. During recent debates in Congress, for example, those resistant to the American Rescue Plan’s original provision to raise the federal minimum wage frequently argued that doing so could disadvantage consumers by causing prices to rise. Furthermore, Chipotle’s news exacerbated additional complaints about the potential consequences of the Economic Impact Payments authorized in light of the coronavirus pandemic: allegedly, Chipotle must raise their wages so as to entice “lazy” workers away from $300/week unemployment checks.

Nevertheless, despite the cost of burritos rising by a quarter or two, the majority of folks in the United States (just over six out of ten) support raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. As many as 80% think the wage is too low in general, with more than half of surveyed Republicans (the political party most frequently in opposition to raising the minimum wage) agreeing. Multiple states have already implemented higher local minimum wages.

Why, then, do politicians, pundits, and other people continue to spread the rhetoric that minimum wage increases are unpopular and financially risky for average burrito-eaters?

Here’s where I think a little philosophy might help. Often, we are attracted to things (like burritos) because we recognize that they can satisfy a desire for something we presently lack (such as sustenance); by attaining the object of our desire, we can likewise satisfy our needs. Lauren Berlant, the philosopher and cultural critic who recently died of cancer on June 28th, calls this kind of attraction “optimism” because it is typically what drives us to move through the world beyond our own personal spaces in the hopes that our desires will be fulfilled. But, importantly, optimistic experiences in this sense are not always positive or uplifting. Berlant’s work focuses on cases where the things we desire actively harm us, but that we nevertheless continue to pursue; calling such phenomenon cases of “cruel optimism,” they explain how “optimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving.” Furthermore, cruel optimism can come about when an attraction does give us one kind of pleasure at the expense of other, more holistic (and fundamental) forms of flourishing.

A key example Berlant gives of “cruel optimism” is the fallacy of the “good life” as something that can be achieved if only one works hard enough; as they explain, “people are trained to think that what they’re doing ought to matter, that they ought to matter, and that if they show up to life in a certain way, they’ll be appreciated for the ways they show up in life, that life will have loyalty to them.” Berlant argues that, as a simple matter of fact, this characterization of “the good life” fails to represent the real world; despite what the American Dream might offer, promises of “upward mobility” or hopes to “lift oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” through hard work and faithfulness have routinely failed to manifest (and are becoming ever more rare).

Nevertheless, emotional (or otherwise affective) appeals to stories about the “good life” can offer a kind of optimistic hope for individuals facing a bleak reality — because this hope is ultimately unattainable, it’s a cruel optimism.

Importantly, Berlant’s schemata is a paradigmatically natural process — there need not be any individual puppetmaster pulling the strings (secretly or blatantly) to motivate people’s commitment to a given case of cruel optimism. However, such a cultural foundation is apt for abuse by unvirtuous agents or movements interested in selfishly profiting off of the unrealistic hopes of others.

We might think of propaganda, then, as a sort of speech act designed to sustain a narrative of cruel optimism. According to Jason Stanley, a key kind of damaging propaganda is “a contribution to public discourse that is presented as an embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to erode those very ideals.” When a social group’s ideals are eroded into hollowness — when stories about “the good life” perpetuate a functionally unattainable hope — then the propagandistic narratives facilitating this erosion (and, by extension, the vehicles of propaganda spreading these narratives) are morally responsible.

The case of Chipotle arises at the center of several overlapping objects of desire: for some, the neoliberal hope of economic self-sufficiency is threatened by governmental regulations on market prices of commodities like wage labor, as well as by federal mechanisms supporting the unemployed — with the minimum wage and pandemic relief measures both (at least seemingly) relating to this story, it is unsurprising that those optimistic about the promise of neoliberalism interpreted Chipotle as a bellwether for greater problems. Furthermore, consumer price increases, however slight, threaten to damage hopes of achieving one’s own prosperity and wealth. The fact that these hopes are ultimately rather unlikely means that they are cases of cruel optimism; the fact that politicians and news outlets are nevertheless perpetuating them (or at least framing the information in a manner that elides broader conversations about wealth inequity and fair pay) means that those stories could count as cases of propaganda.

And, notably, this is especially true when news outlets are simply repeating information from company press releases, rather than inquiring further about their broader context: for example, rather than raising consumer prices, Chipotle could have instead saved hundreds of millions of dollars in recent months by foregoing executive bonuses and stock buybacks. (It is also worth noting that the states that elected to prematurely freeze pandemic-related unemployment funding, ostensibly to provoke workers to re-enter the labor market, have not seen the hoped-for increase in workforce participation — that is to say, present data suggests that something other than $300/week unemployment checks has contributed to unemployment rates.)

So, in short, plenty of consumers are bound to cruel optimisms about “the good life,” so plenty of executives or other elites can leverage this hope for their own selfish ends. The recent outcry over a burrito restaurant is just one form of how these strings are pulled.

Free Riders, Agency Fees, and the Fairness of Public Sector Unions

A low-angle shot of the U.S. Supreme Court

An upcoming case in the United States Supreme Court could have significant effects on the state of the American Labor Movement: Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. At stake is whether public sector unions can require employees who have not joined the union to pay agency fees—fees that go to exclusively cover the costs of negotiating the labor contract that covers all workers at a workplace, union members and non-members alike. If the court were to rule against the legality of required agency fees, this would overturn a previous Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which held that agency fees were allowable, just so long as those fees were not used for the political or ideological activities of the union.

Continue reading “Free Riders, Agency Fees, and the Fairness of Public Sector Unions”

Freedom of Association and Right-to-Work Laws

This post originally appeared on October 20, 2015.

In March 2015, Wisconsin became the 25th state to adopt “right-to-work” laws. Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Montana, and West Virginia are all considering such laws. Right-to-work laws do not prohibit unions. They prohibit agreements between unions and employers that require workers to be members of unions or to pay agency fees for the benefits they receive from union representation.

Continue reading “Freedom of Association and Right-to-Work Laws”