Monday, September 04, 2006

That piano is not playing itself just yet.... some Labor Day musings

some myths in the region I attribute to a persistence of memory. i.e. they are things that were once true, but people just do not realize just big a shift has happened here in recent decades. You will still hear people talk about how heavily unionized Pittsburgh is. Yet, private sector unionization in the Pittsburgh region has dropped below 10% of the workforce, lower than many regions across the country, and dropping. Unions are having a hard time everywhere. The Pittsburgh trend is just another piece of how we are looking more and more like the nation as time goes by. Even within the region's manufacturing, or other traditionally unionized industries, the percentage of the workforce that belongs to a union is an ever smaller percentage each year that is not out of line with what is typical elsewhere.

Does that mean unions are dead? Certainly times are tough, but there are some ideas out there that might revitalize the role of unions in the economy. See the efforts by the Heartland Network based right here that is trying to leverage the capital controlled by workers pensions. That is a very different role of labor, but it may be the way of the future. Unions have been slow to organize in many big box retail operations, but there are signs that is changing (egads.. China is leading the way). and at the peak of the 1990's, I heard more than a few people start to talk about new guild-like professional unions for software programmers. I am a little less clear how feasible that would be, but it's not as improbable an idea as you would think.

Some people think, or used to think, that ever increasing productivity gains would marginalize the role of workers. In recent years there have indeed been some historic increases in labor force productivity. Yet, the idea that capital would displace workers in importance presupposes a lot of excess labor in the workforce. That seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. Vonnegut's vision of a dysfunctional superfluous workforce was in many ways a simplistic extrapolation of trends in the 1950's.


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