Most of what I know about unions I learned from Live Nude Girls Unite! That’s a film documenting the successful labor-organizing efforts of the strippers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady peepshow in 1996 and 1997. (A summary of the workers’ experience can be found at the film’s website.) I somehow grew up without much exposure to unions or the country’s labor relations history, and while I originally started watching the documentary as part of an effort to learn more about sex workers, I came away with a whole different perspective on labor relations and what unions are all about. The film does talk about the unique difficulties faced by sex workers at their jobs and in the effort to unionize, but in the end, it’s much more about labor relations than about the peepshow.
I have to wonder whether unions have been so successful in this country that they’ve removed the public outrage that fueled them in the first place, making themselves seem obsolete. A lot of people who aren’t in a union tend to think that either unions exist to protect workers from egregious abuses by employers, like child labor, or to get lots and lots of money for union members. For the first point, many of the horror stories about 19th-century capitalism are too remote to cause serious concern these days. We have child labor laws, and anti-discrimination statutes, and the EEOC, people say; workers don’t need unions to protect them anymore, because all those abuses are illegal now. The experiences of the strippers in San Francisco belie that argument and show how many subtle forms of employer discrimination and harassment are available. Even if the employer’s offense is blatant enough to be prosecuted, winning a lawsuit years later does nothing to put food on the table if you’ve lost your job in the meantime.
More than that, the organizers of the Exotic Dancers’ Union show how unions are actually about managing a key commodity in capitalism: information. Labor relations between large employers and individual employees are inherently unfair, because the large employer has lots and lots of information available to it: information about wages, benefits, and experience in previous negotiations with hundreds if not thousands of employees, experience that gets refined and codified into job offers, contracts, and negotiating tactics. Individual workers can make an effort to get some of that information, especially by looking at compiled information about “industry standard” compensation, but it’s much harder for the employee, whether considering a new offer or renegotiating an old one.
When workers organize, they can aggregate their experiences. They’ll know if management is playing favorites, whether some workers are getting less compensation or benefits than others, and they’ll know if management has an overarching pattern of behavior. Understanding that pattern is the first step to being able to work against it. Yes, unions let workers agree on their collective bargaining positions and even organize work slowdowns or strikes, but that’s not the primary purpose or benefit of a union. Unions exist to level the playing field, to make negotiations more open and fair, and to promote the flow of information that makes capitalism work.
I’d even argue that unions are one of the ways capitalism adapted itself so that Marx’s predictions of doom didn’t come to pass. As Adam Smith pointed out, unequal access to information and inequalities in negotiations make capitalism spin out of control. Instead of the general strike that Marx and others envisioned, workers organized. Smaller-scale strikes did happen, but organized workers were the first step to eliminating some of the worst excesses of unrestrained capitalism in the 19th century and putting it back on a more sustainable track.
And finally, yes, unions have negotiated some major benefits for their members. But those benefits have been a big part of helping workers join the middle class. Back when the auto bailouts were happening, an acquaintance decried the higher labor costs wrapped up in American auto production and blamed them for making American companies unable to compete with foreign ones. I pointed out that a lot of that labor cost went to health insurance and pensions; people in the countries with more “competitive” labor costs shouldered the collective burden of a social safety net through much higher taxes and government programs.
Those costs have to be paid if we’re going to maintain a thriving middle class in this country. It’s not about ensuring lavish lifestyles – did you see the Daily Show segment on teachers’ lives in Wisconsin? It’s about retirement and health care, and at a time when conservatives are simultaneously attempting to dismantle the social safety net and trying to break unions, it’s hard not to conclude that they would be just as happy to see the middle class disappear.
What strippers taught me about unions is that the past isn’t as far away as we think, and that in an “information economy” with a huge service sector, unions are just as relevant as ever.
(NB: As I mention above, this is not an area where I have a lot of experience or academic study; if I’ve stated things that are so blatantly obvious that they don’t need repeating, please excuse me. I welcome corrections and refinements from more serious students of economics and labor history as well.)