Sunday, February 27, 2011

What Makes Working People Happier? Labor Unions!

In the UK the latest fraudster to head the government is keen to find out what makes us happy, while doing his utmost to make us unhappy by destroying the services we treasure like the National Health Service, free schooling, and a fairly neutral but certainly professional civil service. Maybe David Cameron wants to know what makes people happy so that he can all the more effectively make them miserable.

An associated project which he laughingly calls the “Big Society” while dramatically making society considerably smaller, for many of us at least, would be more appropriated called “Yet Another Big Lie” (YABL), Cameron doing his utmost, it seems, to out-Blair the Great Liar Himself, Tony Blair.

Social Psychologists know a lot about social happiness, but Cameron pretends no one knows anything about it, in an attempt to give himself kudos. One thing is certain, and that is that happiness is a relative emotion. It is popularly said that “money cannot bring you happiness, but it helps”, and that is about the gist of it.

People can be unhappy because they yearn for something, and may feel ecstatic to get it, but the pleasure quite quickly wears off, and lack of some new object or experience kicks in to make people again feel unhappy. Being wealthy removes a lot of the fears that the poor have to endure through lack of sufficient cash, but having it just leaves people open to a new desire and new unhappiness. The greedy rich simply set themselves new targets of wealth. If a media mogul owns two newspapers, he will not be happy till he has three and a TV station. Then he wants Three TV stations, and so on.

These very rich people will unquestionably be very unhappy that the ordinary Joe and Jane often want to organize into trades unions to try to safeguard the pay and conditions that they have. Good pay and conditions cost money to the corporation boss, so they are much happier, for a while, when the unions are weak, or in their pocket, or when their lackeys in Washington and London are bringing in anti-union laws. That has been the situiation recently in Wisconsin where Governor Walker suddenly realized he meant to campaign over union power, but conveniently forgot while he conned the voters, so he has just reminded himself and the electorate that he aims to trash the unions as much as he can.

University of Notre Dame political scientist, Benjamin Radcliff, calls it “a perennial ideological debate in American politics—whether labor unions are good or bad for society”. You don’t need to be a professor of poliutics to know that effective unions are good for the members and bad for the members’ employers.

Are they good for society, though? Well, if, ultimately, the unions disappeared and bargaining was entirely at the whim of the boss, most people would be far worse off, and bosses would be therefore better off, at least initially. Unfortunately for the bosses, and this is something that oddly doesn’t make many of them unhappy, when the people do not have much cash to spend, they cannot buy things and industry collapses. That ought to make the bosses very unhappy one would imagine, but too few of them are intelligent enough to realize. Only the intelligent bosses do realize this, and they are very unpopular in their own circles for being wishy washy liberals or even hard nosed socialists.

Anyway, the general upper crust view is that Joe and Jane get too much, and should have less, so that is the message of the right wing media and the right wing puppets called politicians. Most academics too go along with the popular orthodoxy, however insane it is, but not all. Some academics warned against the 2008 crash, not many, but a few, but the rest, the bosses and the politicos, ignored them as Weary Willys.

Now, according to a study co-authored by Radcliff, people who live in countries with strong labor unions were happier, regardless of whether or not they belonged to a labor union themselves. Data from several European countries as well as Japan, Australia and the US, showed that happiness in life meant happiness at work. And the dominating factor that made people happier at work was the security they felt through having a strong union to help them. Happiness relates to the density of unions in a given country. Denmark ranks near the top in both categories, but the US ranks near the bottom for happiness in all the countries studied.

Radcliff found there was a direct effect and an indirect effect of strong labor unions. Members have obvious benefits—job security, fair wages, benefits and decent hours. But for those who are not members, there is the “indirect effect”.

People who have unionized jobs like their jobs better. And that puts pressure on other employers to extend the same benefits and wages to compete with the union shops.

Not surprisngly, lower paid labor union members found more contentment through organized labor than union members on the highest salaries. It’s no coincidence that American workers have never been more dissatisfied with their jobs.

Clever employers, those interested in long term stability rather than short term greed, would encourage trades union membership. They might have to lose some excessive short term profits, but would enjoy the benefits of stability over the long term. As it is, they should look on the Middle East in fear, and wonder what they might be stirring up at home by their unshackled greed, unjust treatment of the ordinary person, and bogus democracy. That goes in the UK for Cameron’s Conservative and Liberal democratic (or ConDem) coalition. People will only put up with so much, notably when they can see that the system is blatantly unfair.

Radcliff specializes in comparative and American politics. He is one of the world’s leading authorities on the study of politics and happiness, having published articles on it in scholarly journals including the American Political Science Review, Perspectives on Politics, Social Forces, and the Journal of Politics. He is author of the book Happiness, Economics and Politics.

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