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Capitalism and workers’ power

Originally published: Occasional Links & Commentary on August 27, 2021 (more by Occasional Links & Commentary)

You don’t have to read Marx to understand the lack of power workers have under capitalism. But you do have to read beyond mainstream economists and economic pundits. You might turn, for example, to the business school.

Yes, I know, that’s a strange assertion. But let me explain.

The usual argument these days is that workers have acquired a lot more power because of the scarcity of labor. When labor is scarce (basically, when the quantity supplied of labor is less than the quantity demanded), workers can fetch higher wages and be pickier about the jobs they’re willing to accept. That, of course, drives employers crazy and, as usual, mainstream economists and commentators just echo those concerns.

So, is it true? Well, look at the data they cite:

Increase in workers’ power

The blue line represents the number of job openings, while the red line is the number of unemployed workers. And, look, way over on the right-hand side of the chart the blue line is slightly higher than than the red line! (Numerically, there were 10.1 million job openings recorded at the end of June and 9.5 million unemployed workers.In other words, for every available 100 jobs, there are only 94 unemployed people available.) And that scares the bejesus out of employers and those who always take the side of employers: they might have to pay workers more to take the terrible, low-paying jobs they are offering.

The result is an increase in workers’ power, as Ben Popken explains:

A pandemic-tightened labor market has given willing and able workers more of an upper hand with their employers for the first time in generations…

Worker power is the ability of an employee to command higher wages and benefits and set terms about their working conditions.

Not so fast! Yes, some workers might benefit from the current tight labor market but certainly not all of them, especially at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Moreover, as Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro remind us, while “it’s understandable” that some claim that workers have more power now than they did during the worst months of the pandemic, it’s still the case that “power remains highly unbalanced in most American workplaces.”

In non-unionized, hierarchical organizations, it is still concentrated in the hands of top executives and shareholders who control all company decisions and priorities, from pay levels to hiring (and firing), and company strategy and policies. Workers continue to have no representation on most corporate boards of directors and have no or very little say over any of these decisions even though they affect their work lives and livelihoods. This lack of control has  detrimental effects on worker health and well-being: It has been associated with job dissatisfaction, greater mental strain and damaged physical health. The philosopher Elizabeth Anderson has written that American “workplaces are small tyrannies,” resembling dictatorships more than democracies.

In other words, workers have two positions within capitalism: they sell their ability to work in markets for labor power and then, after those exchanges are concluded, they leave the market and enter another realm, where they perform labor. And inside the enterprises where they work, they have no power at all. There, in the realm of production, their employers—the corporate boards of directors or capitalists—have all the power. That’s why capitalists enterprises are dictatorships, not democracies.

And if workers did have power inside the enterprises—if, for example, the enterprises were organized instead as worker-owned cooperatives?

giving workers more power means giving them the right to collectively validate or reject important decisions that affect their work lives, including the choice of the CEO, how profits are shared, what strategies to pursue and what to prioritize in the face of a health crisis like the pandemic.

And if employers and mainstream economists don’t attempt “to reduce the extreme power imbalance that so clearly puts workers at a disadvantage”? Then, Battilana and Casciaro warn, workers might take matters into their hands:

when the distribution of rewards in an economic system is so unequal as to appear blatantly unfair, those with less power are more likely to upend the current system entirely.

That, of course, would mean the end of capitalism…

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