Economic historian Peter Philips discusses forces affecting American labor, federal employee unions
- By Nathan Abse
- Nov 03, 2017
Nathan Abse speaks with University of Utah economic historian Peter Philips. Philips looks back at the twentieth century up to the present day—and traces the rise and fall of labor organizations as they struggled to represent workers, including federal employees and their unions. Philips sees a growing list of setbacks for American labor over the decades—and yet the prospect of a new rebirth promised by growing interest labor unions as not only offering the best deal for employees—but also mechanisms for easing problems in our economic system.
What do you think about the claim by some who represent federal employees as union leaders, that their tactics helping hold the line against further cuts proposed on Capitol Hill?
Philips: I think it is likely that their efforts do help, yes. But, these days no one union or group of unions alone can get much done, as a long-term prospect. Public-sector unions, only in combination with other private-sector unions and broader social movements, together can change the conversation—and actually get somewhere long-term on pressing labor and compensation issues. There are a lot of instabilities and antagonisms with the current administration. But one of the things the administration says that I think makes some sense is that the old argument between left and right is breaking up—and may be really ending. As the administration has pointed out, and again I can see, is that this moment is a point of great opportunity for creative restructuring of the political conversation in the United States, and public-sector unions can play a role in that. For them to do that effectively, they have to be both good at what they do—and lucky.
What will enable public-sector unions to play this role?
Philips: Well, on the lucky side, they can’t do it alone. They have to hitch their wagons to other trains of efforts to change the public discourse, of how we develop our American economy and politics. Other movements, other allies. Unions also have to be both good and smart. That is, they have play the long game. They have to think strategically. They have to see beyond the next election, the next bill. Public-sector unions have to see beyond their parochial interests, especially those of each single organization. They have to face and be involved in wider-economy big questions and big answers. We need union leaders to think and act in a big way. If they focus too much on collective bargaining alone, the problem is they will end up only altering what I call the “little picture.” It will take some visionary leadership within the labor movement to get solutions going forward.
You note a need for visionary leadership—but to solve which huge pressing problems?
Philips: The biggest problems today? They are very big. The economy is quite threatened, longer haul. The general principal is that capitalism, our industrial system, has to deliver the goods, to producers when they put on their hats as consumers. Historically, that has always gone through the channel of remuneration—getting paid—for work. The labor movements in advanced capitalist countries are geared to try to get that to happen, as best possible, for workers. But there is a problem now, that the whole system, of having work and getting paid for it properly, is happening less effectively. Now, conceptually, the goods produced by our industries could get delivered by means other than rewards for work. Fixes for this problem—of growing automation and fewer well-paying jobs, notably—could come about through various means, ideas, that are currently in play. For example, minimal national income, expenditures on public goods that people can join in enjoying, or through income tax credits, and so on.
*Read the full interview in the Nov. 6 issue of FEND.*