So-called "white-collar unions": scrapping them?

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Jacob Richter
So-called "white-collar unions": scrapping them?

I'm not talking about typical clerks or medical assistants organizing into unions and what not.  I put "white-collar unions" in quotation marks because I was referring to something else altogether: the likes of the American Medical Association, the Screen Actors Guild, the law bars, etc.

I was about to suggest the "nationalization" of all the related certification when I realized that states already certify professional education for petit-bourgeois purposes.  This means, in many cases, giving certificate holders a license to do business in their field, such as in skilled trades.

So, how should these be tackled?

I wrote:
What were the characteristics of these medieval guilds?  They were privately controlled in a hierarchy from guild masters to journeymen to craftsmen to apprentices who received nothing but accommodations and training.  They operated mostly in the private sector of their day, having controlled most urban economies.  They had lengthy periods of apprenticeship to restrict the number of entrants, their access to guild knowledge, and any potential for labour abundance in contrast to labour shortage.  They prevented outside competition by having in operation the business license monopoly equivalent of a union-based pre-entry closed shop (whereby one has to belong to a particular union in order to obtain employment from a particular employer).  On the other hand, they regulated themselves in an attempt to ensure high standards of product quality.

While it would seem that these guilds should be treated as little more than a historical footnote, one of the introductory passages in Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte applies here:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.  The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

This can and has applied to lesser things than revolutionary processes.  Once more, the full anti-feudal revolution was never part of the program for bourgeois class struggle and bourgeois social revolution.  Not only did the guild form of economic organization not go away, but also it has flourished.  For example, much has been said by ultra-conservative demagogues in the United States about the follies of the so-called "Hollywood Left" - the politically active social liberals in Hollywood's entertainment industry - but one should look no further than the organizational and social hierarchy of the Screen Actors Guild, with bourgeois individuals at the top.

Besides the Screen Actors Guild, there are more important modern guilds to consider, guilds which point to the petit-bourgeois hypocrisy of those same demagogues and their ardent supporters: in medicine, in securities trading, in real estate brokerage, in public accounting, in law, in engineering, and in elsewhere.  As a legal academic, Mike Macnair pointed to this hypocrisy in the area of law:

The double standards at work disclose a systemic bias of the legal profession and of its leaders in the judiciary in favour of business and against trade unions.  The fact that they call this 'common law' in no way alters the matter.  'Common law' is nothing more than the historical continuity of the ideas of the legal profession, as they have developed over the last eight centuries.

This bias involves truly breathtaking hypocrisy.  The Law Society is politely not called a trade union or a cartel, and neither are the Inns of Court or the General Council of the Bar. In reality all these organisations are guild corporate monopolies: 'trade unions' which have a pre-entry closed shop in operation.  The monopolies are protected by statute law - unsurprisingly, given the number of lawyers there are, and historically have been, in parliaments and cabinets [...] By using their statutory monopolies to impose an apprenticeship requirement for qualification, the lawyers ration the numbers of new entrants and protect themselves from competition.

[...]

The lawyers' trade unions operate a pre-entry closed shop, whose results in the scale of legal fees are obviously opposed to the interests of the justice the courts purport to provide.  And yet these hypocrites have the gall to maintain that other people's trade unions involve unlawfulness in (the lawyers') 'common law'.

Further analysis of these modern guilds can be derived from commentary in previous chapters:

1) The artificial labour shortages arising from control by modern guilds are high enough that skilled immigrants cannot get their education and experience credentials to be certified, and must settle for underemployment or a "career change" upon rejection;
2) Those ever-unproductive and self-employed service providers on mainly middle incomes are able to be in such a position because the closed-shop basis for those middle incomes - as opposed to high-wage incomes for albeit productive labour - is in fact an extraction of monopoly rent in the classical sense, and part of that in turn is allocated to guild administration in the form of dues; and
3) The modern intellectual property forms known as patents, trademarks can be traced to the legal privileges enjoyed by medieval guilds, and laws on the kind of trade secrecy practiced by modern guilds go as far back as Roman law punishing citizens who induced other citizens' slaves to disclose their respective masters' commercial secrets.

At first, it seems that the elimination of business license monopolies granted to modern guilds and the public takeover of the entire certification and related maintenance processes, as if the sphere of public education were extended, would suffice.  After all, apprenticeships regulated by modern guilds can be replaced fully by cooperative education programs, the "combination of education with industrial production" (practical work experience) to quote Marx and Engels, all regulated on a fully public basis.  Meanwhile, the rhetoric of self-regulation on the question of quality control is irrelevant; for example, much continuing education in the form of professional development contains more re-education than substantive professional development.  This irrelevance, however, exists precisely because those two suggestions are not enough.  In skilled trades, state examinations already play an integral role in the certification process.

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

You might find it useful to familiarize yourself with an occupation that went from "profession" to "union" and underwent further changes when the provincial authority - and an antagonistic one at that - established  additional regulatory bodies beside the self-regulating one that already existed. I mean, eg, the BCTF, and the establishment of the BCCT, and so on.

This is all highly politically charged, and reflect mostly the leftward trajectory of the BCTF versus mostly hostile governments to that trajectory.

Doctors and lawyers are a different matter. There's a joke about 50 lawywers at the bottom of the ocean. How does that go again?

Jacob Richter

Yes, the 50 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean joke refers to non-unionized paralegals.  Still, I don't think the predecessor to the BCTF was granted a business license monopoly.

BTW, I think you'll like this 2007 federal government report:

http://www.competitionbureau.gc.ca/eic/site/cb-bc.nsf/eng/02539.html

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

That's a Fed Gov web site with the usual neoliberal garbage. The provinces in Canada are not going to give up what is mostly a monopoly in the regulation of labour-management relations - including "the professions" - without a fight. And the fact that the report is under the umbrella of the Competition Bureau exposes the real and nefarious agenda of the current regime in Ottawa. No doubt, these neoliberal scum would like to restore the situation when trade unions, in general, were treated as criminal associations. Why lend them your voice?

Jacob Richter

I don't like the fact that labour law, labour-management relations, and all that are provincial and not federal responsibility.

Despite comprising a significant part of the service economy in Canada, perhaps as much as one fifth, the professions comprise one of the overall economy's least productive sectors. According to the Conference Board of Canada, professional services rate in the bottom quintile for productivity per hours worked.

[...]

The Bureau also reviewed empirical studies on the effect of market entry restrictions on the price and quality of professional services. Generally, the studies found that the incomes of members of professions with restrictions on entry are higher than the incomes of comparable professionals who do not face restrictions. The effect on quality is unclear.

[...]

Given the negative effect of collusion on consumer welfare, the Bureau urges regulators to look to less intrusive means than fee guides to provide consumers with the information they need about prices. In addition, regulators should ensure that any maximum prices they set are not functioning as fixed prices in practice.

Yes there's neoliberal stuff in there, but there's better stuff in the fine lines.

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

Yea, well, I read between the fine lines that you mentioned, eh. This is all the same stuff couched in language designed to suck you in.

I understand that you may not like the arrangement, but that's the constitutional situation in Canada. It makes for some confusion and, in the current context, the ability of the corporate world to play one province against another.

kropotkin1951 kropotkin1951's picture

Board exams for doctors and PLTC for lawyers are actually in place to protect the public. There are many reason why elite professions are paid more and appear to gouge but the fact that someone is regulating them is in my opinion not one of the major ones.

Unionist

Jacob Richter wrote:

I don't like the fact that labour law, labour-management relations, and all that are provincial and not federal responsibility.

We wouldn't have anti-scab legislation in Québec if your wish came true.

I don't like the fact that labour law is under capitalist responsibility. That's a problem worth grappling with, as I'm sure you'd agree.

And I don't see professional self-regulation as a big problem in Canada today. I'd rather we focus on government cutbacks to social services.

Jacob Richter

Except that defensive struggles almost always never lead to struggles for ruling-class power by the working class.

I raise the issue of reorganizing professional associations (among other "minimum" programmatic objectives) because in their present form they adversely affect things like intellectual property and costs of education.

Unionist

Jacob Richter wrote:

Except that defensive struggles almost always never lead to struggles for ruling-class power by the working class.

I wouldn't know about that. But failure to have defensive struggles always leads to defeat and devastation.

Quote:
I raise the issue of reorganizing professional associations (among other "minimum" programmatic objectives) because in their present form they adversely affect things like intellectual property and costs of education.

That's interesting, if true, and I wouldn't mind hearing your argument in that regard. I do, however, tend to look askance at any viewpoint that people shouldn't organize to have a collective voice. I would exclude corporate cartels from that dictum.

Jacob Richter

It is the failure to have offensive struggles (not to be confused with outright struggles for ruling-class power near the proverbial touchdown or goal line) that leads to defeat and devastation. Wink

My argument on adverse effects is already in the OP, in the three points towards the end.

Sineed

Unionist wrote:

And I don't see professional self-regulation as a big problem in Canada today. I'd rather we focus on government cutbacks to social services.

As a member of a self-regulating profession, I agree with this.  Pharmacists, physicians, and nurses are the best qualified to evaluate the performance of pharmacists, physicians, and nurses, and I suggest that they do so more ruthlessly than a government body because they don't want the government to take over.  I know pharmacists who were ruinously fined for mistakes that didn't harm anyone, and indeed had little potential to cause harm.

And when the government is put directly in charge of something, they may, for political reasons, install people who are manifestly unqualified, or otherwise inappropriate.  Imagine if the Harpocons got hold of regulating the medical profession nation-wide.  Would abortion providers all of a sudden have a lot of difficulty getting certified, for instance?

If our right-wing government was directly in charge of the drug supply, would I suddenly find that I can't obtain the morning-after pill for my patients?

kropotkin1951 kropotkin1951's picture

Unionist wrote:

That's interesting, if true, and I wouldn't mind hearing your argument in that regard. I do, however, tend to look askance at any viewpoint that people shouldn't organize to have a collective voice. I would exclude corporate cartels from that dictum.

Notice how insidious the new speak is Unionist.  Corporations are not people no matter how many supreme courts say they are.

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

Sineed, your points are well taken but you probably also know that due to the self-regulating nature of the medical profession in Canada, medical mistakes and such (whatever the consequ ...) are handled badly and more effort is made, it seems, to protect those who make mistakes instead of insuring that such mistakes do not happen again. The public has an interest separate and apart from a profession that regulates itself.