Contribution to GTI Roundtable Planetizing the Labor Movement
An exchange on the essay Workers of the World Unite (At Last)

Guy Standing

Can unions be transformed? We need “unions,” but the big question is, do we want the type of unions we have had over the past century?

To answer this, we must take a historical perspective. For hundreds of years, in Europe, China, and elsewhere, working life was regulated and defined by occupational guilds. The longevity of those dwarfs that of trade unions. Although, like any institution, they had structural limitations, being rent-seeking, sexist, and hierarchical, they were a force for enlightenment and solidarity. They focused on standards of work, craftsmanship, ethics, and structured development of capacities and reciprocities of working life. They stood as institutions within the state and against capital.

In the nineteenth century, craft unions started to displace the lower-level guilds, and as proletarianization proceeded, industrial unions displaced craft unions. As this unfolded, something sad happened. While the guilds and even craft unions largely extolled the virtues of the decommodification of labor power, the emergent labor unions stood for labor decommodification, showing little regard for the preservation and development of labor power.

Distinguishing labor and labor power is not an esoteric distinction. Karl Marx correctly understood labor as “alienated activity.” I supply labor; you buy my labor. You might screw me by treating me badly and underpaying me; I may screw you by skiving or indulging in petty sabotage. But the deal is about time and effort. By contrast, “labor power” is the bundle of actual and latent capacities we possess as human beings.1 It is the power we have within ourselves. An employer does not buy my labor power; he buys the time and skill we agree on my providing in a contract. The guilds were primarily concerned with developing, recognizing, and celebrating labor power as the way to gain independence and status; the unions that displaced them were primarily concerned with the labor relationship and decommodifying labor. I believe this shift was a historical error of the left in the twentieth century. The more progressive transformative strategy would have been to pursue labor power decommodification—rescuing the human being, the worker, from dependency on the market.

The False Promise of Full Employment

Social security systems were built mainly by social democratic governments and labor unions. They were based on the performance of labor and the demonstrated willingness to perform labor. Herein lies a second historical error. For unions and social democrats, a primary goal has been full employment. This means having as many people as possible in jobs. Up until the twentieth century, that would have seemed a strange objective, and would have been incomprehensible for the guilds during their 400 years of relative supremacy.

To be in a job is to be in a position of subordination, doing what one is told, and doing tasks determined by a boss or by intermediaries. It is a strange progressive strategy to want to maximize the number of one’s fellow citizens in positions of subordination. The guilds contained an internal dynamic that set members on a course of liberation from labor; labor unions set a course to maximize the number in long-term labor. One should appreciate the achievements of generations of trade unionists, but should also recognize that this laborist strategy is fundamentally conservative.

A Proletariat Charter vs. A Precariat One

As I argue in my GTI essay on the precariat, it is a strategic mistake to think or talk about a single working class, let alone one that is united. The precariat is distinct from the proletariat, just as both are distinct from the peasantry, those involved in petty production, and those in the lumpen underclass in the streets. Munck concludes his essay by calling for “a new labor charter” building on “existing manifestoes and charters” that would include a six-hour day, universal labor rights, and “policies to ease the plight of migrants, the precariat, the self-employed, and the unemployed.” But he does not mention any particular charter.

How would a progressive Precariat Charter of demands differ from a Proletariat Charter? I addressed this question in my book A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens, which articulated twenty-nine policies, or Articles, that are very different from, and in some respects would conflict with, proletarian ones. For example, it calls for a reconceptualizion of what we mean by work and an overhaul of labor statistics. Labor unions have long accepted the capitalist conception of work, as encapsulated in conventional labor force statistics, labor law, ILO Conventions and Recommendations, and social security systems.

For the precariat, conceptualizing work as labor is absurd. Labor has “exchange value,” remunerated by a wage and non-wage benefits. Whereas women have always had to do a lot of work that is not labor, the precariat must do a great deal of work-for-labor, work-for-state, and work-for-reproduction, or risk paying a heavy price for not doing it. Whereas the proletariat is mainly exploited at the workplace and in labor time, the precariat is even more exploited off workplaces and outside labor time.

Unions have traditionally fought for cuts in labor time. In an industrial labor market where most workers are in full-time jobs involving clocking-in and clocking-out, and paid workers labor time roughly corresponds to work time, cutting standard hours is a progressive move. But for the growing precariat, such a cut is more likely to be regressive, since it is likely to result in more labor being shifted to unpaid work. Today’s unions should concentrate on campaigning for a reduction in forms of work that are not paid labor. Unions have not done this because they have not seen the labor process from the perspective of the precariat.

Similarly, labor unions have done little to defend or promote work as occupation. The seismic shift from guild-oriented regulation of occupational work to state licensing has been a major means of state re-regulation in the neoliberal era of globalization. Today, in the US, for instance, over 1,000 occupations are subject to state licensing. Contrary to claims about de-regulation, this has been a period of state re-regulation.

Trades unionists and their defenders have been mute about this. Licensing has helped stratify occupations into salariat, proletariat, and precariat strata. The precariat has most need to roll back licensing, and to develop international occupational accreditation schemes and what I have called collaborative bargaining (i.e., within and between occupational groups). As epitomized by Munck’s essay, these do not figure into a proletarian perspective.

Aspiration and Transformation

Many see the precariat solely as victims, without seeing the emancipatory aspects. Munck says unions should “ease the plight” of the precariat. What about the aspirations? Unions have ignored the plunder of the commons and have legitimized much of it, partly because they expected the state to take over functions historically linked to the commons, partly because they have always given precedence to resource-depleting labor over ecological protection.2 The precariat is at the forefront of the struggle to revive and share the commons. Unions should take a lead as well.

In conclusion, unions should transform themselves from defenders of laborism to champions of a progressive politics based on the values of work and leisure in an ecological Good Society rather than the dictates of labor and consumption.

1. In Volume 1 of Capital, Marx defined labor power as “the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being.” For a discussion of Marx’s perspective, see Guy Standing, Work after Globalisation: Building Occupational Citizenship (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2009), chapter 1, especially the Appendix.
2. This theme is developed in a new book: Guy Standing, Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth (London: Pelican, 2019).

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, co-founder of Basic Income Earth Network, and author of The Politics of Time.

Cite as Guy Standing, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Planetizing the Labor Movement," Great Transition Initiative (April 2019),

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