The us/them mindset of the successful industrialist led to the inevitable and essential creation of labor unions.

If, as Smith and Marx wrote, owning the means of production transfers maximum value to the factory owner, the labor union provided a necessary correction to an inherently one-sided relationship.

Industrialism is based on doing a difficult thing [making something] ever cheaper and more reliably.

The union movement is the result of a group of workers insisting that they be treated fairly, despite the fact that they don’t own the means of production.

Before globalisation, unions had the ability to limit the downward spiral of wages.

But the world has changed.

A laptop with internet connection is the new means of production.

What happens when the best jobs are not on the assembly line, but involve connection, creation and art?

What happens when making average stuff is not sufficient to be successful?

When interactions and product design and unintended [or intended] side effects are at least as important as Frederick Taylor planned measuring every motion and pushing to get it done as cheaply as possible?

Consider what would happen if a union used its power [collective bargaining, slowdowns, education, strikes] to push management to take risks, embrace change and most of all, do what is right for customers in a competitive age…

What if the unionised service workers demanded the freedom to actually connect with those that they are serving, and to do it without onerous scripts, policies and procedures and a focus on reliable mediocrity?

What would have happened to Ford, Toyota or GM if NUMSA had threatened to strike in 2016 because the design of cars was so mediocre?

Or if the unions had pushed hard for more and better robots, together with extensive education to be sure that their workers were the ones designing and operating them these robots?

Of if the unions had pushed hard for ESKOM to embrace alternative energy on condition that they [workers] are trained to manufacture, operate and own the wind-turbines, solar farms and other items in the value chain.

Or, what if the unions, instead of standing up for the few bad apples, pushed the system to bring daylight and humanity to their work, so that more money would be available for their best people?

There is a massive cultural and economic shift going on.

Senior management is slowly waking up to it, as are some unions.

This sort of shift feels risky, almost ridiculous, but it is a possible next step as the workers realise that their connection to the market and the internet gives them more of the means of production than ever before.

Without a doubt, there is a huge challenge in ensuring that the people who do the work are treated with appropriate respect, dignity and compensation. It is not happening nearly enough.

But in an economy that rewards the race to the top [creativity, uniqueness, value] so much more heavily than cutting costs to save a few rands, unions have a vested interest in pushing each of their members to reject the industrial sameness that seems so efficient but ultimately leads to a race to the bottom, and jobs [their jobs], lost.

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