Musings on Labour Day

2. September 2019
Time4 min read

I saw this tweet today:

As someone who's been both employee and employer, I couldn't agree more.

What employers and "pro-business" politicians don't want to admit is that employers are inherently motivated to hire the least number of people and pay them the least they can for their labour.

It's not the only factor involved, and most employers factor more than the bottom line knowing that could quickly demotivate employees too much, but it comes down to finding that sweet spot of the minimum an employee will accept in return for their labour. This is a central problem in capitalism, but this self-interested behaviour on the part of employers is just a shitty aspect of human nature that must be accounted for in a healthy, functioning system.

If you think about it, employment is just a contract between two parties, and contracts are about multiple parties coming together and agreeing to presumably mutually beneficial terms. We even pass laws to ensure contracts can't be so far off that mark as to be predatory.

Contract law's concept of parties coming together "in good faith" stands on a belief in win-wins, but it's not enough to leave it to any given contract to be sufficiently thorough as to account for the shittier parts of human nature, which is why we have regulations and human rights, and in some cases unions to help collectively renegotiate those terms from time to time.

For employment agreements to be true win-wins, there should be little to no power difference in the relationship. But we have to work to make that the case. When an employee accepts a job, it usually becomes their single source of revenue, which creates a single-point-of-failure vulnerability in their economic situation that inherently weakens their side of the bargain. Unions can help, but only in unionized industries.

Strong employment standards are necessary to ensure employers don't take advantage of this inherent vulnerability. We also need stronger and broader human rights protections. Codifying privacy as a fundamental human right would help prevent privacy abuses in the workplace and by our governments.


A strong social safety net is another critical component to ensuring employees aren't taken advantage of, or find themselves unable to exercise their right to terminate that agreement should it become no longer mutually beneficial, for whatever reason.

This safety net needs advocates and defenders, but unions aren't the right tool for the job because the multiplicity of unions keeps them divided by industry, and because unions are tied to employment they leave the unemployed or underemployed, and those employed in non-unionized professions, voiceless and without collective bargaining power. If anything union-wise, we need something more akin to a citizen’s union, one that negotiates and defends the rights of all citizens, workers or not.

We need collective bargaining power separate from particular industries, political parties, media organizations, or law enforcement agencies. Each of these has its own bias that means they cannot effectively represent us all.

What we have today is a weak social safety net that vilifies the most marginalized of those who need it. I'm becoming increasingly convinced the only way to solve this is to redefine our safety net around a universal basic income, especially as automation overtakes more and more industries in the coming years, with open data to ensure anyone can be a watchdog over it.

As we move towards increasing automation, increasing theft of public funds into the hands of the ultra-rich through trickle-down economic schemes and tax breaks that are "good for business", often on the promise of a "return to better times" or "your turn to get ahead", we are essentially powerless against these giants who will not bat an eye at letting thousands of employees go in favour of automation.

The benefits of automation, as one of the spoils of scientific progress, ought to be shared by all and not simply benefit the few at the expense of the whole. That's not how the inventors of many of these technologies envisioned our world. We accepted the immediate benefits of modern life, the convenience and entertainment, and the empty promises of politicians who were busy propping up this systematic theft. We drank the kool-aid and we took our eyes off the ball. We did so at the expense of our future.

Now we need to take that back. We don’t just need a Green New Deal, but a collective agreement that we will stand together and take back our countries and our planet, and do the work to help it heal. We need a collective agreement with each other that we won't let governments and industry divide us by where we came from or our education level or our religion or sexuality or identity or whether we're employed or not.

The first steps are to carefully consider in these coming elections the direction you want our world to take. The one collective thing we have going for us today is our vote. It's not perfect, but it matters and it's something people fought and died so we could have. Building a better world starts by honouring them.