Why Don’t Trade Unions Support an Unconditional Basic Income (Precisely When They Should)?

Photo by zeevveez | CC BY 2.0

Photo by zeevveez | CC BY 2.0

The apparently simple idea of an unconditional universal Basic Income has gotten very complicated. The more mainstream the idea becomes, the more embrangled it is, although at least something has become clear. One of the main causes of the muddle is that, apart from enemies, it has supporters on both left and right. This is recognized even in the December 2016 report from the Executive Office of the President titled “Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy” which, expressing its opposition to Universal Basic Income (UBI)—as it is also known—states, “While the exact contours of various UBI proposals differ, the idea has been put forward from the right by Charles Murray (2006), the left by Andy Stern and Lee Kravitz (2016)… The different proposals have different motivations […].”

Precisely because, properly understood and administered, Basic Income could have enormously positive consequences, not least of which would be the total elimination of poverty, it should be taken seriously, defined clearly and defended rationally. To get to the heart of the matter, there are two questions which must be asked and answered, one normative and one practical. Is it just? Is it possible to finance?

The definition we favor (with elements of Thomas Paine’s idea of a national fund whereby every individual over twenty-one would receive “compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance by the introduction of the system of landed property”) embraces the idea of republican justice. It is the definition adopted by the Universal Declaration of Emerging Rights, Article 1 (3), signed at the Second Universal Forum of Cultures, Monterrey, 2007. Basic Income is a payment

… which assures all individuals, independently of their age, sex, sexual orientation, civil status or employment status, the right to live under worthy material conditions. To such end, the right to an unconditional, regular, monetary income paid by the state and financed by fiscal reforms, is recognised as a right of citizenship, to each resident member of society, independently of their other sources of income, and being adequate to allow them to cover their basic needs.

As for the feasibility of financing a Basic Income, this has been demonstrated in exhaustive studies on progressive tax reform for Catalonia, Spain, and elsewhere, whereby some 80% of the population would gain but the richest 20% would lose. Such a redistribution of wealth would be the opposite of what has been happening in recent decades.

The chariness being expressed in a lot of trade unions where Basic Income has not been very well received by union bosses or members sheds light on several serious confusions about Basic Income. Of course there are quite a lot of significant exceptions like Unite in Great Britain, AFL-CIO leaders in the United States, some groups and militants of the Spanish unions CCOO and CGT, and the Basque Ezker Sindikalaren Konbergentzi. Objections from the unions are based on six main arguments which we shall summarize below, together with our responses.

First: Basic Income would undermine the power of the unions, weakening their capacity for collective action because it increases the individual bargaining power of workers, thus creating a situation of survival of the fittest.

It’s true that workers receiving a Basic Income would have more leeway for deciding as individuals when their working conditions are intolerable but this doesn’t mean that the union’s collective muscle would be weakened. As many union members (as opposed to unions as an institution) have understood, a Basic Income would function as a resistance fund in extended strikes, which would otherwise be very difficult to sustain.

Second: Since the bulk of union membership consists of full-time workers with stable contracts and quite well paid by comparison with the average income (especially in the Kingdom of Spain where unemployment is a chronic 19.4%), they could lose out economically because of the tax reforms required to finance the Basic Income.

Full-time stable contracts are now a rarity. As opposed to the conservatism of a few relatively well-paid workers (“Bloody cheek! These people who want to be paid for doing nothing when I have to get up at six to earn my crust”) there are huge numbers of people working in precarious conditions who would gain from a Basic Income. This kind of devil-take-the-hindmost hostility isn’t exclusive to basic income. For example, after the Barcelona City Hall began to use “Barcelona Solidaria” cards for a monthly payment of €100 per child under sixteen to families below the poverty threshold (involving 20,000 out of a total of 225,000 children in this age group), a department store sales clerk phoned to complain. She and her colleagues are “fed up” with the way people are using the cards to get makeup, perfume, alcohol, big TVs and everything but basic needs. The sales clerks earn very little themselves. This might be called the war of the underdog against the under-underdog, the germ of right-wing populism, nourished by brainwashing and a “charitable” mindset of monotheistic origins: the poor should be grateful for the crumbs off the rich man’s table and not aspire to what’s on the table. With a Basic Income, these shop clerks could decide whether to keep working and be annoyed by the purchases of poor people, or do something they might prefer more, or just lie on the couch all day long.

Third: Basic Income is only a pretext for dismantling the hard-earned welfare state, especially education and public health, a mere “check” in exchange for the privatization and degradation of what were once good public services.

Yes, right-wing supporters of “Basic Income” want to destroy the welfare state in “exchange” for a Basic Income, and more than a few people on the left assert that this will be the result. The claim about destroying welfare services has become so widespread and has often become so mischievous that at the last BIEN International Congress (Seoul 2016), the following resolution was passed, amending the statutes so that they now state:

A majority of members attending BIEN’s General Assembly meeting in Seoul on July 9, 2016, agreed to support a Basic Income that is stable in size and frequency and high enough to be, in combination with other social services, part of a policy strategy to eliminate material poverty and enable the social and cultural participation of every individual. We oppose the replacement of social services or entitlements, if that replacement worsens the situation of relatively disadvantaged, vulnerable, or lower-income people.

A Basic Income financed by means of progressive taxation would maintain and strengthen the welfare state, which would be much more streamlined without the cumbersome intrusive apparatus required by conditional subsidies.

Fourth: the bosses will use Basic Income as an excuse for lowering wages. This is what happened with “the story about rent”: if young people have at any point been given housing benefits, owners have immediately raised rents. Ergo, it’ll be the “same story” with wages.

The argument that bosses will use Basic Income as an excuse to lower wages echoes the reasoning used to explain the opposition of some Italian union members to a national minimum wage (though this view is not only not shared by unionists in states where this does exist but is fiercely rebutted). However, if the “story” is that rents are raised and wages are cut, they’re using the same argument for opposite effects. The point is that the owners/bosses try to benefit in both cases. All the more reason for a Basic Income to strengthen the workers’ bargaining position.

Fifth: Basic Income challenges the trade union culture of work because it dissociates material existence from work and the rights arising from it. Philippe Martínez, Secretary-General of the French Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) put this clearly enough in a recent interview published in the daily La Vanguardia: “We believe that work structures life, that it’s a place of socialization, of social relations and something which saves people from being isolated or disappearing, as long as the working conditions are decent. This is why we have some doubts about Basic Income.” The important goal is full employment because wage labor gives dignity. Anything else is bromide.

The question of basic income and work is much more complex and interesting than the union argument suggests. It is true that, with a Basic Income, material existence would no longer depend on having a job but this doesn’t mean that it’s antithetical to employment. Rather, it would offer a more resourceful way of sharing tasks in different domains of work. Philippe Van Parijs sums up what this versatility means:

[Basic Income] provides a flexible, intelligent form of job sharing. It makes it easier for people who work too much to reduce their working time or take a career break. It enables the jobless to pick up the employment thereby freed, the more easily as they can do so on a part-time basis, since their earnings are being added to their basic income. And the firm floor provided by the basic income makes for a more fluid back and forth between employment, training and family that should reduce the occurrence of burnout and early retirement, thus enabling people to spread employment over a longer portion of their lives.

Moreover, the unions’ concerns about remunerated work totally overlook two other essential kinds, viz. voluntary work and domestic (reproductive) work, a standpoint which makes it impossible to understand the effects a Basic Income would have for most people. Our definition of work would be much more open: “a set of remunerated or unremunerated activities whose results procure goods or services for members of our species.”

Then again, the work-based objection can be contested both factually and normatively. The fact is—to take the case of the Kingdom of Spain—OECD figures show that unemployment has been higher than 15% more than twenty-five years between 1978 and 2015. A faraway second on this dismal list is Ireland with nine years. Full employment might seem to be a heroic goal but the big question is: in what kind of conditions? Semi-slavery or decent, well-paid jobs? The data suggest that semi-slavery is the trend. The 2015 Eurostat figures on the working poor give an overall estimate of their presence among workers as 13.2%, up from 8.4% in 2009 before the policies spawned by crisis had sunk their claws into Europe’s not-so-privileged citizens. Worse, this 13.2%, to which must be added self-employed workers, hides great differences among the EU states. For example, it rises to almost 20% for Romania and over 15% for Greece. And, at the end of the day, as Michał Kalecki made clear in 1943, capitalists oppose full employment. Unemployment suits their economic and political interests. So the project of full employment is strangled at birth.

On the normative front, the issue is the assertion that (remunerated) work gives dignity. But it’s not work per se (you only have to think about factory production lines, child labor, hotel cleaning and a host of other menial, humiliating jobs) that confers dignity but its result, namely a guaranteed material existence, the right to live as free human beings. Many thinkers, from Aristotle to Marx, who were concerned with questions of freedom—the wellspring of dignity—insisted time and time again that work is part-time slavery.

Sixth: with their existence guaranteed, workers would lose their fighting spirit, giving bosses an even freer hand, and this would end up in still lower wages and fewer welfare services.

This is a strange argument given that, in the situation arising from the economic crisis and its attendant economic policies, the unions themselves have used fear, the argument of losing jobs or having to accept even worse working conditions, against calls for strikes and demonstrations. The disciplinary effect of large numbers of unemployed workers, as economists like Michał Kalecki have pointed out, is implacable. It means increasingly swifter acceptance of falling salaries and worsening conditions because the “main fear” of losing one’s job. A Basic Income would break this disciplinary effect, a very important political point which the unions should take into account.

These six points are not exhaustive but they cover the reasons most often raised by unionists around the world when expressing opposition to Basic Income. We think they’re well worth considering and answering because this isn’t just a matter of gaining more supporters for the cause. They also raise basic issues about what kind of society we should and might be able to have because the underlying human rights concerns are always the same and they affect everybody: freedom, justice and dignity.

Daniel Raventós is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso.   Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).