Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Can labor unions help civilize the economy?

Posted Apr 9, 2011 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

Responses to the corporate funded attacks on labor unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere have created new possibilities for turning our nation toward justice and sustainability.  Will we be able to realize these possibilities?  In other words, can our labor unions help civilize the economy?  I think it depends on how they frame collective bargaining.

For the most part, recent collective bargaining in the United States has been based on property relations, not civic relations, and the debates have been about the price of things (labor and benefits), not the fairness of exchanges (reciprocity and moral equality).  Maybe we should not expect otherwise, since most business law is based on property relations, not civic relations.  Collective bargaining, in other words, has been seen as a conversation between owners (owners of capital vs. owners of labor), rather than among members of an organization.

In contrast to some other nations, such as Germany, where unions participate in company management through representation on the company’s board of directors, labor unions here live on one side of a sharp divide that separates the people who actually do the work (labor) from the managers.

So what would a civic framework look like for collective bargaining?  I think it begins by recognizing the purpose of any enterprise.  Schools teach.  Factories build, Hospitals heal.  Farms grow food.  These “companies” have work to do, and the people who do the work (laborers) should be the center of attention.  They do the work that needs to be done.  It seems that much of collective bargaining should be about how managers and others can help the workers do their work well.  This would mean that making money would no longer be the reason for an enterprise’s existence, but rather it would exist to provide consumers and citizens what they have reason to value.

Once the real providers are recognized, and one designs a company so supervisors and managers actually support their work, then together the whole company could decide what people should receive in return for their engagement in the enterprise.  A civic economy would say that all workers (citizens) should be represented in these decisions.  Worker representatives, for example, would have a say in determining the salaries of their managers, just as managers would have a say in determining the salary of the workers.  (Who knows better the value of someone’s supervision than those who are supervised?)  People may disagree about this, but that is why we have collective bargaining.

The distribution of compensation, in a civic economy, would be based on both reciprocity and organizational planning.  Reciprocity is simple enough.  Workers should receive for a good day’s work, a good day’s pay, and a good day’s pay is enough to live a good life—a living wage.  (Managers should also receive a living wage.)  Furthermore, enterprises need to adapt to changing circumstances, and it makes sense to use compensation as an incentive for moving a workforce in the best direction.   If one assumes that worker representatives are just as interested in the success of their company as the managers, then how this is done would also be a topic for collective bargaining.

Labor unions could help us develop a civic economy if they would reframe collective bargaining as a deliberation among citizens at work, instead of a debate among property owners.


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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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