In this post, I would like to explain an observation: public transit workers are unionized even in countries where few workers belong to a union, such as the US and the UK. Attempts by management to win concessions from the unions have often led to prolonged strikes, for example the 108-day strike by SEPTA workers in 1983. This is not just the public sector: the private railroads in the US are unionized, and in 1964 the Florida East Coast Railway had a year-long strike. Nor is this because the public operators and private railroads have a unionized legacy: many private bus shuttles used by Bay Area tech firms to get workers from San Francisco to Silicon Valley offices have unionized drivers, including Facebook and Google, even though the tech industry as a whole is predominantly non-union. Public transportation workers, especially on-board crew, are in a position of strength, and I would like to explain why.
First, let us recount how unions work. At their heart is collective bargaining: the union negotiates wages and benefits for the entire membership. An individual worker who is paid too little can quit, which is unlikely to cause the employer much concern; a union can launch a strike, thereby getting higher wages and better work conditions than each individual worker could obtain alone.
In order to be able to collectively bargain, there needs to be a collective in the first place, which means two separate things:
- Politically, there needs to be a sense of solidarity among the workers. The workers need to see each other as comrades, or as colleagues, and not as competitors. They need to feel like the union represents their interest. This is unlikely to happen in industries where there is substantial competition for promotions to managerial roles, but easier in industries with clear separation between line workers and managers. It is also unlikely to happen in industries with rapid turnover of employees.
- Economically, there needs to be a reasonable way to set a uniform wage scale. This means that the work done by the various employees in each category must be interchangeable, or close enough to it that wages can be made equal. In turn, this requires that the job not have a strong sense of merit, in which some workers are persistently much more productive than others. Productivity differences should be related to seniority, or easily worked into wage agreements (for examples, sales agents can collectively bargain for a uniform commission structure). It’s fine if there is differentiation into several job categories, but then it’s best if this differentiation is rigid, so that workers in each group do not often have to do the job of workers in other groups.
Conversely, if the union goes on strike, management has tools to fight back, including the lockout, or more commonly hiring strikebreakers. To deter management from doing so, the union can exercise peer pressure on people not to scab (condition 1 above), but it also union needs to also fulfill a third condition:
- The job must be skilled enough that it is hard for the employer to hire and train strikebreakers quickly. On a nationwide basis this makes unionization easier in a tight labor market, hence socialist support for monetary policy that prioritizes full employment over price stability. But on a per-industry basis, this condition requires some difficult pipeline that workers must go through: a degree, long training, apprenticeship, or bespoke familiarity with the project at hand.
Conditions 2 and 3 are in tension, since skilled jobs are more likely to involve workers with different levels of productivity. For example, retail workers fulfill condition 2, but are easy to replace if they go on strike and the labor market is not tight. In contrast, programmers easily fulfill condition 3, in the sense that if the entire development team on a project quits, it will be difficult for the company to find a new one and get it up to speed, but because there is a wide range of productivity levels, it makes little sense for programmers to all be paid the same. Silicon Valley’s business culture, in which developing a product fast is more important than establishing a business culture, and turnover is encouraged, also makes it hard to establish meaningful solidarity among software developers.
In the intersection between these three conditions lie a set of job descriptions in which there is a strong sense of professionalism, to meet condition 3, but a weak sense of merit, to meet condition 2. These jobs are typically static in the sense of not changing too much over the years, which makes it ideal for a person to do the same thing for their entire life, learning to adopt new technologies gradually as they are introduced but not having to change their entire skillset. Often, the industries these jobs are in are static as well, whence they are more easily done by the public sector, or by large conglomerates that have been around for generations, such as the private US railroads.
Commercial drivers – of buses, trucks, trains, planes – are a major example of people who satisfy all three conditions. One racecar driver can be better than the next by being faster, but in the commercial sector, speeds are determined by the equipment, the schedule, and the safety standards. A train driver can be better than another on the margins, by responding more quickly to an obstacle on the tracks, or paying attention to the posted schedule better, but both of these aspects depend more on external factors, such as the signal system, than on driver skill. Train schedule padding, accounting for suboptimal driver behavior such as beginning to brake too early but also for propagating delays and passengers who take too long to board or alight, consists of a few percent of total travel time: in its peer review of California High-Speed Rail, JR East proposes 3-5% (PDF-p. 10); and a Swedish study for high-speed rail mentions a 0.9-2.3% discrepancy in energy consumption based on driver behavior (PDF-p. 12) and a total schedule pad equal to about 7% of travel time (PDF-p. 24). The productivity difference, or in other words individual merit, is too small to challenge the logic of a uniform wage scale.
Instead of individual merit, commercial drivers have professionalism. A train driver is expected to fulfill certain criteria to ensure safety first and punctuality second, which requires considerable study of the route of the train, the signal systems, the dispatching codes, the correct way to respond to various unforeseen circumstances. Unlike individual car drivers, commercial drivers are not permitted to take small risks in other to go faster, and learning how to pilot a vehicle safely takes some time; all of this is true manifold if the vehicle in question is a plane, leading to arduous certification requirements. In this setting, even in an environment of absolute control by management, there’s little reason to have different payscales – at most, management can penalize workers who make mistakes.
For the same reasons that train drivers have standards of professionalism, it is easy for them to form a cultural group with internal solidarity. They have their own knowledge set and jargon, as anyone who has tried reading threads on railfan forums knows. The transportation industry changes slowly enough, in terms of both travel demand and technological progress, that most train drivers can expect to work for the same company for decades. Even bus drivers, in an industry that’s less dependent on physical plant, can expect to move between bus operators.
The other major category of public transportation workers, maintenance workers, is not as clear-cut. There is certainly a difference in merit – some people just fix things faster than others. But at the same time, the importance of safety is such that giving financial incentive to working faster can lead to shoddy work. Instead, there are extensive regulations, developed by national safety authorities as well as internally by rail operators, specifying which tasks need to be performed and at what intervals.
Unlike train drivers, maintenance workers aren’t interchangeable – they have more specific job titles. But these job titles often lend themselves to easy categorization, such as electricians and welders. Those have their own standards, and the potential for major accidents encourages uniformity of credentials and of wages, while the complexity of the machinery these workers operate ensures that they must be skilled. This leads to the same presence of professionalism without differential individual merit seen in the case of train drivers, and ensures all three conditions facilitating unionization are present.
In a healthy company, technology progresses as fast as it can given the requirements of the industry, and the union rules are reasonable. Wages and benefits are higher with collective bargaining than without almost by definition, but they cannot be massively higher – those are skilled workers, who are not easily replaceable. In environments where the rules are unreasonable – perhaps the certification requirements are more onerous than necessary, perhaps labor-saving technologies are not used, perhaps the work rules are not suitable for a modern operation – management cannot easily force the union’s hand. Even when three people do the job of one, as in the case of US commuter rail operations with conductors and assistant conductors, labor is in a position of power, and reform-minded managers cannot easily hire strikebreakers.