Since the financial crisis struck in 2008, calls for a basic income have grown, further encouraged by fears around the automation of jobs. But many trade unions, the movements so crucial to building the welfare states and employment systems that protect many today, often appear to be basic income’s biggest opponents. We talked to Yannick Vanderborght, social policy and trade union expert, to find out why and to see whether this opposition is starting to shift.

Green European Journal: In an interview earlier this year, Reiner Hoffmann, president of the German German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), argued that universal basic income sidelines, stigmatises, and excludes people. Does the trade union movement share his fears about basic income? 

Yannick Vanderborght: His position is very representative of how trade unions tend to view universal basic income. From what I have seen in many different countries, especially in Belgium and France but also in Germany, unions are wary and sceptical, at least the leadership though not necessarily the members. The idea that basic income would exclude people is key. Many union leaders would rather advocate the right to work than the right to an income, as they see work as fundamental to being a useful member of society.

That is not the only reason why unions are sceptical. Many recognise that if there was a basic income, especially a substantial one, unions would probably lose the ability to negotiate wages. Not that they are being cynical, unions firmly believe that the relationship between employer and worker is asymmetrical and that individual workers will never have the capacity to negotiate effectively. Individualisation is seen as detrimental to workers and a strong collective is seen as necessary to face the threats of the labour market.

Some unions, even some members, also see that they will not benefit from a basic income. A basic income would benefit ‘outsiders’, whereas trade unionists would mainly be net contributors. Many unions across Europe today do not really represent outsiders and so a move towards a basic income is not in their interests.

What is driving trade union attention towards basic income, even if it the response is largely negative? 

As there is some a momentum for basic income, even the core old-style trade unions feel obliged to take a position. New types of workers are increasingly, perhaps unfortunately, becoming the norm and trade unions know that they have to represent them. I participated in a French trade union conference in Paris recently and it was clear that many people were looking back to the time where you had stable jobs from age 18 or 22 and could stay in one company for your entire career. For some, that is still the ideal. However, trade unions realise that many new members cannot access those positions or, even more importantly, do not want them. Many young people would like a more flexible relationship with the labour market, sometimes working good well-paid jobs but sometimes doing other things. Transitions between jobs and occupations are becoming more and more important and many trade unionists see the strength of these new aspirations among their youngest members.

unions firmly believe that the relationship between employer and worker is asymmetrical and that individual workers will never have the capacity to negotiate effectively

Is opposition to basic income stronger in countries such as Belgium where trade unions are stronger too?

Some research was presented at the BIEN 2018 Congress in Tampere but we need more studies on this question. I suspect that where unions are stronger, especially in terms of membership and the capacity to set wages as in Belgium or Germany, they will be more sceptical towards basic income. Several of the unions that are seriously considering basic income are British. In 2016, UNISON and the Trade Union Congress both passed resolutions on basic income. In the flexible UK labour market with more low-paid and part-time work, basic income is more attractive. France has one of the lowest unionisation rates in Europe, below 10 per cent, and yet the French unions are strongly opposed. But though the French unions lack members, coverage is still high and unions have a big say on wages, working conditions, and sectoral agreements.

What do new unions such as riders’ unions or unions outside industrial sectors think of basic income? 

Smaller unions representing younger workers, women, or precarious jobs are more likely to advocate a basic income. Women’s groups were some of its main proponents in British trade unions. Women are over-represented in precarious jobs and will be the first beneficiaries of a true basic income. Traditional unions with core membership of male workers working full time and in industrial or service jobs are on the opposite end of the spectrum. In the 1980s, the Voedingsbond, the Dutch food union and member of the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions, campaigned for a basic income. What was the main reason? Well, this union mainly represented women working part-time jobs in often vulnerable positions.

To zoom out from unions, what do you make of the common concern that sees basic income as a neoliberal Trojan horse designed to dismantle the welfare state? 

They are legitimate concerns, no doubt, and I share them. I advocate a basic income, but a progressive version within a package of social progress. If the Left is too weak, you could perfectly have a basic income with a neoliberal flavour that replaces the bulk of welfare programmes. In Belgium, one politician from the French-speaking liberal party Mouvement Réformateur advocates suppressing most social security programmes and replacing them with a 1000-euro basic income. Given the political atmosphere these days, these concerns are even more legitimate than they have been in the past 10 years. Under present circumstances, because of the Left’s weakness, a basic income could be a recipe for further flexibilisiation and dismantling of the welfare state.

That is precisely the reason why we need unions, green parties, and social democratic parties to come together to build a strong progressive platform with basic income as a central component. One of the reasons why the Left is weak is because it has not embraced basic income with more conviction. Many people tell you that the Left has no message today; that there is no hope. Basic income is one of the few alternative narratives that could unite various forces. Basic income is a narrative that combines equality and equality of opportunity, the traditional focuses of the Left, and freedom, something that has been more important for the Greens than for the traditional Left. This political potential is something that has been understood by the people on the Left advocating for basic income across Europe and the world.

Is the reluctance of the Left to back basic income linked not having moved sufficiently away from a politics of work? 

We have to be careful about this. Personally, I am still convinced that work is important. I would not be happy if 10 or 20 per cent of our fellow citizens would have no access to work. If you want to work, you should be able to work. But, some people on the Left have not realised yet that work has changed and that the aspirations of workers have changed. It is symptomatic that the main political force on the Left is what we would call in French the gauche travailliste, of which the British Labour Party is a good example, which holds labour and work as central.

If you’re on the Left, especially the labourist Left, when you hear “flexibility” you immediately get suspicious.

Self-realisation and self-esteem are not only gained through work, but also through other activities. Many of us would also like to try new things, to take more risks, and this is only possible if you ease transitions between different activities, such as education and jobs. We need some more flexibility to make these transitions possible. If you’re on the Left, especially the labourist Left, when you hear “flexibility” you immediately get suspicious. But here the idea is to give more freedom, not to bosses or employers, but to people. Even if freedom means that at some point people leave the labour market and reenter it. This is something that the Greens historically have understood much better than the rest of the Left. The Greens, at least those on the Left, have a more relaxed view towards the labour market. Work is not the only thing in life and you also need to promote the possibility of taking part in what André Gorz would have called autonomous activities that have meaning outside of that given by employers.

Is basic income enough to give this freedom to people over their own activity? 

Some basic income advocates underestimate the importance of the package. I’m not at all convinced that we’ll be okay with just a basic income. Basic income is necessary but not sufficient; it needs to come with other programmes. For instance, we need opportunities for lifelong learning and better ways to reconcile professional and family life. Only then will the flexibility offered by basic income work in a progressive way.

Across Europe, there is a discussion on ‘social investment’. Basic income would be a good complement to the social investment strategy as both offer new opportunities in changing times. More flexible work, new aspirations, changing life patterns: all require that we change our welfare state. Basic income will be part of that, but only a part.

How will basic income affect pay? 

One of the reasons why unions are sceptical is because of uncertainty over the effects on wages. Many advocates expect that degrading jobs or unattractive jobs with low training content or precarious conditions will find fewer takers with a basic income. Bertrand Russell, in a 1918 book called Roads to Freedom, wrote, “One great advantage of making idleness economically possible is that it would afford a powerful motive for making work not disagreeable; and no community where most work is disagreeable can be said to have found a solution of economic problems.”

With basic income, people have the power to say no. When people have the power to say no, you have several solutions: replace the workers with machines, improve working conditions, or pay higher wages. This means that a basic income might create jobs, as the payments can be topped up with other earnings, but it will not create jobs at any cost. Much will depend on the amount. Your power to say no is not very high when you have 200 euros. It’s much higher if it’s 500, 600, or 700 euros. In Belgium, for instance, minimum income through social assistance is quite high. For people who are living alone, it’s 900 euros a month. But it doesn’t give you the power to say no because, at least in principle, you must be available for work.

When people have the power to say no, you have several solutions: replace the workers with machines, improve working conditions, or pay higher wages.

Basic income also gives people have the power to say yes. Some jobs that don’t even exist because they are too expensive for employers could become profitable thanks to the basic income. But they will only find takers if they are promising and attractive enough.

Do you think the experience of minimum wages and trade unions might be relevant for basic income? Many unions initially opposed a minimum wage, but over time came to accept them. 

In some countries unions opposed a legal minimum wage because they preferred to be in charge of setting the wages through collective bargaining agreements, and to be able to negotiate higher wages for certain sectors. The level of a basic income would be set by the government, hopefully in strong legislation, not by unions and would profoundly affect the labour market without any union control. You could however imagine unions having a role in setting the basic income as part of a negotiation with employers and the state.

We were both at the recent Basic Income Earth Network congress in Tampere. Finland is in its final year of a basic income experiment, whereas Canada over the summer scrapped one before it could come to an end. The Scottish government is planning a form of trial. How do you assess these pilots? 

I think that I should distinguish between my judgment as a social scientist and my judgment as a citizen. As a social scientist I’m rather sceptical because you cannot test the effects of a true basic income by looking at an experiment limited in time. What’s even more important is that you cannot test the effects of the basic income on those that will have to pay for it. At some point, some people will see their marginal tax rates go up and what will happen? Will they stop working or work less? Nor you can test the effect of a basic income on wages because the labour market is much bigger than the sample group. In Finland, you have a labour market of millions but only 2000 people receiving a small basic income as part of this experiment.

However from a political perspective, experiments can be helpful. If you get stories of people who explain on television that thanks to the basic income they could accept a job or follow lifelong education, then it could have a positive impact and create momentum.

Isn’t there also risk that pilots have the opposite effect and damage the prospects of a basic income? 

That’s what happened with the experiments in the US and Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. They killed the basic income debate. As in Finland, there was an obsession about the effect on jobs. Many political actors concluded that basic income was a bad idea as soon as they saw that some people left the labour market. Of course there was no analysis about what people did once they left. Perhaps they left to care for their kids or because they were exploited at work? We don’t know, but just the idea that people stopped working was enough to kill the proposal.

However, I must say that the Finnish experiment is probably one of the best designed. Initially the researchers wanted to test the effect on net contributors and have larger sample with young people, old people, self-employed, and so on. But the government only wanted to test the effects on the long-term unemployed, thus biasing the whole endeavour. Politically pilots can have impacts in both directions, it all depends on the stories people tell the journalists afterwards. Are we going to put the spotlight on the guy who stayed home for two years and did nothing? Or the spotlight on the lady who accepted a new job and topped it up with her basic income?

As an advocate of basic income, how do see you developments around universal basic income over the next 10 years? 

Some days I’m optimistic, other days much less optimistic. Given the fact that left-wing parties are today quite weak, I don’t think that we will see a basic income introduced in the next 10 years. But we are already seeing some incremental changes. Part of the French President Emmanuel Macron’s new plan against poverty is the ‘universal activity income’. Partly inspired by basic income, it aims to simplify the web of social assistance measures. Many existing mechanisms are so complex that people do not claim them. Over the next 10 years, we can expect further simplification and more incremental steps towards a true basic income.

As far as climate change is concerned, basic income might help end our insane rush for productivity growth to improve our standard of living. In the British transition towns movement people such as Rob Hopkins see basic income as a way to support new activities and move towards a more sustainable economy. But while basic income could help this transition, alone it will not be enough to tackle climate change. That’s why it’s only part of the package, the green package, the progressive package, but only a part of it.

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