Was the defeat of trades unions in the 1980s really such a great victory for free market liberalism?
The campaign to give temporary and agency workers the same legal rights as full-time ones raises this question.
What it shows is that campaigners now try to to protect workers not through organized unions but through the law. What used to be done by unions is now done in parliament, with minimum wage or health and safety laws or the proposed agency workers' bill.
The problem is, though, that the law is a much blunter weapon than unions. Take agency workers. Some of these, as Johann shows, are genuinely being ripped off. Others, as the CBI claims, are workers who value the variety of work that temping offers. The law cannot distinguish the two. In principle, though, trades union organization could. A stronger union movement would protect exploited agency workers, whilst not throttling happier agency workers in red tape. Similarly, whereas legal minimum wages don't distinguish between areas of low and high labour costs, or between sectors with elastic and inelastic demand for labour, a sensible strong labour movement could.
In this sense, those who want the state to butt out of the labour market should regret the decline of unions, as the gap these have left has been filled (partly) by crude laws.
Workers' bargaining power can be a substitute for the law.
And here's where there's (yet another!) case for a basic income. As this would give workers an income regardless of whether they worked or not, it would increase their bargaining power and thus reduce the need for labour market laws. With a basic income, workers would be freer to take or leave agency jobs, low-paid or dangerous work. So there'd be less need for legal protection.
So, if you want a free market, one way to get there is to empower workers to be able to take or leave bad jobs.
But then, we know why this option gets such little consideration, don't we?