Guilds and Civil Society
Guilds and Civil Society

Guilds and Civil Society

The new economy is not a friendlier economy. Revamped hiring practices make it easier to discharge workers... If you're in, great. If you're out, well, it's awfully difficult to get inside. Imbalances in the organization of work make it tough to argue for a civil society where all the spheres, including the economic realm, are largely self-regulating.

The new economy is not a friendlier economy. Revamped hiring practices make it easier to discharge workers as companies focus on their core workforce to the exclusion of the periphery. If you're in, great. If you're out, well, it's awfully difficult to get inside. Imbalances in the organization of work make it tough to argue for a civil society where all the spheres, including the economic realm, are largely self-regulating.

One-third of Microsoft's employees, for example, are temporary workers. Most new code writers will interview at Microsoft and then get sent over to one of 20 temp agencies for processing. The orange badge issued to temp workers is a ticket for free drinks—but not stock options or benefits. Those privileges, along with access to the soccer field, are for those wearing the blue badges.

Some of the orange badges are organizing. Yet it is an uphill battle, given the current legislative regime and the fact that they aren't technically employed by Microsoft. They end up going union lite, turning to what Penn Kemble has called "guild unionism."

In the Winter 2004 issue of Comment, I expanded on an earlier article by Ray Pennings, " Guilds from the Dot-com Ashes?," showing how guilds can provide essential services for the independent worker, especially in the areas of medical coverage and training. My article, "Guilded Independence", showcased the work that Sara Horowitz is doing with Working Today's Freelancer's Union, which tries to fill what MIT researcher Robert Laubacher calls the "gushing wound" of American health-care provision. I also briefly mentioned how the new guilds are trying to build communities of practice" that exchange knowledge and talent networks.

Both Pennings and I discussed how guilds are being designed to fill the widening benefit gaps that have appeared as companies move from traditional hierarchical institutions with committed workforces to flexible and project-oriented dispatch centres with highly mobile talent networks. But neither article described what guilds are. Nor did they explain how the guilds of today differ from their historical conceptions or the role guilds can play in society and the public conversation.

We need to develop a contemporary conception of guilds as a feature of civil society. Guilds can wield an influence more potent than the individual and more personable than the government. In other words, guilds hold cultural power.

So what is a guild? And how does it differ from a union?

Originally, the term referred to the sacred banquet, or gilda, held by fraternities of young pagan warriors. In Europe's Germanic settlements, from the fifth to the tenth centuries, the gildonia offered an egalitarian alternative to the strict hierarchies of feudal society. Their membership was open to anyone who paid the entrance fee. Membership was voluntary and did not depend on one's social position or even, in some cases, one's gender. In fact, one's position in society had little bearing on the guild's internal structure. The guild was a brotherhood. Its members swore an oath to one another, promising mutual aid and protection against external dangers, both social and natural.

Unsurprisingly, a social arrangement where birth or (sometimes) sex didn't matter attracted the ire of the Germanic aristocracy. Guilds were accused of dark practices and treasonous conspiracies. Over time, the warrior guilds' jurisdiction waned (they no longer executed justice internally), and their religious practices were Christianized.

In the tenth century, the history of guilds took a dramatic turn with the emergence of the merchant and craft guilds. Combining the economic and professional character of the Roman "craft colleges" with the mutual aid pledges of the Germanic social guilds, the medieval guilds spread quickly across Europe. Merchant guilds tended to be linked to a specific town, artisan guilds less so. Merchant guilds were also less exclusive in membership than the artisan guilds.

The key point is that the late medieval guilds were not formed solely for the purpose of trade protectionism. Their economic character was augmented by a concern for the well-being of their members—for example, many guilds had "health insurance"—and the rigorous cultivation of skill in one's craft. Antony Black writes in Guild and State (new edition, 2003), "In the craft guild, the 'mystery' of craftsmanship is joined with the dynamic of the pressure group; skill and endurance, on which life and progress depend, are powered by a specific social bond."

The economic weight and collective voice of a guild also gave it an influence beyond the narrow focus of its profession. As a "dominant mode of socio-economic organization," the medieval guilds may have contributed to the development of the middle class and to the historical emergence of political rights and freedoms.

In modern times, a few small artisan guilds survive, but guilds have for the most part been replaced by or transformed into either professional associations or trade unions. Unions predominate in the industrial and service sectors and professional associations in the knowledge sectors. Guilds and unions both provide solidarity, insurance benefits, and, in many cases, training for their members. They also represent worker's interests in workplace standards and safety to government, the employer, and industry associations. The key difference between guilds and unions is that unions negotiate collective wage agreements with the employer but guilds do not. The important possibilities provided by this distinction become evident when we look at the contemporary labour situation.

Today, the organization of labour in North America is undergoing a major shift. As globalization exports industries and services to the developing world, unions are finding themselves in decline. American unions have just about flatlined, and Canadian unions, while still strong, are gradually diminishing in numbers and influence.

At the same time, the number of free agents, informal contractors, and temporary workers has exploded. Business magazines run article after article on how one can stay agile and marketable in the new economy: "Brand Me," self-marketing, you-as-a-product. Labour organizations conduct study after study on the so-called informal sector and the abuses perpetuated below the legal radar.

In most cases, the informal sector, with both skilled and unskilled workers, has little recourse to associational protections. White-collar staff—shirts open-necked, ties loosened, toiling through hours of unpaid "voluntary" overtime—can't unionize. Agricultural workers—earning bottom-dollar, slugging it out for their voracious corporation—aren't permitted the safety of a collective bargaining agreement. Major software companies hire "temporary" staff for years at a time: these workers have few benefits and little legal recourse if they are mistreated or wrongfully dismissed—they aren't full-time.

Should government expand the right to form unions and collectively bargain to include such workers? Perhaps, though the vast array of employment structures and the multinational character of many corporations suggest that this is not a practical solution. A workplace-specific union would face nearly insurmountable legal and logistical obstacles. Agricultural, professional, and temporary workers are hard to unionize even apart from the legal barriers. Independent workers are impossible to unionize. At the same time, they bear the burden of injustice in the workplace.

Guilds can play an important part in the cultivation of humane and cooperative working environments. By focusing on insurance and benefits, training and certification, and safety and workplace standards, they can provide real protections to workers—without threatening the employer with collective wage agreements.

The development of guilds could also help revive the notion of civil society: the totality of social institutions, apart from government, that command our loyalties and provide our lives with meaning. It is the public arena in which our ultimate commitments are given expression. Civil society is the rich and diverse space between the lonely individual and the drab conformity of the state.

In order to resolve the difficulties we are experiencing in the workforce—lack of loyalty, employee alienation, etc.—civil society needs more elbow room. Government should not try to fix every problem by adding yet another right to an already long list. Instead, it should give organized labour the space to build institutions that will provide mutual support and protection against the occasional storms of globalization. If we have to speak of it in terms of rights, the government needs to enforce the right to freedom of association.

Guilds are an excellent way to initiate this expansion of civil society, for a number of reasons. Their rich history, even though their influence and scope has been reduced from former times, makes the concept credible. Moreover, guilds do not have the infamous reputation that many modern unions have acquired over the past few decades. Guilds carry financial weight, due to their close tie to economic productivity. This is important for two reasons: first, they can show tangible benefits, making recruitment of new members easier; second, economic power often translates into political pull.

As guilds explore new territories of labour organization, they will give labour as an institution a more effective negotiating position, where the strike is not the only trump card. Labour associations of any kind must show that, with the training and mutual aid they provide workers, they are making concrete investments into the success of businesses. If the sphere of business can develop into a space where all the stakeholders are represented in a balanced fashion, it can also be a place of freedom where individuals and institutions can flourish, where their contributions are unobstructed by bitter squabbles over rights delegated by a distant regulatory structure. The workplace will never be perfect. But it can be better.

Guilds are in a position to be the vanguard for civil society. They are able to push for freedom of association in labour, both here in North America and around the world. Despite their lack of a legislated mandate, in exercising what Gramsci calls "cultural leadership," they can be powerful allies in the struggle for justice in the workplace.

Topics: Vocation
James Brink
James Brink

James Brink is an associate with Ormston List Frawley LLP, a law firm in Toronto that advises small to mid-size Canadian public and private companies on corporate organization and restructuring, contracts, financing, as well as their securities compliance obligations. James also regularly works with the firm's litigation department in connection with commercial and personal disputes ranging from breach of contract to online defamation.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?