Unionize Goldman Sachs. I do not say this to be cheeky. I do not say this ironically, nor with a winking sneer. I do not say it as a fantastical absurdity. In fact, if the employees of Goldman Sachs were as smart as they think they are, they would have unionized a long time ago.
Last week, the beleaguered first-year analysts of the fancy investment bank made news when they circulated a slide deck and survey complaining of 100-hour work weeks and inhumane working conditions that are destroying their mental and physical health. Such stories crop up regularly, and reflect the fact that even the most prestigious Wall Street banks tend to operate exactly like the most prestigious college fraternities, complete with hazing rituals and fanatic demands for loyalty in exchange for the promise of being served by future generations of slavish recruits. This sort of built-in mistreatment makes perfect capitalist sense. It selects for the people willing to endure any outrage in order to get rich, and simultaneously inculcates in them a feeling that they have “earned” their riches because of what they endured. The way these pathetic young Ivy League try-hards are treated is indefensible on human rights grounds, but then again, if they cared very much about human rights, they wouldn’t be working on Wall Street in the first place.
Yes, a union could mitigate these abusive working conditions. But that is only a secondary reason for these budding masters of the universe to organize. Goldman Sachs is the pinnacle of high finance, the place with the strongest reputation for controlling every nuance of the economic world. Yet, incredibly, in the past 150 years, none of its employees have realized the basic truth that bargaining collectively with your coworkers will always get you more, in aggregate, than bargaining alone. The bankers who work for Goldman have been leaving money on the table every single year because they do not have the leverage inherent with being able to negotiate together as a single group — the only leverage that allows the labor force of any employer, even a Wall Street bank, to extract the maximum possible share of the proceeds of a business. You would think that they would have learned this rudimentary fact during their early days at Harvard Business School, but apparently their ignorance is the price they pay for going to a school that considers labor only a cost to be controlled, rather than an identity that encompasses almost everyone.
I do not need a red-faced banker in a fleece vest to condescendingly explain to me why Goldman Sachs has never unionized despite the overwhelming logical case for doing so. I’m quite sure I can recite their explanations already: “We’re paid a lot, unions aren’t for us.” “There are a thousand people who would love to have my job.” “I can make a ton of money by rising up through the current system.” “I plan to run this place one day.” All that I hear in these excuses is a business that benefits greatly from the fact that it has successfully indoctrinated its employees to believe that they are not labor. Congratulations, Wall Street! Over the past century the management and shareholder classes of Wall Street banks have reaped countless billions of dollars in profit for themselves that they would have had to distribute to their employees, had those employees had the power of collective bargaining. Instead, each of those employees were convinced that they were the superstars, and would eventually win this race to the top, and that joining with their coworkers would only hold them back. Mathematics tells us that for the vast majority of employees, this belief is untrue. And yet it persists, because believing otherwise would make you a traitor to capitalism (even though it would also make your salary higher). It’s sad, really.
Goldman Sachs, and the entire class of well-paid, competitive white collar jobs like it, represents the purest distillation of the lie that American businesses have gotten millions of workers to swallow for decades: that solidarity is the enemy of success, and the key to winning is to compete with your fellow workers, and defeat them in a cutthroat battle for advancement. Suffer through these 100-hour weeks now, and live like a Senior VP one day in the future! Corporate America has pulled off this con by waving around the particulars of a job (Good salary! Free meals! Expense account!) to argue that it is not like regular jobs, while concealing the unavoidable structural reasons why it is, indeed, subject to the same basic dynamics as other jobs, in which the workers always benefit by being able to exercise collective power.
Many in the labor movement will say: Fuck ‘em. Who cares if Goldman Sachs people aren’t smart enough to organize? The reason why this matters is not that these bankers will starve without a union — it is that part of building a truly powerful labor movement is getting everyone into that movement. In the sort of coherent, well-functioning labor movement that America desperately needs, the dues money would flow not just from workers on the bottom, but from those on the top. It can then be directed towards the area of greatest need. You get the dues money from the bankers, and use it to organize the janitors. Everyone is in it together. Let the peons of Wall Street turn their allegiance away from the owners and towards their fellow working people. That’s how a strong labor movement should work.
Brothers and sisters of Goldman Sachs: join us! You have nothing to lose except your goofy fleece vests, execrable work hours, and lack of a union wage premium. And we’ll even let you keep the vests. Union democracy is real.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.