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The Effects of Trade Unions on Alienation at Work


The concept of alienation was first proposed by the German philosopher Karl Marx in his famous work Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. He argued that the modern production methods forced workers to abandon their humanity and embrace the role of an easily replaceable element in a large oppressive system. People working for the bourgeoisie class have to engage in the creation of goods that will be eventually sold to others. It leads to a situation when workers experience a feeling of separation from their activities’ outcomes, which hinders their overall satisfaction with the job. By performing mundane actions daily, individuals become estranged from the direct result of their labor and consequently lose their identity and the purpose of life. Often it is further complicated by the lack of opportunity to voice their concerns, but trade unions are one of the most effective means to address this problem. Despite all the technological advancements of the past decades, the issue of alienation remains topical and requires a reliable solution, and trade unions can provide one by building solidarity among workers.

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The Problem of Alienation in the Workplace

The philosopher outlined three areas of alienation, the first one was the workers’ loss of control over the means of production. Marx stressed the importance of the necessity for individuals to own their labor since it was the key element that defined them as humans (Lavalette & Ferguson, 2018). Respectively, by selling their work to the employer, people partially give up their human essence, which has a negative psychological impact on them. Another type of alienation is the estrangement from other people, workers against whom one has to compete or the managers with whose orders one should comply. This prevents individuals from developing lasting relationships because they must both try to outperform one another and embrace their hierarchical roles. The third manifestation of alienation is the worker’s estrangement from their labor’s products since the goods they produce belong to the employer (Lavalette & Ferguson, 2018). Thus, the majority of people who enter into a work contract as employees automatically experience alienation, which gradually generates feelings of frustration, depression, and meaninglessness, which are then followed by more severe effects.

Alienation has significant implications for the workers, one of them being their physical and mental health. Moreover, the level of alienation has been proved to be directly linked to an employee’s performance since it affects their capacity to be able to do their job. According to Kartal (2018), powerlessness and meaningless are the primary consequences of work alienation, and the study conducted among medical professionals showed that these factors seriously impaired individuals’ ability to perform their tasks. This highlights the problem of estrangement in workplace environments, which require doing the same mundane job daily without any possibility to act creatively. Such situations inevitably lead to stress and workers’ thoughts about the purpose of their work and the reasons why they choose to do it. Similarly, employees at an industrial plant can become estranged from the results of their labor, the products they make because they will belong not to them but their company. Thus, the problem of alienation at work remains relevant since the are numerous types of jobs that demand the worker to completely discard their identity and perform a repetitive manual task.

Another important factor that needs to be discussed is alienation emerging as a result of emotional labor. This type of estrangement is more likely to occur to employees in the modern working environment. The problem of not being the owner of the result of their labor can be overcome by having enough money to buy the product. Yet, the problem of emotional labor is much harder to solve since it affects the mental health of a person. Mastracci & Adams (2018) studied the emotional labor of street-level bureaucrats and found that because these people have to suppress their own emotions, they can experience dissatisfaction and burnout. Moreover, their estranged behavior can affect the citizens who come to them to resolve their problems. This example can be further extended to other jobs which require providing services to clients, professions such as clerks and consultants imply talking to thousands of people while restraining personal feelings and. This results in a situation when a person working in such an environment cannot express themselves in their workplace, which leads to their powerlessness and the loss of their purpose in life.

The ways to counter alienation have been described by many philosophers, and there is a variety of solutions one can employ to avoid it. One of them is engaging in socially useful doings, which provide a concrete purpose, as opposed to the abstract work performed at factories and in offices (Chatterton & Pusey, 2019). Useful work is determined solely by the person who intentionally chooses to do it, and it cannot be imposed on them. Engaging in this type of work, people can eliminate alienation through espousing different social roles, not limited by their specialization. Other scholars believe that in the current neo-liberal environment, the problem of alienation resolves itself since the main idea the majority of people pursue is the desire to realize their potential through work (Elliot, 2018). Yet, it is worth noting that such an approach to labor is likely to be characteristic of the situations which imply creative work, which allows people to fully express their imagination. Thus, it is important to remember that not all workers today can afford to think in such terms, and the problem of alienation at work is still present.

The Role of Trade Unions in Reducing Alienation at Work

Trade unions present the most effective way for workers to become recognized as the important force which has to be reckoned with and considered in all business decisions. The ideas of solidarity and collectivism are essential to the concept of trade unions since they allow dispersed individual employees to organize to defend their common interests (Grady & Simms, 2018). Coming together, workers counter the aforementioned alienation from one another because in the trade union environment, they do not have to compete, and instead, they pursue the same goals. This empowers them to find the collective spirit and, as a group, become a subject instead of being individual objects. As a result of this organizing, workers can declare their concerns and requests to the company’s executives. For example, one of the main tasks of every trade union is collective bargaining on behalf of its members. They can ask their employer to raise their wages, which in turn can also decrease alienation. The workers with more resources to improve their quality of life will be less likely to experience negative feelings since they will believe that they are well-renumerated for their labor.

The protection trade unions provide to their members is also of great importance for countering alienation in the workplace. The employees whose contracts with their companies contain provisions concerning health and safety understand that their well-being is valuable, and they are treated with respect. Hagedorn et al. (2016) studied a variety of union contracts and found that the majority of them clearly outlined all the healthcare benefits, time off, and safety measures in place. This helps ensure that the workers will not feel alienated by being worried about the potential consequences of an accident in the workplace. They will know that their employer must keep them safe and assist them in the case of any injuries. Moreover, according to the researchers, many of the contracts negotiated by unions mentioned: “democratic participation and engagement with the management” (Hagedorn et al., 2016, p. 994). These two factors imply that the workers should be involved in the process of the company’s decision-making and have a voice that is listened to. By negotiating contracts which value human life and stress the employees’ importance, unions can reduce alienation at work.

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Similarly, trade unions provide an opportunity for workers to overcome the negative psychological effects of alienation, namely, stress, discontent, and frustration, which can seriously impact performance and health. Participation in trade unions was proved to be effective in increasing the level of life satisfaction among people of different ages, income ranges, and genders (Flavin & Shufeldt, 2016). As a result, individuals who become members of organized labor will be less likely to experience any negative emotions related to their work. By knowing that their union can provide them with the protection of their rights and guarantee them that their opinion will be important, employees will have fewer reasons to be stressed about in the workplace. They will also be confident that their contract will not be canceled by the company without any legal consequences, which is against their sense of security and certainty about their future. The feeling of alienation at work can be pervasive, but trade unions can reduce it by aiming at establishing an environment that would be beneficial for the worker’s mental and physical well-being.


The issue of alienation was outlined by Marx in the nineteenth century, but to this date, it still affects workers worldwide. The German philosopher outlined several main aspects of alienation, the person’s estrangement from their labor, its products, and other people in the workplace. Some scholars claimed that the problem in question could be resolved by the humans’ free choice to perform useful doings. Yet, under the current circumstances, this concept often does not allow people to earn a steady income. This situation forces the majority to choose jobs that imply working for an employer, and it can lead to alienation. Trade unions are one of the most effective structures for organizing the efforts of workers to pursue common goals. It eliminates the employees’ estrangement from one another by creating a sense of solidarity and unity. Moreover, through directly negotiating with the companies’ executives, trade unions can improve the working conditions and the quality of life of their members. Consequently, workers, by being aware of their trade union’s support, experience alienating feelings of stress, dissatisfaction, and meaninglessness at work.


Chatterton, P., & Pusey, A. (2019). Beyond capitalist enclosure, commodification and alienation: Postcapitalist praxis as commons, social production and useful doing. Progress in Human Geography, 44(1), 27–48. Web.

Elliott, B. (2018). Work, culture, and play in the neoliberal condition. Information, Communication & Society, 21(9), 1279–1292. Web.

Flavin, P., & Shufeldt, G. (2016). Labor Union Membership and Life Satisfaction in the United States. Labor Studies Journal, 41(2), 171–184. Web.

Grady, J., & Simms, M. (2018). Trade unions and the challenge of fostering solidarities in an era of financialisation. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 40(3), 490–510. Web.

Hagedorn, J., Paras, C. A., Greenwich, H., & Hagopian, A. (2016). The role of labor unions in creating working conditions that promote public health. American Journal of Public Health, 106(6), 989–995. Web.

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Kartal, N. (2018). Evaluating the relationship between work engagement, work alienation and work performance of healthcare professionals. International Journal of Healthcare Management, 11(3), 251–259. Web.

Lavalette, M., & Ferguson, I. (2018). Marx: Alienation, commodity fetishism and the world of contemporary social work. Critical and Radical Social Work, 6(2), 197–213. Web.

Mastracci, S., & Adams, I. (2018). That’s what the money’s for: Alienation and emotional labor in public service. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 40(4), 304–319. Web.

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