Guilds are sometimes said to be the precursors of modern trade unions, and also, paradoxically, of some aspects of the modern corporation. Guilds, however, were groups of self-employed skilled craftsmen with ownership and control over the materials and tools they needed to produce their goods. Guilds were, in other words, small business associations and thus had very little in common with trade unions. If anything, guilds were more like cartels than they were like trade unions (Olson 1982). However, the journeymen organizations, which were at the time illegal, may have been influential.
The exclusive privilege of a guild to produce certain goods or provide certain services was similar in spirit and character with the original patent systems that surfaced in England in 1624. These systems played a role in ending the guilds’ dominance, as trade secret methods were superseded by modern firms directly revealing their techniques, and counting on the state to enforce their legal monopoly.
Some guild traditions still remain in a few handicrafts, in Europe especially among shoemakers and barbers. Some of the ritual traditions of the guilds were conserved in order organizations such as the Freemasons. These are, however, not very important economically except as reminders of the responsibilities of some trades toward the public.
Modern antitrust law could be said to be derived in some ways from the original statutes by which the guilds were abolished in Europe.
Modern guilds exist in different forms around the world. In many European countries guilds have had a revival as local organizations for craftsmen, primarily in traditional skills. They may function as fora for developing competence and are often the local units of a national employers organization.
In the United States guilds exist in several fields. The Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild of America, East and the Writers Guild of America, west are capable of exercising very strong control in Hollywood because a very strong and rigid system of intellectual property rights exists (as with some medieval trades). These guilds exclude other actors and writers who do not abide by the strict rules for competing within the film and television industry in America. The Newspaper Guild is a labor union for journalists and other newspaper workers, with over 30,000 members in North America.
Quilting guilds are also very common and are found in almost all areas of the United States.
Real estate brokerage is an excellent example of a modern American guild. Telltale signs of guild behavior are on display in real estate brokerage: standard pricing (6% of the home price), strong affiliation among all practitioners, self-regulation (see National Association of Realtors), strong cultural identity (see Realtor), little price variation with quality differences, and traditional methods in use by all practitioners. In September 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against the National Association of Realtors challenging NAR practices that, DOJ asserts, prevent competition from practitioners who use different methods. The DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission in 2005 advocated against state laws, supported by NAR, that disadvantage new kinds of brokers. For a description of the DOJ action, see . U.S. v. National Assoc. of Realtors, U.S. District Court Norther District Illinois, Eastern Division, September 7, 2005, Civil Action No. 05C-5140.
The practice of law in the United States is also an example of modern guilds at work. Every state maintains its own Bar Association, supervised by that state’s highest court. The court decides the criteria for being admitted to, and remaining a member of, the legal profession. In most states, every attorney must be a member of that state’s Bar in order to practice law. State laws forbid any person from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law and practicing attorneys are subject to rules of professional conduct that are enforced by the state’s high court.
Scholars from the history of ideas have noticed that consultants play a part similar to that of the journeymen of the guild systems: they often travel a lot, work at many different companies and spread new practices and knowledge between companies and corporations.
Many professional organizations similarly resemble the guild structure. Professions such as architecture, engineering, and land surveying require varying lengths of apprenticeships before one can be granted a ‘professional’ certification. These certifications hold great legal weight and are required in most states as a prerequisite to doing business there.
Thomas Malone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology champions a modern variant of the guild structure for modern “e-lancers”, professionals who do mostly telework for multiple employers. Insurance including any professional liability, intellectual capital protections, an ethical code perhaps enforced by peer pressure and software, and other benefits of a strong association of producers of knowledge, benefit from economies of scale, and may prevent cut-throat competition that leads to inferior services undercutting prices. And, as with historical guilds, resist foreign competition.
The free software community has from time to time explored a guild-like structure to unite against competition from Microsoft, e.g. Advogato assigns journeyer and master ranks to those committing to work only or mostly on free software. Debian also publishes a list of what constitutes free software.
In the City of London, the ancient guilds survive as Livery Companies, most of which play a ceremonial role. Guilds also survive in the UK in Preston, Lancashire as the Preston Guild Merchant where among other celebrations descendants of Burgesses are still admitted into membership.
In Australia there exists the Guild of Commercial Filmmakers, a collection of commercial, short film and feature filmmakers.