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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Friday, December 30, 2005

Second Follow-up on Vulgar Liberalism: More on Labor Unions

In "Follow-Up: Vulgar Liberalism Watch," I pointed to several libertarian blog posts as evidence that not all free market advocates share the vulgar libertarians' employer-skewed scenario of free labor markets, and that some are even quite union-friendly. Now Ian Bertram of Panchromatica points me to this:

It may be of course that the ASI is really saying that employers should be able to hire and fire for any reason whatsoever without those fired having any remedy. If we accept this for the sake of argument, what would be the implications of such a radical approach?

First of all we need also to assume a completely free market in labour, with employers and employees able to seek whatever terms they wish and to negotiate with each other about those terms. It seems likely that employers would use agents to carry out the negotiations since the CEO of a company is not going to want to have to constantly negotiate with each and every worker directly. These agents would probably be directly employed since the work would be ongoing, although it presumably could be outsourced as is frequently the case with accounting services.

On the employee side they would presumably also want to employ someone to negotiate on their behalf. After all their normal working skills are unlikely to include the skills needed for negotiations, (although I suppose some workers could develop those skills over time and with extra training and may wish to move into this area, thus allowing for 'upskilling' in the labour force). Inevitably this will not be by direct employment, but through some form of agent. Over time, economies of scale and the workings of the market are likely to lead to these agents combining into larger units much as other businesses do. Some will be more successful than others and will therefore gain more business. Some may diversify into areas other than simple wage negotiations and into areas such as holidays, pension benefits etc.

Over time, relationships between employers and employees agents would begin to to stabilise into formal agreements, with contracts setting out terms of employment for a defined period.

Hang on - this is beginning to sound very familiar! Isn't this a trade union?

I would add that, in a free labor market, what's good for the gander is good for the goose. If employers are free to refuse or withdraw employment for any reason or no reason, then workers are likewise free to withdraw their labor for any or no reason. That means that, in the absence of a freely negotiated contract, workers are free to engage in secondary sympathy or boycott strikes. Teamsters and longshoremen are free to refuse to handle scab cargo. The Railway Labor Relations Act and Taft-Hartley are out the window.

The great CIO organizing strikes of the early '30s, remember, were won before the Wagner Act passed. They were won by non-government-certified unions, without any union-shop contract clause to help them. The union membership was created, in other words, by the very act of striking. Paid union membership in a plant might be just a few percent, until a flying squadron announced a walkout--at which the entire labor force joined by voting with its feet. I suggest it might actually be easier to organize disgruntled workers by such means, in hot blood, than to get them to jump in cold blood through all the hoops of the NLRB certification process.

And those early industrial union victories were won by strategic leadership planning strikes the way a general staff plans a military campaign. The successful strikes involved multiple echelons of defense, with strikes at every stage in the production process. In some cases, the support of transport workers turned them into regional general strikes. The whole body of labor legislation, with Taft-Hartley and the various transport labor relations acts at its heart, was created to outlaw just such a successful strategy. The object of corporate liberal legislation was to domesticate the labor revolution of the early '30s, and to place the rank-and-file under the firm supervision of union bureaucrats at the local plant level.

As Ian said, it was the employers who wanted to bring contract and predictability into the process. My guess is that, without Taft-Hartley and Wagner, they might well again be begging for the kind of stability that a union contract provides. As I recall, one of the reasons that Gerard Swope and like-minded employers favored industrial unionism in the '30s was precisely that they were so much easier to deal with than a whole gaggle of craft unions, any one of which could disrupt production unpredictably. In other words, the industrial union could potentially solve the same problem that earlier attempts at company unions were intended to solve. The leadership of an industrial union, if given the government-backed power to suppress wildcats and enforce contracts, was a handy tool for labor discipline.

I'll take it one step further. I suspect that labor relations are potentially a case of asymmetric warfare. That is, in a situation of labor war, the cost and risk to the workers of circumventing management surveillance and control will be a fraction of the cost to the employer of implementing it. It's a lot like the old offensive-defensive arms race in the days of ballistic missile defense, when offensive counter-measures were a lot cheaper than the defenses.

For example, if you think about it, you can probably think of a hundred ways to raise costs and reduce effiency on your job, with virtually no chance of getting caught. Many of them, like working to rule, are nothing more than glorified passive-aggression.

Another example: the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto argue that unauthorized communication between workers and customers is, contrary to the assumptions of clueless management, the best promotional tool a company can have. What they neglected to mention is that, when workers are disgruntled, telling customers the truth about the company is the best way to break it. In the absence of unions, the workers' only real bargaining leverage may be the customer's favorable image of the company. For the customer to see the worker as his ally and the company management as their common enemy is the bosses' worst nightmare. "Open mouth sabotage" is just another form of the "swarming" that so alarmed David Ronfeldt et al in their work on "netwar." In this age of networked activism, it's possible for disgruntled employees, through a campaign of emails, letters, phone calls, discussion board posts, and anonymous websites, to totally overwhelm their employers with negative publicity.

Lane Kirkland once suggested, only half-heartedly, that he was tempted to seek a repeal of all labor legislation since Norris-LaGuardia (which simply took federal militias and courts out of labor disputes). He speculated that, if labor and management were allowed fight it out with all the weapons at their disposal in a free market, labor would do better than under the present regime. I suspect he was right. After all, as the slogan goes, all we have to do is fold our arms, and we can bring their world to a stop.


Blogger Richard said...

A trade union is simply a merger amongst suppliers of labour. Libertarians generally support the right for companies to merge, so they ought to support trade unions too. Are they worried about monopoly prices for labour (one early conservative correpsondent to the Libertarian Alliance's Free Life voiced such a concern)? How can they be? We know from the stalwart work of Mises, Rothbard and Block, that mergers cannot lead to monopoly pricing.

Henry Hazlit suggested unions play a positive role in correcting market failures, and Gustave de Molinari praised the same Bourse du travail that anarcho-syndicalists hailed. More libertarians should take note of this.

December 30, 2005 12:36 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

Excellent post, Kevin.

I'm interested in your opinion on the status of the union in a more authentically libertarian society. It seems I often argue against the vulgar wingers' anti-union positions (when I can summon the patience; here's a taste of what I'm talking about). Most I find abhorrent or illogical, as there seems to be more of a cultural disdain than a principled rejection. More knee-jerk anti-leftism.

However, one of the points they invariably make is that unions are often violent. Scabs are harrassed, intimidated, and bullied. A major problem they have with unions is the stink they make with their picketing, chanting, and sometimes roudy behavior. The argument is that, through these violent and/or unruly means, striking unionists artificially cut replacement workers out of the labor market.

I'm wondering how you would respond to this thesis. Do you see these quite unsavory aspects of union politics as par for the course when dealing with labor in large organizations? Do you rather suspect this kind of behavior would not occur in a more fair environment?

I have no answer to those who object to unions because of the scenes they make, especially if those scenes involve intimidation, harrassment, and threats of violence against replacement workers. I'd like to think that people would not resort to such obnoxious measures if the environment were fairer, but I can think of no concrete way to demonstrate my position. You seem much more versed in the history of the union struggle (I'd appreciate any reading you could recommend).

December 30, 2005 12:51 PM  
Blogger Joel Schlosberg said...


Here's what Ben Tucker had to say about that very issue, which Kevin quoted in one of his posts earlier this month (the post links to the full article this is from, but the site seems to be down):

"Let Carnegie, Dana & Co. first see to it that every law in violation of equal liberty is removed from the statute-books. If, after that, any laborers shall interfere with the rights of their employers, or shall use force upon inoffensive "scabs," or shall attack their employers' watchmen, whether these be Pinkerton detectives, sheriff's deputies, or the State militia, I pledge myself that, as an Anarchist and in consequence of my Anarchistic faith, I will be among the first to volunteer as a member of a force to repress these disturbers of order and, if necessary, sweep them from the earth. But while these invasive laws remain, I must view every forcible conflict that arises as the consequence of an original violation of liberty on the part of the employing classes, and, if any sweeping is done, may the laborers hold the broom!"

December 30, 2005 6:00 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

...all we have to do is fold our arms, and we can bring their world to a stop.

During a work stoppage, don't the rich/capitalists have the advantage in terms of their ability to "wait it out"? First, they may have sources of income independent of the enterprize that has been shut down. Second, they also have their own labor-power to rely on, should others stop selling their labor. Third, they have immense assets, and can sell them off if necessary to put food on the table.

In the meantime, the workers can't feed their families and pay their rent.

The labor strike seems to be the most common tactic used by labor unions, yet it seems to be very difficult to pull off. Any guess as to why it is so prominent then?

December 31, 2005 8:09 AM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

Thanks, Joel. So it is your opinion that much of unruliness is not necessary, but a product of an unnatural system. Cool, I suspected as much.

December 31, 2005 3:14 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


That's an appalling discussion at Libertarian Underground. I'll probably be using it as blog fodder sometime soon. Especially bad was Paul Birch. I'm trying to figure out just how he thinks going on strike is a "breach of contract," any more than it's a breach of contract for your boss to fire you without cause. I guess because in one case it's a worker, and in the other it's a boss. Birch is one of those "libertarians" who's got his nose so far up the ass of the employer, landlord, etc., that he's just a glorified Republican.

His argument that labor has never been exploited "in a competitive industry" was an absolute howler. Well, one of these days maybe we'll find a competitive industry so we can test that hypothesis.

I'm pretty sure it was Birch who wrote an article on the possible use of eminent domain in an anarcho-capitalist society. If, say, the owner of a private road or airport thought he could make more productive use of a piece of property, he would just use it against the owner's wishes, and later effectively "buy" it by paying civil damages.

I also thought that complaint about people "having to" go on break was pretty bad. The reason people hate a coworker who cheerfully skips a break is not just that he "makes them look bad." It's that he undermines their hard-fought efforts to make regular breaks a non-negotiable part of the work day.

January 01, 2006 9:12 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

P.S., Jeremy,

Joel's Tucker quote is a good one. I don't consider violent strikes legitimate form of behavior under a genuinely free market society--but then, there'd be no need for them then. As for unruliness, I don't really think shouting insults at people crossing a picket line counts as "violence." After all, didn't Rothbard argue that slander and blackmail weren't violent, and couldn't be legitimately suppressed? But this is unkind speech by *workers*, so I guess that's different.


By "folding our arms," I meant to include the whole spectrum of tactics for deliberately reducing productivity on the job.

I agree that the traditional strike, by itself, is pretty ineffective. That's actually why it's the dominant form of labor action these days. The state and the AFL-CIO deliberately diverted labor action into that channel, and suppressed more effective methods.

January 01, 2006 9:19 AM  
Blogger Adam said...

On fake libertarians:

Many self-described "libertarians" are not concerned with "liberty", per se. They came to the libertarian movement (and self-description as libertarian) because they had developed a set of policy preferences, and then found that there was a group of people with similar policy preferences called "libertarians."

The difference between real libertarianism and fake libertarianism is the difference between a firmly grounded ideology, and a simple reaction against the excesses of the state in some aspects of life.

January 21, 2006 11:40 AM  

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