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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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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Organized Capital vs. Organized Labor

Sheldon Richman has an excellent article up at FEE on the Employee Free Choice Act: "Labor's Right to a Free Market."

The article makes it pretty clear, for any of the usual suspects tempted to pigeonhole this as a "statist unions vs. libertarian employers" morality play, that there is no libertarian dog in this fight. Note well: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers don't want to repeal the federal role in certifying unions under Wagner. Oh, No! After all, that would mean doing away with Taft-Hartley as well, with its prohibitions on sympathy and boycott strikes. No, what organized capital wants is a continuation of the federal role in certifying unions--but according to the bosses' rules. As the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace (a U.S. C of C/NAM front) says in its propaganda, they're "fighting to protect the right to a federally supervised private ballot."

My preference is to get rid of Wagner, and Taft-Hartley, and the right-to-work laws, and the railway and other transport worker labor relations acts, all at once. But as I've said before, if we're simply choosing between forms of statism, I prefer the form of statism that is least onerous to me. If my only choices are between getting a jackboot in my face under the neoliberal version of statism favored by Reagan and Thatcher, and getting smothered with paternalism in the brave new world of social democracy, I'll take the latter any day. Old-style corporate liberalism and new-style neoliberalism represent two wings of organized capital. The corporate liberals are like a kindly farmer who thinks he can get more work out of his livestock in the long run by taking good care of them. The neoliberals, on the other hand, are like a farmer who thinks he'll come out ahead by working his livestock to death and then replacing them. If I'm going to be livestock, I know which farmer I'd prefer to live under.

So if the forces of organized capital are simply arguing about what form federal certification of unions will take, how the federally supervised votes will be counted, it seems to me only logical to use the method whose practical effects are most genuinely representative. And politicians and industry lobbyists who claim, with a straight face, that their main objective in maintaining the Wagner regime in its present form against the EFCA is to protect workers from intimidation, are off the high end of the dial on my disingenuousness meter. I have no doubt that pro-union intimidation takes place in certification votes, and on a significant scale. But it's a man-bites-dog story when intimidation doesn't take place on the employers' side. Firing organizers, and otherwise using organized, mass intimidation as a deliberate tactic, is the main weapon in the union-busters' arsenal, widely promoted by an entire industry of corporate "labor consultants."

In my own first-hand experience, I've heard an awful lot of worker grousing in an awful lot of workplaces, in response to stagnant wages, downsizing, and speedups. And I've heard countless people express the idle wish for a union, coupled with a furtive glance and a warning that openly talking about such things is the fastest way to get fired and blacklisted. In all that time, I've never once heard anyone expressing fear of the "union bosses"--but I've sure as hell heard plenty in terror of the regular kind.

Make no mistake: the forces of organized capital want to keep federal certification of unions, but with the old system of balloting, because it makes it easier to intimidate workers. If they say otherwise, they're liars. According to David M. Gordon, in Fat and Mean, "frustrated union members" (i.e., those who would join a union if they could) around 30% percent of the U.S. labor force; perhaps not coincidentally, this is not only the percentage of U.S. workers who belonged to unions in their heyday, but the percentage who belong to Canada, which operates on something similar to the card check system.

So, employers, when you're ready to eliminate statism from labor relations altogether, come back and we'll talk. But so long as you're simply proposing a form of statism that's rigged in your interest and against mine, I think I'll take my statism the other way around, thank you.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think people getting too stresses out about their jobs and everything around them. Your job should be, in fact, the place were you go to relax and just take it easy for a few hours, pursuing your own creative endeavours. Just follow the fine example set by these pioneers.

May 01, 2007 11:05 AM  
Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

Thanks for the link, Kevin. I too was struck by the language of the employers' anti-EFCA coalition. Telling, indeed.

May 01, 2007 12:24 PM  
Blogger Graeme said...

I went to the "coalition for a democratic workplace" website the spin almost made me throw up on my keyboard.

May 06, 2007 9:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Empowerment,its the word every employer give to his employees.I'm not a believer of unions,until employees and employers are mutually understand each other there is no need for unions.They should settle their disputes within the four wall.
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May 12, 2007 8:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think cartel theory from economics helps explain why big business which opposed federal union registration in the 1930s supports it now.

If I remember correctly, mainstream economic theory sees cartels as essentially profitable for their members in the short run. They usually form where there is relative short term inelasticity of supply. In plain speak, in sectors where it is difficult to find alternative sources of supply in the short run. So the cartel yanks up it's prices but overtime is undermined from within and without. From within by members cheating on the deal (in effect supplying more than their agreed quota) i.e. "chiseling". And from without by the rise of alterntive sources of supply.

Insofar as unions are cartels their benefits to members may indeed be short run. Milton Friedman once described unions as specialist businesses, suppliers of the skill at cartelising labor markets. If we take that as a given, the provision of federal registration in effect is a government guaranteed monopoly. New cartels are thus prohibited from being formed in the niche carved out and protected by the old cartel.

But even federal registration cannot stop the corrosive impact on cartels of the internal and external forces breaking them down. The survival of the cartel organisation itself may indeed be irrelevant. Worker members can still "chisel" on union wage-rates etc by providing more or better quality labor than their peers. Employers will naturally tend to reward or retain these workers versus less productive workers. At the same time in the marketplace substitutes develop. This could be automation but it can just as easily be market responses. For example in the global shipping market the more highly paid unionised merchant sailors are mainly employed on fast ships and faster routes, more lowly paid non-union sailors are concentrated on the slower boats.

In a sense federally registered unions are living off the emotional capital of their early days and in terms of delivering workers wages above the non-union rates have probably run out of puff.

June 11, 2007 11:51 PM  

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