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Is the labor movement anti-freedom?

January 20, 2011

Today’s entertainment was a panel discussion entitled “Employer Reaction to Union Organizing,” in which a professor of labor policy, a labor and industrial relations historian at the University of Minnesota’s business school (of all places), the regional NLRB director, and an attorney representing management interests in collective bargaining all talked about the future of the Wagner Act and U.S. unions in general. I’m afraid that I don’t have a coherent set of thoughts to present about this panel, in part because it wasn’t the most coherent panel ever – but it was still fascinating and there are some tidbits to share and ponder over.

The most interesting recurring theme, albeit one that was more of an undercurrent than an explicitly discussed idea, was that of collective good versus individual rights. In one of the few times this was made explicit, the NLRB regional director mentioned that infighting among Democrats and Republicans within NLRB often revolved around rhetorical/ideological conceptions of whether or not collective bargaining infringes unnecessarily on the rights of individual workers.

In State of the Union, Nelson Lichtenstein discusses how the rise an individual rights-based set of employment protections, which grew out of the civil rights movement, the second wave of feminism, and all the legislation from that time period dealing with discrimination, workplace safety and so on, has actually undermined the concept of collective action. By giving primacy to individual rights, the idea of collective action, in which a greater good takes precedence over individual freedom, can be painted as restrictive and frankly “un-American.” (Lichtenstein is careful to note that he is not denigrating all the achievements of these movements and pieces of legislation, but believes that it is important to note the trade-offs that were made, consciously or otherwise.)

I wondered whether it would behoove pro-labor folks to try to skirt this frame: instead of labor as a collective entity under which individual rights are subsumed, talking about it as a broad, inclusive social movement for the empowerment and betterment of the majority of people. The most interesting comment on this invoked the fact that labor and management alike were in favor of some form of collective bargaining in the Great Depression, when the problems of the U.S. economy were fundamentally seen as stemming from underconsumption. Giving workers higher wages and more buying power was seen as a solution to the problem of underconsumption, and a necessary precondition for the revival of the economy. Perhaps if labor today can be reframed as a movement aimed at increasing the buying power of the poor and the middle class and thus addressing growing inequality and many of our current economic woes, this might go some way towards fighting the perception of “big labor” as a parochial special interest (“unions are businesses,” the management attorney insisted) rather than a working people’s movement.

As I said, a somewhat incoherent set of thoughts and ideas, none of which are original, but something to chew on nonetheless. My background in labor history and philosophy is rather thin, and I’m very much enjoying putting in the effort to beef it up a little.

ADDENDUM: One neat thing I learned was that the local labor newspaper, the Minneapolis Labor Review, has a complete online archive of all of its issues since 1907 in searchable PDF form. Awesome!

Flying Whale

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One comment

  1. Flying Whale, in addition to the tension between collective action and individual rights, I’d love to see you tackle the tension between fighting for American workers versus the global working class.

    Ryan Avent (http://www.ryanavent.com/blog/?p=2361) writes:
    And I think that current neoliberals think of themselves as more honestly egalitarian than traditional leftists, based on their international view of developments in human welfare. The past few decades have witnessed an unprecedented reduction in global poverty thanks to liberal reforms in China and India. Countries containing twice the population of the currently developed world are now hurtling toward middle-income status, thanks to trade, thanks to deregulation, and thanks to the introduction of market reforms. The neoliberals I enjoy reading pride themselves on fighting for access to opportunity for the disadvantaged, through reduced barriers to trade with America, increased opportunities for immigration to America, and (in Matt’s case) reduced obstacles to living, working, and starting businesses in America’s most dynamic urban centers. The neoliberal platform strikes me as much easier to understand, from a progressive viewpoint, when considered at an international level. And the traditional labor left, to the extent that it has supported trade and immigration barriers, is in fact a defender of an unforgivably regressive balance of global income.

    Mike Konczal (http://rortybomb.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/neoliberals-jw-mason-on-trade-wage-share-of-labor/) follows by saying:
    But there is an argument that neoliberals have a claim on really being concerned about labor, because they care about labor on a global scale, that the nation-state where you happen to be born isn’t a suitable location to determine boundaries for justice.

    I think this idea–that the scope you’re considering matters–is pretty compelling. Thoughts?



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