Posts Tagged ‘Labor’


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


How Labor is (Part of) the Problem in Building an American Left

October 11, 2010

Today I got to see Frances Fox Piven (distinguished professor of sociology and political science at CUNY; outgoing president of the American Sociological Association; author of this among many other things) give a talk with the above title and thesis. The argument was simple: organized labor in the United States is overly bureaucratized and institutionalized and run by extremely risk-averse leaders divorced from the rank and file. As a result, it has failed to adapt to the new realities of work presented by today’s globalized (and, in the U.S., deindustrialized) world.

Piven’s talk started with outlining three theorized sources of worker power: market power (ie when labor is scarce); political power (electoral influence); and strike power. Globalization, the argument goes, has eroded all three of these sources of power, although she also argued that the erosion of strike power has also been a product of unions shooting themselves in the foot. But, Piven says, the new global economy is a double-edged sword: it also presents brand-new possibilities for worker power, which the labor movement has completely failed to grasp.

The increasingly complex global chains of production, Piven claims, create opportunities for small pools of workers to exercise greatly magnified power over global capital. There are bottlenecks in the system where striking workers can shut down entire industries. But such actions would be extremely disruptive, and institutional labor would be unlikely to support them, and might even work to undermine them. Unions, she says, have become oligarchical, with leadership acting more out of self-preservation than the interests of the membership (much less the working class as a whole), and with damaging ties to the Democratic party as well as, in some cases, firms themselves.

Overall her argument seemed to be that unions have become too self-interested and parochial and what is really needed is a true working class consciousness. Her example was this: at a meeting between SEIU and COSATU (South Africa’s largest labor federations), the SEIU rep said, “We represent our members – that’s our job.” The COSATU rep replied, “We represent the working class. That’s ours.”

What troubles me is that both of the possible new pressure points that Piven highlighted – the above-noted bottlenecks in the global production chain, as well as the organizing potential of the huge new pool of place-based domestic service workers that cannot be outsourced – would seem to require pretty massive institutional support. It seems to me that workers striking to shut down a global production chain would be met with excessive and potentially lethal force, depending on where they were based. Such an action in the developing world would require a strong transnational movement to support them. And I would think that such an action in, say, the United States – a dock worker’s strike was her example – would still require some major institutional support. And how are domestic service and retail workers going to organize without union support? Perhaps I’m just having a major failure of imagination, but it seems that some pretty powerful institutional support is going to be needed if we are to overcome Wal-Mart’s anti-union strategies and actually organize those workers.

I posed this to Piven in the form of a slightly muddled question – if not from institutionalized unions, from where is the impetus for organizing going to come? – and I didn’t find her answer particularly convincing. She reiterated that such unions simply won’t support disruptive actions, and then basically stated that bottom-up movements from workers (both unionized and nonunion) are what’s really needed. She later used the immigrants’ rights rallies and the “Day Without Immigrants” of a few years ago as an example: the oppressed population organized themselves, spontaneously, without support from major institutions until the ball was already rolling.

I don’t know. That movement hasn’t really been sustained. How does the kind of sustained bottom-up movement needed for something as audacious as shutting down a global production chain happen without some kind of transnational labor movement or global class consciousness? Can you have a truly effective anti-systemic movement that arises without institutional support? Was the pre-9/11 anti-globalization movement an example, or does it fall apart under scrutiny given that it did enjoy support from some pretty institutionalized entities, despite its decentralized nature?

Piven emphasized that truly insurgent movements are largely unpredictable. They just happen when people get sufficiently pissed off about being oppressed, and simultaneously empowered because they’re talking to one another about it. So if these things are really so ad hoc and unpredictable, how does someone trying to organize for social change try to tap into these sources of discontent and resistance?


Here’s why we need unions

March 1, 2010

The Washington Hospital Center fired 16 staff members for failing to make it to work on days when D.C. was buried under three feet of snow, with the District and suburbs famously unable to clear roads and public transit for virtually an entire week. (How unreasonable is this? Read this story.)

This piece from the story really struck me:

“I see it as so unfair and uncaring,” said Shirley Ricks, a 57-year-old nurse who has spent her entire career at the hospital. “That’s it. You call in one day in the biggest snowstorm in history and you’re out. No ifs, ands or buts about it. . . . You go from getting a salary every two weeks to nothing. It’s scary.”


Ricks was scheduled to work Feb. 8, but looked at her unplowed street in Upper Marlboro the previous afternoon and knew she was likely to miss her shift. “My husband had gotten the driveway clear, but that was as far as we could go,” she said.

She said she called the hospital to explain her situation and reported to work Feb. 9, as soon as her street was passable. On Feb. 10, she spent the night at the hospital to ensure a second storm wouldn’t cause her to miss work the next day.

She spent the night at the hospital to make work the next day. But she missed a day, so she got fired. Luckily, these workers are unionized. A collective grievance has been filed, and frankly I’d be shocked if they weren’t reinstated. Had these been nonunion, at-will employees, though, they’d all be looking for jobs now.

Flying Whale


WTO failing to help the world’s poor, WTO says

October 19, 2009

This is near the top of my to-read list, along with the Stiglitz Commission report on the financial crisis: a joint ILO-WTO report titled “Globalization and Informal Jobs in Developing Countries” (warning: big PDF download). According to this In These Times story, and corroborated by my quick scan of the executive summary, the report concludes that globalization has not helped the bulk of the world’s poor. The research presented here focuses on the creation of informal job sectors in developing countries which are unregulated and contribute little to overall development.

One nice tidbit:

Finally, globalization has added new sources of external economic shocks. For instance, global production chains can transmit macroeconomic and trade shocks through several countries at lightning speed, as observed in the current economic crisis. Moreover, in such circumstances developing countries run the risk of entering a vicious circle of higher rates of informality and rising vulnerability. Countries with larger informal economies experience worse outcomes following adverse shocks. Indeed, estimates suggest that countries with above-average sized informal economies are more than three times as likely to incur the adverse effects of a crisis as those with lower rates of informality.

Addressing informal labor markets is one side of the solution, but I am not convinced that this sentence must be as true as it is today: “globalization has added new sources of external economic shocks.” The aforementioned Stiglitz Commission report discusses how WTO-driven deregulation of financial services has made individual economies more exposed to global shocks. Reverse that trend, give countries more options for protecting (oops, there’s that word) their financial markets, and perhaps economic instability would not be quite so wildfire-like, consuming every country in its path in rapid succession. As long as chains of production are global, economic instability will always be global as well, but it seems to me that we’ve made things much worse than necessary by depriving individual countries of many of the appropriate tools for dealing with or forestalling such instability.

I’m sure I’ll have more intelligent things to say after I’ve actually read both of these papers.

Flying Whale