Free The Unions (and all political prisoners)

Today is May Day, or International Worker’s Day: an international day for celebrating the achievements of workers and the struggle for organized labor.

You might have thought that the proper day was Labor Day, as traditionally celebrated on the first Monday in September. Not so; the federal holiday known as Labor Day is actually a Gilded Age bait-and-switch from 1894. It was crafted and promoted in an effort to throw a bone to labor while erasing the radicalism implicit in May Day (a holiday declared by workers, in honor of the campaign for the eight hour day and in memory of the Haymarket martyrs). As a low-calorie substitute for workers’ struggle to come into their own, we get a celebration of labor … so long as it rigidly adheres to the AFL-line orthodoxy of collective bargaining, appeasement, and power to the union bosses and government bureaucrats. That this holiday emerged and solidified at exactly the same historical moment as the unholy alliance of conservative (statist, nativist, racist, and misogynist) unionism with corporate barons and the Progressive regulation movement is no coincidence. That AFL-line unions continue to use Labor Day as a chance to co-opt the historic successes of radical, libertarian unions in campaigns such as the fight for the eight-hour day or the five-day week is no coincidence, either.

Too many of my comrades on the Left fall into the trap of taking the Labor Day version of history for granted: modern unions are trumpeted as the main channel for the voice of workers; the institutionalization of the system through the Wagner Act and the National Labor Relations Board in 1935, and the ensuing spike in union membership during the New Deal period, are regarded as one of the great triumphs for workers of the past century.

You may not be surprised to find out that I don’t find this picture of history entirely persuasive. The Wagner Act was the capstone of years of government promotion of conservative, AFL-line unions in order to subvert the organizing efforts of decentralized, uncompromising, radical unions such as the IWW and to avoid the previous year’s tumultuous general strikes in San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis. The labor movement as we know it today was created by government bureaucrats who effectively created a massive subsidy program for conservative unions which followed the AFL and CIO models of organizing—which emphatically did not include general strikes or demands for worker ownership of firms. Once the NRLB-recognized unions had swept over the workforce and co-opted most of the movement for organized labor, the second blow of the one-two punch fell: government benefits always mean government strings attached, and in this case it was the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which pulled the activities of the recognized unions firmly into the regulatory grip of the federal government. Both the internal culture of post-Wagner mainstream unions, and the external controls of the federal labor regulatory apparatus, have dramatically hamstrung the labor movement for the past half-century. Union methods are legally restricted to collective bargaining and limited strikes (which cannot legally be expanded to secondary strikes, and which can be, and have been, broken by arbitrary fiat of the President). Union hiring halls are banned. Union resources have been systematically sapped by banning closed shop contracts, and encouraging states to ban union shop contracts—thus forcing unions to represent free-riding employees who do not join them and do not contribute dues. Union demands are effectively constrained to modest (and easily revoked) improvements in wages and conditions. And, since modern unions can do so little to achieve their professed goals, and since their professed goals have been substantially lowered anyway, unionization of the workforce continues its decades-long slide.

May Day is a celebration of the original conception of the labor movement, as expressed by anarchist organizers such as Albert Parsons, Lucy Parsons, Benjamin Tucker, and others: a movement for workers to come into their own, by banding together, supporting one another, and taking direct action in the form of boycotts, work stoppages, general strikes, and the creation of workers’ spaces such as local co-operatives and union hiring halls. The spirit was best expressed by John Brill’s famous exhortation to Dump the bosses off your back—by which he did not mean to go to a government mediator and get them to make the boss sit down with you and work out a slightly more beneficial arrangement. Dump the bosses off your back! meant: organize and create local institutions that let you bypass the bosses. Negotiate with them if it’ll do some good; ignore them if it won’t. The signal achievements of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th century were achievements in this spirit: the campaigns that won the 8 hour day and the weekend off in many workplaces, for example, emerged from a unilateral work stoppage by rank-and-file workers, declared by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, and organized especially by the explicitly anarchist International Working People’s Association, after legislative efforts by the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor failed. The stagnant, or even backsliding, state of organized labor over the past half century is the direct result of government colonization and the ascendency of government-subsidized unions.

Don’t get me wrong: the modern labor movement, for all its flaws and limitations, is the reflection (no matter how distorted) of an honorable effort; it deserves our support and does some good. Union bosses, corporate bosses, and government bureaucrats may work to co-opt organized labor to their own ends, but rank-and-file workers have perfectly good reasons to support AFL-style union organizing: modern unions may not be accountable enough to rank-and-file workers, but they are more accountable than corporate bureaucracy; modern unions bosses don’t care enough about giving workers direct control in their own workplace, but they care more than corporate bosses, who make most of their living by denying workers such control. The labor movement, like all too many other honorable movements for social justice in the 20th century, has become a prisoner of politics: a political situation has been created in which the most rational thing for most workers to do is to muddle through with a co-opted and carefully regulated labor movement that helps them in some ways but undermines their long-term prospects. It doesn’t make sense to respond to a situation like that with blanket denunciations of organized labor; the best thing to do is to support our fellow workers within the labor movement as it is constrained today, but also to work to change the political situation that constrains it, and to set it free. That means loosening the ties that bind the union bosses to the corporate and government bureaucrats, by working to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act, and abolish the apparatus of the NLRB, and working to build free, vibrant, militant unions once again.

Dump the bosses off your back. Free the unions, and all political prisoners!

Update (2007-04-19): For a long time this post incorrectly attributed the song Dump the Bosses Off Your Back to Joe Hill, the legendary songwriter and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. Although it is very similar in style to Hill’s songs — it sets a radical message in simple language to the melody to a popular hymn — the song was actually written by John Brill, another Wobbly songwriter. The song first appeared in the Joe Hill Memorial (9th) edition of the IWW songbook, released in March 1916, four months after Joe Hill was hanged by the state of Utah. This error has been corrected in the post. —CJ


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  1. Discussed at

    Geekery Today:

    These old stories

    It’s all coming down to the last few days before The Election now; and in all the (understandable! sympathetic! important!) rush and clamor it’s important…

· December 2004 ·

  1. Mike


    As more of a free-market type than a leftist type who is curious about the idea of free-market socialism, I have to ask: what is so hot about unions. Put another way, are unions a force of good or are they a force of oppression and coersion?

    My opinion of unions was formed mostly through my limited exposure to them in Detroit. Through friends and family I learned about several unions.

    First there was the carpenter’s union. The carpenter’s union kept wages up by preventing peole from joining. Only members family, friends, and a select few others could join or apprentice. This doesn’t seem very liberal, free-market, or fair to the people who were prevented from being carpenters by the union in order to keep wages high.

    Then there was a friend of mine who was in the UAW. He was mostly harassed by other union members because they thought him too productive.

    My mother is in the teacher’s union. I saw the letters and knew of the threats of union violence to those who did not pickett or stop working at strikes or day long work stoppages. While I don’t think she ever crossed the picket line, she did find it more important to spend her time off and durring strikes with her family as opposed to union activism. Threats of violence against her and others seems vicious.

    Finally, there was the newspaper strike. There were out and out immoral activities on the part of strikers—most notably beating up minor paper boys with 2x4s and chains for delievering papers. Then there was the strategy of intimidating and harassing the general public—including supporters and non-supporters.

    To be honest, the whole strike mentality seemed a bit strange. A bunch of people no longer liked the working conditions. As a response the beat up anyone who couldn’t survive in striking conditions. They purposely left nails in parking lots of stores that carried their paper. They deliberately drove slower than normal durring rush hour to inconvenience the general public in order to intimidate them into siding with the union. And then after they left their jobs to protest working conditions, they expected their employer to keep the jobs open for them? It doesn’t make much sense to me.

    On a larger point, of say workers taking over a firm, I’m not totally convinced this is desirable. If the working policies of unions are coercive as demonstrated above, why would we trust these people to take over the position of boss anyway? Wouldn’t you just substitute one hierarchy for another. Furthermore, radical unionists seem the type of socialists that would agree with the principle “from each according to ability, to each according to needs”. I can’t see how a business, cooperative, or society based on those principles could work well. It reminds me of a bit out of “Atlas Shrugged” (not that I am a card-carying objectivist) where a factory was taken over by people who made the most able work incredibly hard and the most needy got all the resources. This lead to people hiding ability, and multiplying need. Not a very good result.

    • KLP


      It’s too bad that your comment hasn’t recieved a reply. I know it’s been eight years, but hopefully you’re still listening. If anything, hopefully someone will read mine.

      I totally get your disillusionment with unions given what you’ve experienced. But, these unions fall under the AFL, which the article disparages. I encourage you to look at worker-cooperatives. Worker-cooperatives, worker owned and democratically managed businesses, really do work and not in the way that Rand seems to suggest (I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged. Rather, I am just just going by what you said).


— 2008 —

  1. Discussed at

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-03-06 – On crutches and crowbars: toward a labor radical case against the minimum wage:

    […] Or for that matter, consider phony pro-labor legislation like the Wagner Act, the primary function of which is actually to capture unions with government patronage and bring them under greater government regulation. […]

  2. Discussed at

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-05-01 – May Day 2008:

    […] Meanwhile, in the news, some useless idiot is wandering around Washington proclaiming Law Day, accosting hundreds of millions of complete strangers to tell them to put on ceremonies in praise of his own power to do the beating, jailing, deporting, etc. In Istanbul, organized workers marched to Taksim Square in defiance of the Turkish government, which has declared their free assembly illegal, and which has deployed government riot cops to attack them with firehoses and tear gas. In Harare, organized workers are holding rallies today to call attention to the devastating effect of the government’s hyperinflationary money monopoly on workers’ wages—and an apparatchik of the Zimbabwean government—one of the most violently anti-worker governments in the world—is taking the opportunity to wear a concerned expression and assure that Government would at all times endeavour to make sure that workplaces were monitored through inspections to minimize hazards that might injure or kill them. (No word yet on whether the hazards the inspectors will be inspecting for include the Zimbabwe Republic Police or the Central Intelligence Organization.) We must never forget what this band of creeps and fools is doing their best to remind us of — that the State is the most deadly weapon of our enemies, and that it is a weapon that we will never be able to wield for ourselves without chaining ourselves to politics and destroying the very things we meant to fight for. […]

  3. Discussed at

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-05-23 – King Ludd’s throne:

    […] in American heavy industry today is the direct result of a series of political decisions and a system of government economic regimentation that allowed that business model and that organizing model to shove alternatives out of the way. […]

  4. Discussed at

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-05-27 – Even better than I thought: victory for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers against the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, too:

    […] of the once-vibrant United Farm Workers, by pulling California farmworkers’ unions into the smothering embrace of bureaucratic patronage, which had strangled the dynamism of the rest of th… — thus capturing a once revolutionary movement and converting it into just another arm of the […]

  5. Discussed at

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-11-25 – In reply to a reply by J.H. Huebert and Walter Block:

    […] for mentioning Huebert and Block’s essay here is that it contains a link to my old post Free the Unions (and all political prisoners)! (2004-05-01), and four paragraphs which purport to be a reply to my argument, and the claims Roderick makes on […]

— 2009 —

  1. Discussed at

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-01-29 – Welcome, Antiwarriors:

    […] GT 2004-05-01: Free the Unions (and all political prisoners)! […]

  2. Discussed at

    Cato Unbound » Blog Archive » Corporations versus the Market; or, Whip Conflation Now:

    […] 9 For some of the ways in which purportedly pro-labor legislation turns out to be anti-labor I practice, see Johnson, Charles, “Free the Unions (and All Political Prisoners),” 1 May 2004 (online: […]

  3. Discussed at

    Cato Unbound » Blog Archive » Free Market Firms: Smaller, Flatter, and More Crowded:

    […] had answered this question, I thought, by linking to a discussion by Charles Johnson. In fact Huebert and Block duly clicked on the link; but evidently they read Johnson’s piece with […]

  4. Discussed at

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-10-07 – Welcome, FreeTalkers:

    […] GT 2004-05-01: Free the Unions (and all political prisoners)! […]

  5. Discussed at

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-10-13 – On Big Charity:

    […] Big Medicine (2, 3, 4), or Big Research, or Big Education (2, 3, 4), or Big Charity ( 2, 3), or Big Labor (2, 3, […]

— 2012 —

  1. Discussed at

    Roderick Long | Corporations versus the Market; or, Whip Conflation Now | The Murph Report:

    […] 9 For some of the ways in which purportedly pro-labor legislation turns out to be anti-labor I practice, see Johnson, Charles, “Free the Unions (and All Political Prisoners),” 1 May 2004 (online: […]

  2. Discussed at

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2012-10-19 – Coalition of Immokalee Workers victory in Denver; struggle in Miami:

    […] also — although you won’t hear this as much — a major victory for government-free, syndicalist labor organizing. The CIW is not a bureaucratic government-recognized union; as a form of organizing it’s far […]

  3. Discussed at

    The Bold and the Desirable: A Prophecy and a Proposal | Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

    […] community free clinics and mutual aid medical coverage are examples of voluntary exchange; so are wildcat, voluntary labor unions. So are consensual communes, narrower or broader experiments with gift economies, and other […]

  4. Discussed at

    The Bold and the Desirable: A Prophecy and a Proposal | Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

    […] community free clinics and mutual aid medical coverage are examples of voluntary exchange; so are wildcat, voluntary labor unions. So are consensual communes, narrower or broader experiments with gift economies, and other […]

  5. Discussed at

    ALL-oNE Returns to Boston: The 2012 Boston Anarchist Bookfair! | ALL-oNE:

    […] in the end I fully support the freeing of the unions and hope that more things like the IWW can exist in a much more decentralized and informal […]

  6. Discussed at

    On crutches and crowbars: toward a labor radical case against the minimum wage | The Libertarian Alliance: BLOG:

    […] Or for that matter, consider phony pro-labor legislation like the Wagner Act, the primary function of which is actually to capture unions with government patronage and bring them under greater government regulation. […]

— 2013 —

  1. Discussed at

    Liberty 06/19/2013 (p.m.) | Liberty in the Breach:

    […] the labor move­ment to take a more se­ri­ous and sym­pa­thet­ic look at one an­oth­er. (Cf. GT 2004-05-01: Free the Unions (and all po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers!), GT 2005-03-23: El pueblo unido jamás será ven­ci­do! and GT 2005-03-31: Anar­quis­tas por La […]

— 2014 —

  1. Discussed at

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2014-01-28 – Welcome, Reasoners:

    […] On free-market unionism, in general, Free the Unions (and all political prisoners)! (1 May 2004) […]

— 2015 —

  1. Discussed at

    As corporações contra o mercado | Roderick Long:

    […] em favor dos trabalhadores acaba sendo contrária aos seus interesses, ver Johnson, Charles, “Free the Unions (and All Political Prisoners)”, 1 de maio de […]

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