Posts tagged Taft-Hartley Act

Coalition of Immokalee Workers marches in Miami

Fellow workers:

Right now, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are marching in the streets of Miami, as part of their campaign to win wage increases for tomato pickers whose tomatoes are bought by Burger King. Here’s why.

Today, farmworkers from Immokalee, Florida and their religious, labor, and student allies are marching 9 miles through the streets of Miami to the world headquarters of Burger King.

Today we march because there is a human rights crisis in the fields of Florida. Tomato pickers who harvest tomatoes for the fast-food industry face sweatshop conditions every day, including sub-poverty, stagnant wages (pickers earn about $10,000/year on average and a per-bucket piece rate that has not changed significantly since 1978) and the denial of basic labor rights.

Today we march because to earn minimum wage for a 10-hour day, a tomato picker in Florida must harvest over TWO AND A HALF TONS of tomatoes.

Today we are marching because, in the most extreme cases, farmworkers face conditions of modern-day slavery. We have seen five slavery operations in the fields brought to the federal courts since 1997, helping to liberate over 1,000 workers and sending 10 employers to prison.

Today we march because Burger King contributes directly to farmworkers’ poverty through its high-volume purchasing practices, for decades demanding the cheapest tomatoes possible but never demanding fair treatment or just wages for the people who harvest those tomatoes.

Today we are marching because we have hope. In the past years farmworkers and consumers have united to bring Yum Brands (the world’s largest restaurant corporation) and McDonald’s to the table to help improve tomato pickers’ wages and working conditions.

Today we march because, in the wake of these changes, we stand on the threshold of a more modern, more humane agricultural industry in Florida. Yet, facing this historic opportunity, Burger King has responded with lies and excuses to not take responsibility.

Today we are marching to say ENOUGH.

Today we are marching for the dignity of workers, consumers, and our communities alike.

JOIN US as we demand justice. Rally at Burger King headquarters this afternoon, 3:30 to 6:00, at Blue Lagoon Drive and NW 57 Ave.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers (2007-11-30): Why We March

Migrant farmworkers in southern Florida spend every workday picking tomatoes by hand for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch, at a piece rate of $0.40–$0.45 for every 32 pound bucket that they fill (or about 1¼ to 1½ pennies per pound of tomatoes picked). Since that piece rate hasn’t changed since 1978, farmworker’s real wages have actually fallen by more than two thirds over the past three decades, thanks to the combination of the farm bosses’ efforts to stonewall wage increases and the Federal Reserve’s efforts to keep the market safe for finance capital by eating up the value of other people’s wages.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworkers’ union founded in 1993 and organized along community workers’ council lines, has been working to change all that. They are mostly immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean; many of them have no legal immigration papers; they are pretty near all mestizo, Indian, or Black; they have to speak at least four different languages amongst themselves; they are often heavily in debt to coyotes or labor sharks for the cost of their travel to the U.S.; they get no benefits and no overtime; they have no fixed place of employment and get work from day to day only at the pleasure of the growers; they work at many different sites spread out anywhere from 10–100 miles from their homes; they often have to move to follow work over the course of the year; and they are extremely poor (most tomato pickers live on about $7,500–$10,000 per year, and spend months with little or no work when the harvesting season ends). But in the face of all that, and across lines of race, culture, nationality, and language, the C.I.W. have organized themselves anyway, through efforts that are nothing short of heroic, and they have done it as a wildcat union with no recognition from the federal labor bureaucracy and little outside help from the organized labor establishment. By using creative nonviolent tactics that would be completely illegal if they were subject to the bureaucratic discipline of the Taft-Hartley Act, the C.I.W. has won major victories on wages and conditions over the past two years. They have bypassed the approved channels of collective bargaining between select union reps and the boss, and gone up the supply chain to pressure the tomato buyers, because they realized that they can exercise a lot more leverage against highly visible corporations with brands to protect than they can in dealing with a cartel of government-subsidized vegetable growers that most people outside of southern Florida wouldn’t know from Adam.

The C.I.W.’s creative use of moral suasion and secondary boycott tactics have already won them agreements with Taco Bell (in 2005) and then McDonald’s (this past spring), which almost doubled the effective piece rate for tomatoes picked for these restaurants. They established a system for pass-through payments, under which participating restaurants agreed to pay a bonus of an additional penny per pound of tomatoes bought, which an independent accountant distributed to the pickers at the farm that the restaurant bought from. Each individual agreement makes a significant but relatively small increase in the worker’s effective wages — about $100 more per worker per year in the case of the Taco Bell agreement — but each victory won means a concrete increase in wages, and an easier road to getting the pass-through system adopted industry-wide, which would in the end nearly double tomato-pickers’ annual income.

Since the victory in the McDonald’s campaign, the C.I.W. have turned their attention from the Clown to the Crown, and Burger King Inc. has mostly followed the same path as Yum! Brands and McDonald’s did. First they ignored them. Then they stonewalled them. Then they tried to make up some excuses, and had a P.R. flack make an ill-considered little funny about how distressed farmworkers should apply for a job at their stores. (If I recall correctly, that same exact joke was recycled from Taco Bell.) Unfortunately, before moving on to the inevitable last step — in which they cave, the C.I.W. wins, the farm workers get a bonus, and the fast food chain gets to issue a press release patting themselves on the back for their humanitarian buying standards — Burger King has decided to make a detour through some dirty anti-labor joint maneuvers with the Florida tomato growers’ cartel.

The Florida Tomato Growers’ Exchange is a cartel and legislative lobby which represents more than 90% of Florida’s tomato growers. It has recently set out to destroy the pass-through system. Since the bonuses are paid by the buyers, the system costs the farm bosses nothing to implement, and I’m not entirely clear what their interest is here (although, if I had to guess, they are probably worried that widespread success for the system would raise workers’ expectations about pay and conditions). Burger King and the cartel recently teamed up on a joint P.R. campaign intended to convince the eating public that farm workers are actually richer than most minimum-wage workers, and besides which the farm bosses pay for charity houses and scholarships for their poor kids. (The basis for their argument is a comparison of estimated hourly wages. Of course, the reliability of those hours, or the total annual income, is never mentioned.)

Meanwhile, the F.T.G.E. and Burger King have endorsed the cartel’s yellow-dog auditing agency, S.A.F.E. Reps from Burger King and the tomato cartel have also teamed up with a Republican state congressman to discredit the C.I.W., by claiming that the set-up looks fishy, denouncing nonviolent protest and consumer boycotts as extortion, and then insinuating that the pass-through system is little more than a channel for graft, and that C.I.W. is pocketing a skim. Since they have no empirical evidence for this claim, they have relied on innuendo and unsubstantiated soundbites, and they have refused to give any backing for their claims, while steadfastly ignoring the offers of participating restaurants, who dismiss the claim, to explain how the system works.

Meanwhile, Reggie Brown, the tomato cartel’s professional spokesdick, has invoked the spectre of federal prosecution, claiming that the C.I.W.’s voluntary pass-through system somehow violates federal antitrust and racketeering laws. Brown has also denounced the freely bargained agreements as un-American, apparently because they organized bosses’ divine right to control the terms of wage negotiations with no input from workers organizations or, for that matter, their customers. The cartel has publicly warned its members not to participate, and, behind the scenes, they have apparently threatened any member who participates in the penny-per-pound pass-through system with a $100,000 fine. As a result, while Taco Bell and McDonald’s are still willing to participate in the bonus system, all of the growers have, as of now, announced that they will not participate next year.

Well, fine. If they want to play hardball, let them play hardball. Workers are more than capable of hitting that hardball right back. The main danger, at this point, is that, with spokesdick Brown’s muttered fulminations about federal prosecution and the bosses’ enlistment of state government creeps on their side, this fight may get kicked from creative, nonviolent industrial action, over into the stifling atmosphere of legal and regulatory action. As long as the C.I.W., and the workers and consumers acting in solidarity with them, keep away from political action, we have all the resources we need to beat them. The Taco Bell boycott was won, after years of stonewalling, through fight-to-win tactics like working with sympathetic students to get Taco Bell franchises booted out of campus dining halls. This fight can be won through more of the same, and better. Never forget that the workers are more powerful with their hands in their pockets than all the weapons and property that the plutocrats have to attack us. As Robin Blumner writes in the St. Petersburg Times:

The coalition initially tried to convince the growers to pay the added penny but they wouldn’t budge, so the group sought to enlist fast-food giants instead. Go to the major buyers who have reputations to uphold and have them pay the penny. It was a brilliant stroke.

Consumers tend to respond well to a company they think is socially responsible, and the converse is true.

… According to [C.I.W. rep Julia] Perkins, there are growers willing to help their workers secure this additional wage but the exchange is standing in the way.

Both Yum Brands and McDonald’s say they are committed to their agreement with the coalition. It appears that for now, however, things are on hold until the coalition and these companies can figure out a way around the intransigence of the exchange.

This is how it often is in labor fights: Employers dig in so hard that even an extra penny – one that they’re not even paying – is too much to ask. No wonder they can’t find Americans to do this work.

In the meantime, the coalition is trying to convince Burger King Corp. to come aboard, and is planning a demonstration at its headquarters in Miami on Friday. Keva Silversmith, a Burger King representative, says that the Florida growers have a right to run their business how they see fit.

I guess expending the $250,000 it would cost Burger King is simply too much for a company that is paying its CEO $2.35-million a year.

Okay consumers, sic ’em.

— Robin Blumner, St. Petersburg Times (2007-11-25): At a penny per pound, a little adds up to a lot

Further reading:

Bayonet-point capitalism

(Story via to the barricades 2006-12-19.)

Here is the latest from the bowels of the military-industrial complex: the United States Army is now threatening to invoke Taft-Hartley to intervene on behalf of Goodyear management against striking steelworkers. That is to say, if the Army can’t reliably get the parts for its war machines on the free market, there’s always industrial conscription to smooth out labor relations for its suppliers.

The US Army is considering measures to force striking workers back to their jobs at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant in Kansas in the face of a looming shortage of tyres for Humvee trucks and other military equipment used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A strike involving 17,000 members of the United Steelworkers union has crippled 16 Goodyear plants in the US and Canada since October 5.

The main issues in dispute are the company’s plans to close a unionised plant in Texas, and a proposal for workers to shoulder future increases in healthcare costs.

An army spokeswoman said on Friday that there’s not a shortage right now but there possibly will be one in the future.

According to Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House of Representatives armed services committee, the strike has cut output of Humvee tyres by about 35 per cent.

According to Mr Hunter, the army is exploring a possible injunction under the Taft-Hartley Act to force the 200 Kansas workers back to their jobs.

He proposed that they return under their current terms of employment, on the understanding that any settlement would be extended to them.

— Bernard Simon (2006-12-15), Financial Times: US Army might break Goodyear strike

As long as the bayonets stay sheathed, nearly 16,000 USW workers will remain on strike. In solidarity, you might consider making a contribution to the USW strike fund to help support striking workers while they stand up to the bosses and try to make it through a holiday without paychecks.

Nearly 16,000 Goodyear employees are facing the holidays without paychecks. These United Steelworkers (USW) members are sacrificing for all of us, fighting the fight for good jobs. Being without a paycheck any time is painful—but right before the holidays, it’s especially hard. Every penny of your contribution will go to striking Goodyear workers and their families.

Please help. Please take a moment now to make a generous donation to support the striking Goodyear workers and warm up their holidays. They deserve to know we care and we honor their fight to hold employers accountable to their workers and communities.

— Working Families: Support Goodyear Workers

Écrasez l’Wal-Mart

As a nice set piece to my May Day paean to wildcat unionism–that is, workers organizing themselves on the free market, without the suffocating patronage of the government, Ampersand passes along a nice reminder that modern corporate capitalists–the Behemoth from Bentonville chief among them–are not creatures of the free market; they are Frankenstein creations of government privilege for the bosses. Jonathan Tasini at TomPaine.com (2005-04-21) is mired in a host of confusions about free market economics, but he is precisely, and importantly, right to remind us that Truth is, Wal-Mart could not survive in a real free market. Remember that we are talking about a company that routinely robs the land that it needs for its gigantic stores by Mau-Mauing local governments into using eminent domain powers and handing out tax-funded subsidies. Remember that Wal-Mart’s business model for the past decade has been directly dependent on the repression of workers’ wages by the government of Communist China.

Putting aside the morality of forcing people to work in slave-like conditions, the so-called free market does not exist in China when it comes to wages. China artificially suppresses wages by anywhere from 47 to 85 percent below what they should be, according to the AFL-CIO’s complaint about China’s labor policies filed with the United States Trade Representative last year. With Wal-Mart as its willing customer, an authoritarian regime ruthlessly warps the market for wages by enforcing a system that controls where people can work and imprisons and tortures people who attempt to organize real unions or strike. Maybe the rock-bottom labor costs are really behind Wal-Mart’s slogan always low prices, but the company is certainly not an example of how to win in a free market economy.

It’s easy to see why Wal-Mart and its conservative defenders discard ideology: money. By ignoring free market principles, the left-wing Harvard Business School estimates that Wal-Mart reduces its procurement costs by 10-20 percent, primarily by taking advantage of the artificially suppressed labor market in China.

Back at home, Wal-Mart’s free market mantra stops at the water’s edge of the public till. By one estimate, Wal-Mart has pulled in $1.5 billion dollars in taxpayer funded subsidies (see www.walmartwatch.com). And that’s at the low end, because subsidies are sometimes hard to track based on the lack of public reporting requirements. Wal-Mart is happy to cash in on government largess like property tax abatements, infrastructure support, free land and just straight-out cold cash–all of which are the antithesis of free market ideology.

Free software advocates sometimes like to point out that there are a couple of meanings of the word free; there’s free as in free speech and free as in free lunch. The thing about Right-wing blowhards is that they routinely support pro-business giveaways, whether in the form of subsidies to Wal-Mart, endless coercive monopolies for pharmaceutical companies, or government-enforced union busting (see: right-to-work laws; see also: Taft-Hartley). When they start pontificating on the virtues of the free market they never mean it–unless by free market means a market that’s free as in free lunch, i.e. a government-guaranteed market for big consolidated businesses that they don’t have to work for or earn.

That’s the real reason to oppose Wal-Mart: not because they supposedly represent the worst of the free market (it isn’t a creature of the free market at all), and certainly not because of some cracked anti-consumerist claptrap. The problem with Wal-Mart is that they steal your money and use it to keep their business running whether you want to shop there or not. But it’s for precisely this reason that I think the best way to take the fight to Wal-Mart is not to dismiss the free market or to try to block Wal-Mart through local zoning controls. Wal-Mart is what it is today because it’s better at manipulating the State than you are, and there is no reason to think that that’s likely to change substantially as long as they remain what they are. (Trying to turn Leviathan against Behemoth has always been a sucker’s bet.) If Wal-Mart couldn’t survive in a free market, then the best way to fix what’s wrong with them is to make them compete on a free market–a real free market, not the corporatist sham market of today–a market where workers organize in freely-constituted unions that aren’t subject to the constraints of government colonization, where competitors can enter the market without having to buy off town and county governments and homeowners aren’t forced to sacrifice their own homes on the altar of Commerce. The system of state patronage is the problem; freedom, as usual, is the solution.

El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!

Victory to the Farm-Workers!

It’s been a good two weeks since I meant to put up a post on some great labor news–the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ have won the Taco Bell boycott after four years of ground-breaking organizing and agitating for and by the migrant farmworkers of southern Florida in the Taco Bell Boycott and Boot the Bell! campaigns. You can read more about it from the CIW themselves.

March 8, 2005 (IMMOKALEE/LOUISVILLE) – In a precedent-setting move, fast-food industry leader Taco Bell Corp., a division of Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM), has agreed to work with the Florida-based farm worker organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), to address the wages and working conditions of farmworkers in the Florida tomato industry.

Taco Bell announced today that it will fund a penny per pound pass-through with its suppliers of Florida tomatoes, and will undertake joint efforts with the CIW on several fronts to improve working conditions in Florida’s tomato fields. For its part, the CIW has agreed to end its three-year boycott of Taco Bell, saying that the agreement sets a new standard of social responsibility for the fast-food industry.

Taco Bell has recently secured an agreement with several of its tomato-grower suppliers, who employ the farmworkers, to pass-through the company-funded equivalent of one-cent per pound directly to the workers.

With this agreement, we will be the first in our industry to directly help improve farmworkers’ wages, added Brolick, And we pledge to make this commitment real by buying only from Florida growers who pass this penny per pound payment entirely on to the farmworkers, and by working jointly with the CIW and our suppliers to monitor the pass-through for compliance. We hope others in the restaurant industry and supermarket retail trade will follow our leadership. Yum! Brands and Taco Bell will also work with the CIW to help ensure that Florida tomato pickers enjoy working terms and conditions similar to those that workers in other industries enjoy.

The Company indicated that it believes other restaurant chains and supermarkets, along with the Florida Tomato Committee, should join in seeking legislative reform, because human rights are universal and we hope others will follow our company’s lead.

— CIW / Taco Bell Press Release 2005-03-08: Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Taco Bell reach groundbreaking agreement

The penny-per-pound increase means a cost increase of only $100,000 / year for Taco Bell. Here’s what it means for migrant farmworkers:

As part of the agreement announced Tuesday, Taco Bell will pay an extra penny paid per pound — about $100,000 annually — that will be funneled to about 1,000 farm workers through a small group of suppliers, Yum! spokesman Jonathan Blum said. Taco Bell buys about 10 million pounds of Florida tomatoes a year, Blum said.

Lucas [Benitez], co-director of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said farm workers earn about $7,500 a year, without health insurance or paid vacations. The extra penny added per pound picked will almost double the yearly salaries of the roughly 1,000 farm workers employed by Taco Bell suppliers, [Benitez] said.

— Miami Herald 2005-03-09: Taco Bell agrees to pay extra pennies for tomatoes

Update 2005-03-24: As has been pointed out to me, the numbers here need a bit of explication. The best I can make of it is this: there was a misstatement somewhere along the line–either by Benitez, or by the translator, or by the reporter when summarizing what he said. Yes, about $100,000 per year over about 1,000 workers means about $100 each per worker per year. But the piece rate for tomato-picking in Southern Florida ranges between 40 and 50 cents for a 32 pound bucket–about 1.5 to 1.25 cents per pound picked. So the Taco Bell program will almost double the effective piece rate for the portion tomatoes that the workers pick that goes to Taco Bell. Since the tomatoes they pick go to places besides Taco Bell, the piece rates they get for the portion of the tomatoes bought by Taco Bell was about $125–$150 per worker per year; now it will be about $225–$250 per worker per year. If all the tomato buyers instituted a program like Taco Bell’s, then that would mean a near-doubling in total annual salary, all other things being equal. As a labor victory that’s a lot less exhilerating than a doubling of their annual salary; but $100 more means a lot when you’re only making $7500 a year, and it sets a precedent for future campaigns.

Which the CIW is planning as we speak.

So, feel free to eat at Taco Bell again. In fact, I’ll be going out for dinner at Taco Bell tonight to thank them now that they have given in to farm workers’ demands, and I’ll be contacting them to be sure that they know why I’m buying food from them again.

This is a major victory for the CIW and for farmworkers as a whole. There’s a lot that organized labor can learn from it: how CIW won while overcoming barriers of language and nationality, assembling a remarkable coalition in solidarity (from students to fellow farmworkers to religious organizations and onward), drawing on the dispersed talents of agitators and activists in communities all across the country, and making some brilliant hard-nosed strategic decisions (e.g., the decision a couple of years ago to begin the Boot the Bell campaign–which hit Taco Bell where it hurts by denying it extremely lucrative contracts with college and University food services). I only know a bit of the story from following the boycott, and I already know that it’s a pretty remarkable story to tell. I look forward to hearing more.

It’s 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 closer to an autonomous workers’ syndicate or a local soviet (in the old sense of a democratic, community-based workers’ council, not in the sense of the hollow state apparatus that the Bolsheviks left after the party committees seized power at bayonet-point). Of course, not having the smothering comfort of the US labor bureaucracy to prop them up has often made things harder on the CIW; but it’s also made them freer, and left them free of the restraints on serious and innovative labor activism that have held the government-authorized union movement back for the past 60 years. (Example: the strategic decision to target Taco Bell in the first place–that is, the whole damned campaign that allowed the Immokalee workers to win such a huge improvement in their standard of living–was a secondary boycott, and so would have been illegal under the terms of the Taft-Hartley Act and the Landrum-Griffin Act. But since the CIW doesn’t need a permission slip from the NLRB to engage in direct action, they won the day–not in spite of, but because of their freedom from government restraints on labor organizing.

Unfortunately, some of my libertarian comrades haven’t been quite so willing to celebrate. In fact, I first heard about the victory from Daniel D’Amico’s post lamenting the development. D’Amico wrote a misguided attack on the campaign before and so did Art Carden. The problem is that the arguments given in these articles seem to proceed from a double confusion: first, a confusion about the nature of CIW; and second, a confusion about economics and the nature of market processes.

Both Carden and D’Amico seem to make the initial mistake of thinking about the CIW campaign entirely by analogy to either (a) the student anti-sweatshop movement or (b) government-authorized trade unionism, and so feel free to lift boilerplate from the standard arguments against those (e.g.: that it is the misguided effort of patronizing college students who ought to pay more attention to the real interests of those they claim to act on behalf of; that it courts the coercive power of the State in order to achieve its goals) when it is in fact completely alien to how CIW actually works. They’ve never requested government assistance against Taco Bell, and they couldn’t legally get it if they asked. And whether the standard accusations against student-driven anti-sweatshop organizing are apt or inapt (I think they are apt in some aspects and unfair in others), they don’t apply to CIW. It’s certainly true that they’ve been more than willing to draw support from anti-sweatshop organizations and to draw comparisons between their struggle and the anti-sweatshop movement in order to curry support on college campuses (and did so very intelligently); but this isn’t the anti-sweatshop movement. It’s not directed from college campuses; the shots are called by a community organization of immigrant farmworkers in Southern Florida. You might try to argue that they’re acting foolishly against their own interests, or avariciously at the expense of other people’s legitimate interests, but to simply try to lift the standard Where are all the third world workers in the anti-sweatshop movement? objections won’t hold water for anyone who has actually met (as I have) CIW organizers.

Carden and D’Amico’s articles are both mostly about their economic complaints against the CIW strategy; they may think that they can simply dismiss any mistakes about how CIW organizes as marginal to the main point. That’s fine, but the economic complaints are also unfounded. D’Amico, for example, complains that CIW is interfering with the market processes that set wages for labor:

CIW expects the boycott to put pressure on Taco Bell to pay more for its tomatoes and thus more for migrant laborers. But this would not be a sustainable market scenario. Prices are not set by arbitrary moral standards, but rather by available levels of supply and demand in the market.

Stopping the market transactions of mutually benefiting exchange in the name of moral obligations does not produce anything of lasting value to assist in capital accumulation or increasing standards of living.

But the entire complaint presupposes two things which are in fact false: first, that the moral demands on Taco Bell to improve its contracting for tomato-picking so that farmworkers are paid a better wage are arbitrary; second, that moral obligations are not part of what people take into account when they determine which transactions count as mutually beneficial in the first place. Let’s bracket the first presupposition for a moment in order to clear away the second: prices and markets are not mechanistic systems; they are the results (both intended and unintended) of people’s choices. Notice how little attention this point gets when D’Amico offers the following weirdly primitive picture of how someone decides whether or not to buy a taco:

The value of a chalupa is not imputed through the sweat equity of the Immokalee migrant workers. When the typical college kid is watching his favorite episode of The Simpson’s and a Taco Bell commercial comes on, he does not pause and reflect on the condition of the plighted migrant laborer; rather he sees a funny Chihuahua that speaks Spanish, standing next to a greasy bundle of cheesy goodness, and his stomach growls accordingly.

Of course, I’m sure that some people do think like this about their meals, but there is no reason that they have to. When you are trying to figure out how people will make the choices they make, you always need to refer to a notion of benefit. But the judgments of benefit that people make don’t just issue from some hydraulic system of inborn drives and aversions; they are the result of deliberation, and involve answers to a lot of questions about not only hunger, thirst, low-grade humor, etc., but also decisions about what kinds of pleasures are worth the cost, what sort of life you want to live, what sort of society you want to live in, and so on. Sure, not everyone thinks about those things when they deliberate over whether to go to Taco Bell or not; and the fact that they don’t ponder them had heretofore meant that wages would be as low as they were. But what the hell were CIW doing if not trying to educate people about the conditions that people picking the tomatoes they eat face, and so encouraging them to think about whether a marginal decrease of less than a penny per chalupa is really worth it to them? That’s as much a part of the free market as deliberations which issue in decisions to seek the lowest price at any cost are.

What about the first issue? Is it right to think that workers deserve more than they get paid, or is it foolish? D’Amico might try to push his point here by arguing: sure, given that you can convince people of those values, that’s as much a part of market processes as anything. But it shouldn’t be a part of people’s values; it’s foolish and economically destructive to act on the preference that people deserve extra money just for being hard workers that you feel sorry for, and not for any marginal increase in the valuable material output that they produce. So the campaign has gotten people to agree to giving the farm workers more than they should get if our aim is greater economic prosperity and higher standards of living. Which it should be.

But again, this seems to presuppose a weirdly mechanistic picture of the economic concepts involved. Prosperity and higher standard of living are irreducibly evaluative terms no less than mutually beneficial; and you have to ask whether it’s possible to exclude basic considerations of fairness and solidarity with our fellow workers from a reasonable conception of what counts as a prosperous commonwealth and what doesn’t. Furthermore, even if you grant D’Amico his principle, it’s unclear why he’s as certain as he is that it applies here. He points to the backward imputation of value and seems to be taking for granted the standard economic argument that at equilibrium, wages are set by the worker’s marginal productivity. Since workers were making sub-poverty wages from the tomatoes for tacos before sentimental comparisons of their yearly income to the average came into play, it must be that those sub-poverty wages reflect their marginal productivity to the consumers of tacos when consumers of tacos are thinking only about the factors that D’Amico thinks they ought to think about.

But that conclusion rests on at least two unargued premises: (1) that farmworkers’ wages are set in a free market for labor, and (2) that farmworkers’ wages are at the equilibrium point. But why should we believe either of these? As CIW itself has repeatedly demonstrated, farmers and caudillos in Southern Florida have repeatedly been willing to use violence, coercion, and fraud against their laborers, up to and including outright slavery; and since many of the workers in Immokalee and elsewhere are undocumented, they also have to face the constant threat of violence from La Migra. All of these factors use coercion to undermine farm workers’ wages and bargaining positions. Further, even if the market were completely free, that wouldn’t be any guarantee at all that it would be no guarantee that wages would be set at marginal productivity given how consumers evaluate the taco; that argument depends on the kind of neo-classical anti-economic argument that I think Roderick Long rightly criticized as the doctrine of Platonic Productivity.

All of this is too damn bad. Not just because it makes for mistaken conclusions, but also because the willingness to make those mistakes tends to paint 21st century libertarians as court intellectuals for the bosses of the world, and it puts them directly at odds with their 19th century forebearers. Radical individualists like Benjamin Tucker, for example, defined their position as both the most consistent form of free market economics, and the most consistent form of the labor movement. Sure, part of that position was based on economic and philosophical error–e.g., commitment to the Smithian labor theory of value–but part of what I hope to show in all this is that corrections to their economic premises don’t require abandonment of their economic conclusions. In fact, if you want to learn something about how people can get together and make their lives both freer and happier in the course of just a few years, without the false help and bureaucratic meddling of the State, you’d do well to look at what the CIW has accomplished over the past several years.

So here’s to libertarian labor organizing and state-free struggle. ¡Si se puede!

Further reading

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