Posts tagged Wagner Act

In reply to a reply by J.H. Huebert and Walter Block

J.H. Huebert and Walter Block have recently published an essay which claims to be a reply to Roderick Long’s essay on left-libertarianism for Cato Unbound. Huebert and Block insist that they are going to set the record straight on the correct libertarian view of these matters. But it’s not clear that they have succeeded in even setting the record straight on Roderick’s view of these matters. For example, I think they have clearly and grossly misread him on the question of selective tax breaks for politically-connected big businesses. (Roderick never claimed that getting selective tax breaks are morally equivalent to receiving a government subsidy; only that firms or practices that get a comparative advantage from government taxes on their competitors are, like firms or practices that get a comparative advantage from government subsidies, not good examples of the free market at work.) Similarly, their attempt at a response to Roderick’s claims about big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, and the importance of using government-subsidized roads to the success of their business model, wavers between an attack on a claim that Roderick never made — that Wal-Mart deserves blame for their successful exploitation of government-subsidized roads — and willfully obtuse replies to the claim that he did make — that Wal-Mart’s road-dependent business model shouldn’t be counted as an example of the free market at work, and that if Wal-Mart had to pay the full costs of its business model, without government subsidies to cross-country freight trucking, it would lose some or all of the comparative advantage that it currently holds over smaller and more local competitors. (Did you know that, since we all use government roads sometimes, that means we are all getting a subsidy like Wal-Mart? Hey, you know, back in May I got a $600 check from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which was supposed to be for economic stimulus. Just like how AIG gets $85,000,000,000 checks from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, for the sake of economic stimulus! So how could I possibly claim that AIG gets government privileges that I don’t enjoy? Well. See my discussion with Will Wilkinson in a comment thread about the original article.)

In any case, though, Roderick has promised a reply, which I eagerly look forward to. My main reason 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 the basis of that argument. Here are those four paragraphs:

Those Poor Unions

Long also laments that our hampered free market doesn’t give unions enough power. He writes: Legal restrictions on labor organizing also make it harder for such workers to organize collectively on their own behalf.

Given that the law allows some workers to not only organize themselves but also coercively organize others, it’s not clear what Long is talking about. To support his claim, he cites a blog post which laments that U.S. labor laws do not go far enough. We should support current labor laws, says Long’s source, but ideally we will return to the days of more militant unions.

You remember militant unions – the kind that used to (and, well, still do) beat and kill workers who do not cooperate with them. Long and his comrade, of course, make no mention of the unions’ bloody history.

Unions are like a tapeworm on the economy, sucking sustenance out of businesses. The entire rust belt is a result of unions demanding wages higher than worker productivity. The present problems of the Detroit Three (Ford, Chrysler, General Motors) are mainly dues to their foolishness in not withstanding the unwarranted demands of the United Auto Workers. But, Long can rejoice: under an Obama administration, these economic scourges are likely to obtain even more power.

— J. H. Huebert and Walter Block (2008-11-24): In Defense of Corporations, Tax Breaks, and Wal-Mart

This is a bizarre misinterpretation of my post, and hard to understand how anyone could make it other than through utter carelessness or willful misreading.

The post that they are referring to was the first in a series of annual May 1 posts, commemorating International Workers’ Day — a grassroots labor holiday originally organized by anarchists, to honor the memory of the five anarchist organizers and agitators who were murdered by the state of Illinois after the Haymarket Riot.

Block and Huebert claim to be puzzled by what Roderick could mean when he says that, due to government regimentation of labor unions, labor organizing is substantially more restricted than it would be in a free market. I’m unclear as to what they find unclear, because if it was not clear to them already, the footnoted post by me, which they claim to have read, goes ahead and lists several of the restrictions in question.

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.

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

Of course Block and Huebert are right that government patronage grants substantial illegitimate privileges to a certain kind of union (the establishmentarian, conservative unionism of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win [sic]). But those privileges come at the cost of accepting an extensive and intrusive set of government regulations on official union activity. The result is not only a violation of the rights of employers to refuse to bargain with union reps, but also a substantial government subsidy for conservative unionism as against competing forms of union organizing, like those practiced by anti-establishmentarian, radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World — tactics like minority unionism (crowded out of the market by government-subsidized majoritarian collective bargaining), wildcat strikes (illegal under the Wagner Act), secondary strikes and boycotts (illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act), general strikes (ditto), union hiring halls (double ditto), and so on. The combination of government privilege with government controls may benefit the select outfits that toe the establishmentarian line and get their hands on the government loot. But it does so at the expense of the goals that those organizations supposedly support — in this case, organizing workers for the sake of greater control over the conditions of their labor. I know that Walter Block is perfectly well aware of the way this works when it comes to tax-funded education vouchers for private schooling: although the selected schools that receive the vouchers may profit, the availability and quality of education suffers, because of the way that government privileges squash unofficial competitors who do not qualify for the government hand-out, and also because of the way that government controls restrain the activities that the remaining privileged-and-regulated schools can perform. Have Block and Huebert failed to apply the same analysis to privileged-and-regulated labor unions, and the availability and quality of labor organizing, because they are simply ignorant of the restrictions imposed on NLRB-recognized unions? Or because they are aware of the restrictions, but it hasn’t occurred to them that they might matter as much as the government-granted subsidies?

One way or the other, the post closes by calling for the immediate and complete repeal of the Wagner Act and the Taft Hartley Act, and the complete abolition of the National Labor Relations Board, and all other forms of political patronage and political control in labor organizing, which I argued would always hold the labor movement back from its professed goals:

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.

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

The comments expressing some watered support for the actually-existing labor movement are grossly misrepresented by Block and Huebert as support [for] current labor laws (in fact, the point was that the labor movement deserves some watered support in spite of the baleful effects of government labor laws on it). And my call for all existing government labor laws to be repealed and replaced with nothing but free association is, astonishingly, glossed by Block and Huebert as a [lament] that U.S. labor laws do not go far enough.

This is followed by a tirade about my use of the word militant to describe my ideal for free unionism. This is apparently taken, just as such, to be an endorsement of vigilante violence against non-union or anti-union workers, by unions of the kind that used to (and, well, still do) beat and kill workers who do not cooperate with them. This is an absurd and unwarranted misreading. Of course, there have been unions whose members used vigilante violence to achieve their goals. I find the use of aggressive violence, against fellow workers or against anyone else, to be completely reprehensible. But that’s not what militancy refers to in the context of labor organizing. Labor militancy is a term of art that refers to the degree to which unions are willing to use confrontational tactics with bosses, as opposed to back-room negotiations or appeasement of the boss’s demands — where confrontational means just that, not violent. Some militant unions endorsed confrontation in the form of violence against bosses, or their property, or scabs. Others refused to on principle, and expressed their militancy through strictly nonviolent forms of confrontation. I agree with the latter, and what I have argued for in more or less everything I have ever written about unions is the principle that fellow worker Joe Ettor set out when he was working to help organize the great Lawrence textile strike of 1912 with the IWW:

If the workers of the world want to win, all they have to do is recognize their own solidarity. They have nothing to do but fold their arms and the world will stop. The workers are more powerful with their hands in their pockets than all the property of the capitalists. As long as the workers keep their hands in their pockets, the capitalists cannot put theirs there. With passive resistance, with the workers absolutely refusing to move, lying absolutely silent, they are more powerful than all the weapons & instruments that the other side has for attack.

Block and Huebert complain that I make no mention of the unions’ bloody history. (An odd claim, since they seem to think that my use of the adjective militant is an explicit reference to it.) But I may as well complain that Block and Huebert make no mention of the bloody history of bosses who called out hired muscle, injunction-wielding courts, city cops, state militia, or the federal military to commit every sort of atrocity against striking workers, their wives, and their children. If Block and Huebert have not mentioned the extensive use of aggressive violence by bosses, who have always been far more politically powerful and had far greater resources for hiring on thugs than the unions had, and who were frequently able to call out the repressive forces of the State itself in addition to their own thugs — if they have not mentioned it, I say, because (of course, of course) they don’t agree with it, and intend only to defend the actions of bosses that are consonant with libertarian principles, then that’s fine; but then the reason that I didn’t spend a long time talking about vigilante violence by unionists is because (of course, of course), I don’t agree with that, and intend only to defend the actions of union organizers that are consonant with libertarian principles. But if Block want violence mentioned, then it is totally irresponsible for them to insist on such a wildly distorted and one-sided presentation of the matter, since unionists were victims of far more intense and far more systematic violence than they ever committed, and since much (but by no means all) of the violence attributed to unionists was in fact defensive force against those same company and government thugs.

Huebert and Block close with a laughably overheated ritualistic denunciation of labor unions as a tapeworm on the economy, sucking sustenance out of businesses, and an astonishing monocausal theory of middle-American industrial decline, on which the entire rust belt is a result of unions demanding wages higher than worker productivity (!). Apparently decades of unsustainable malinvestment, public-private partnerships with city, state, and federal governments, corporate welfare, protectionist tariffs, bail-outs of failed business models, etc. have nothing to do with it.

But whether all that is accurate or inaccurate is something best hashed out elsewhere. For right now, my main concern is how wildly Block and Huebert have misrepresented the position that they claim to be arguing against, in the attempt to make it seem as though this overheated denunciation of state unionism had anything to do with the freed-market unionism that I advocate, or that Roderick endorsed via footnote. It is inconceivable that a post whose primary purpose was to condemn the effects of government labor laws and to call for the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act and the Wagner Act, for the immediate and complete abolition of the National Labor Relations Board, and in general for the exorcism of all political command-and-control (including all enforced recognition, all political patronage, and all political regulation) from organized labor could be reasonably read as support for current coercive labor laws, let alone a call for their expansion (!). An error like that must either be the cause of extraordinarily careless reading, or willful misrepresentation. In either case, Block and Huebert ought to be embarrassed that they have published it.

A brief history of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the “Friend of Labor”

Because of the late unpleasantness, there’s been a lot of debate among a certain kind of Leftist as to what attitude the Left ought to take towards the Democratic Party’s big win at the polls, and the grassroots efforts by eager young Obamarchists to help bring it about. In the name of critical support, many state Leftists — particularly those who fancy themselves Progressives — urge other Leftists to hop on board the Democratic Party train; those who are a bit more skeptical, point out that, for people seriously concerned with peace, civil liberties, labor radicalism, anti-racism, ending bail-out capitalism,and so on, an Obama Presidency is an extremely limited victory at best, and those who know a bit of history point out that the Democratic Party has been the graveyard of social movements for over a century now, with one movement after another being diverted from grassroots action on behalf of their primary goals into the secondary or tertiary goals of bureaucratic maneuvering, party politicking, canvassing, fund-raising, or shamelessly apologizing for Democratic Party politicians. And once they go in, movements more or less never come out.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the current economic crisis, in discussions like these a lot of electoralist Progressives very quickly dig up the decaying corpse of Franklin Roosevelt, apparently in order to demonstrate a case where so-called critical support from the Left worked — that is, it supposedly worked because it supposedly got us the New Deal, and the New Deal supposedly represents a series of victories that Leftists should feel good about. The problem is that this picture is false in just about every detail. The New Deal was achieved in spite of the grassroots efforts of the American Left, not because of them. It was, in fact, put through largely as a means to co-opt or stifle the American Left. And what was put through ought to be considered a travesty by anyone for whom economic Leftism is supposed to mean an increase in workers’ power to control the conditions of their own lives and labor, rather than an increase in government’s power to make businessmen do what politicians want them to do.

So here is a brief history, contributed by a member of the Movement for a Democratic Society listserv (in response to a series of uncritical critical support apologetics and name-drops to Roosevelt), of the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the friend of labor and patron saint of the American Progressive Left.

From: bob
To: MDS-Announce
Date: 5 November 2008 7:51 PM

Oct. 1933, 4 strikers killed in Pixley Ca. textile strike.

Early 1934, Roosevelt intervenes in the auto industry on behalf of company unions as opposed to worker organized unions.

In 1934, General Strikes in Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis began to threaten the capitalist order.

IN 1935, the Wagner Act was passed to regularize labor relations. The NLRB was set up to mediate between labor and capital ending the surge of general strikes.

In 1936-7, workers began to use the sit down strike to great advantage. In 1937, the Roosevelt appointed National Labor Relations Board declared them to be illegal. Later the Supreme Court in 1939, dominated by pro-Roosevelt judges, declared sit-down strikes to be illegal, taking the wind out of the sails of the labor movement.

When labor leaders tried to gain Roosevelt’s support in critiquing the killing of 18 peaceful workers in the steel strikes of ‘37, Roosevelt refused, thus condoning the killings.

IN 1938 and 39 with rising unemployment, Roosevelt cut programs for the poor and unemployed.

The passing of the Social Security Act institutionalized the incredibly regressive payroll tax while postponing and benefits and establishing a retirement age beyond the life expectancy of workers so that payments would be minimal. Additionally, most women and Afro-Americans were purposefully not covered by the Act. At the time it was established the NAACP protested the racism inherent in the exclusions of most job categories employing blacks. The original act was also blamed for contributing to the economic downturn of 1937 because the government collected taxes from workers but paid no benefits to workers during this time period. Initially, no benefits whatsoever were to be paid until at least 1942. Amendments in 1939 changed that to 1940 but only encompassed a tiny minority.

Friend of Labor Roosevelt in 1940 signed the Smith Act which had been proposed by a Democrat and passed by a Democratic Congress. The first prosecutions were ordered by Roosevelt’s Attorney General Francis Biddle. Unfortunately, the split between the orthodox communists and the Trotskyists resulted in the persecution of the Trotskyists.

When the Federal Theater Project planned a musical production in 1937 attacking corporate greed, Roosevelt shut it down. He then had the theatre padlocked and surrounded by armed soldiers.

So much for the concept of political space under the Democrats.

One mistake rather consistently made by a good chunk of progressives is to frame an analysis based on the paranoia of the extreme right wing, taking their statements as if they were facts.

So if Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and their ilk criticize some facet of American life or history (for example FDR as being some sort of left enabler), the progressives then want to disagree completely with Hannity et al and thus accept whatever BS he put forward but take the opposite point of view on it. So we then have progressives defending Roosevelt’s supposed progressive leanings or opening political space for the left or whatever phrasing suits their purposes. It’s not helpful to let the extreme right thereby define the nature of political discourse. It leads to an incredibly false and warped view of society and history.

Rather than helping to create an opening for the left in the 1930s, Roosevelt did what he could to shut off all openings that had been created by the workers themselves. He ended the surge of general strikes, then he ended the surge of sit down strikes. He put a stop to progressive artists. Clamped down on the radicals of the time period. Condoned the police and national guard killing of protesting workers. Collected regressive taxes from workers while promising them pension benefits at a point in the future for those fortunate enough to survive their employment and avoid an early death.. He continued racist and sexist policies especially relating to employment, government sanctioned discrimination and unfair dispersal of social benefits.

The main thing I would want to add to the analysis is that, unfortunately, I don’t think that the veneration of St. Franklin is solely due to the rush to take an equal-but-opposite reaction to the vilification of Roosevelt by plutocratic Right-wing hacks like Limbaugh or Hannity. The attitude is much older than Right-wing hate radio, and I think it is deeply rooted in the historical narratives and the self-conception of the Progressive wing of the Left. At the time Roosevelt went on a full-bore attack against the radical Left but enjoyed the support of the professional-class Progressive Left — whose influence he dramatically increased, and whose fortunes he subsidized on the taxpayer’s dime, with his massive expansion of the civil service and government planning bureaucracy. And he is venerated today by so many on the Left because so many on the Left continue allow their message to be set by the agendas of the political parties and by the nostrums of mid-20th century vital center corporate liberal politics. The counter-historical hagiography isn’t just a way of reacting to the Right; it’s also a way that the Establishmentarian Left keeps the radical Left in line, diverts all too many of us into the failed strategy of increasing workers’ power by increasing government power, and blinds all too many to the fact that their efforts within or on behalf of the Democratic Party are failing repeatedly, or when they succeed, inevitably succeed in increasing the power of professional government planners, without any significant gains for ordinary workers.

So it is really refreshing, at this historical moment, to see some folks challenging St. Franklin from the Left. And it’s deeply unfortunate, but not surprising, that it is refreshing to see that. It ought to be easy and common to make the Leftist case against a millionaire dynastic politician who officially kicked off his administration with a series of massive bank bail-outs, systematically attacked labor radicals, created a bureaucratic apparatus intended to buy off and domesticate labor moderates and conservatives, while sidelining or criminalizing labor’s most effective tactics, and presided over repeated physical attacks on organized workers. A millionaire dynastic politician who, in 1936, ordered J. Edgar Hoover to ramp up federal surveillance of questionable domestic political groups, and who aggressively dispensed with traditional restraints on unilateral executive power in order to pack the courts in favor of his own policies and to elevate himself to President-for-Life. A President-for-Life who conscripted millions of workers in the United States’ first ever peacetime military draft, who then spent a couple years deliberately wangling his way into a position where he could throw his new conscript army into the largest and most destructive war in the history of the world, who then, using the exigencies of a global war on tyranny as his excuse, drove Congress to create the House Un-American Activities Committee, imprisoned war protesters and political opponents on sedition and espionage charges, extracted no-strike agreements from the now-politically-controlled labor unions, commandeered virtually every good and imposed massive rationing and government-mandated wage freezes on American workers, created the modern military-industrial complex, ordered the firebombing of hundreds of German and Japanese cities, and, with a series of unilateral executive orders and military proclamations, summarily seized the property of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans, imposed arbitrary curfews on them based solely on their nationality, and finally sent in the military to roust them out of their homes and march them into concentration camps scattered across the American West.

Unfortunately, that kind of talk doesn’t square with the preferred historical narrative of Democratic Party politicians, and (therefore) it doesn’t much suit those who have ambitions that depend on currying favor with Democratic Party politicians. So it’s not the sort of thing that you hear much about. But it is the sort of thing that we can remember, and that we can talk about, whether they want us to or not.

See also:

Even better than I thought: victory for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers against the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, too

On Friday I mentioned that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers had just announced victory in the Burger King penny-a-pound pass-through campaign. It turns out that the news is even better than I thought. The news reports that have come out since the announcement reveal that not only did Burger King agree to join the penny-a-pound, but the Florida Tomato Growers’ Exchange (the cartel and legislative lobby which represents 90% of Florida tomato farm owners) has also substantially caved in the face of pressure from the CIW and its supporters. Although they are still saying that member farms should not participate, they’ve given up on the hardball tactics they were trying to use to enforce cartel discipline.

Whether workers actually get the increase hinges on tomato growers’ participation.

McDonald’s and Yum! Brands, the world’s biggest fast-food chain and restaurant company, respectively, already have agreed to the raise; Yum!, parent company of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and more, signed on in 2005; McDonald’s in 2007.

Workers got the extra money for two seasons, then the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange threatened $100,000 fines to any grower member who participated, which stalled the payouts. They’ve since been collecting in escrow. About 90 percent of the state’s tomato growers belong to the exchange.

But the exchange announced Thursday it would no longer threaten members with those fines, said executive vice-president Reggie Brown, in response to inordinate and inappropriate focus on the (fines) by the media.

— Amy Bennett Williams, Ft. Myers News-Press (2008-05-24): Tomato pickers celebrate deal with Burger King

Brown is still muttering baseless and murky threats about federal antitrust laws and how participating in the pass-through program could somehow subject growers to lawsuits. (Subjected to lawsuits by whom? Is that supposed to be a prediction or a threat?) So there is still a danger of some very dirty pool and government union-busting here. But the FTGE looks like it’s on the ropes, and their retracting the threat of fines makes it much more likely that individual farm owners will begin participating in the pass-through program again, if nothing else as an incentive for attracting workers away from non-participating farms — an incentive which it costs the farm owners nothing to offer.

In the meantime, the fast-food participants have announced that they will continue to honor the penny-per-pound agreement and pay into the escrow account in case growers change their minds:

McDonald’s and Yum Brands, the world’s biggest fast-food chain and restaurant company, respectively, have agreed to the raise …. Yum, parent company of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and more, signed on in 2005; McDonald’s in 2007.

Workers received the extra money for two seasons, but then the threatened fines from the exchange stalled payouts. Both companies have been honoring the agreement with the raise amount collecting in escrow.

They say they will continue to honor the agreement.

It’s the right thing to do, and we encourage others to follow our lead, said Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch. While we continue to set aside monies for the affected workers, we’re disappointed that the intended recipients are being penalized.

Now that the threat of fines is gone, members and supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are wondering what it might mean.

If the (threats of fines) are in fact being lifted, that would be good news, said coalition co-founder Lucas Benitez. We hope our agreements with Yum and McDonald’s will be allowed to again function as they had in the past and workers received a fairer wage.

— Amy Bennett Williams, Ft. Myers News-Press (2008-05-23): Tomato growers’ group relents on imposing fine for giving pickers raise

Eric Schlosser, who has been doing some very good work in reporting on the C.I.W.’s struggle, offers an analysis that combines some incredibly muddled history with some admirably clear-sighted analysis of the current position of the C.I.W. within the farmworkers’ struggle:

This may be the most important victory for American farmworkers since passage of California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975. That bill heralded a golden age for farm workers. But the state government apparatus it created, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, got taken over by the growers in the 1980s and watered down the reforms. In Florida, the Coalition has chosen a different path, avoiding government and putting pressure on the corporations at the top of nation’s food chain. The strategy clearly works and can be emulated by other workers in other states. In the absence of a government that cares about the people at the bottom, here’s a way to achieve change.

— Eric Schlosser, quoted by Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation (2008-05-23): Sweet Victory: Coalition for Immokalee Workers Wins

The muddle, of course, has to do with the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board and the mythical golden age for farmworkers. Actually the ALRB is exactly what strangled the dynamism 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 the labor movement for decades under the Wagner/Taft-Hartley system — thus capturing a once revolutionary movement and converting it into just another arm of the State-domesticated labor establishment. It should be no surprise that within a decade the ALRB had been completely captured by the farm bosses; government boards are always captured by the most powerful and best-connected players. Any look at history or at the basics of political economy should quickly demonstrate that Schlosser’s in the absence of is really a statement of universal truth, not a remark on the sad state of affairs today: there will never be a government that cares about the people on the bottom. It’s the State that largely puts them on the bottom in the first place and then keeps them there. Any scraps that it may throw down from the master’s table are intended to keep the rest of us just barely fed enough to keep begging, instead of giving up and taking matters into our own hands.

What Schlosser is right about is that the C.I.W.’s strategy works, and deserves emulation. What I’d want to add, and stress, is that it works not despite the fact that they have avoided entangling themselves in the government labor bureaucracy; it works because they have. The C.I.W. has won all these struggles precisely because they have used creative fight-to-win tactics (especially secondary boycotts) that would be completely illegal if they were subject to the bureaucratic discipline of the NLRB. It’s precisely the freedom that they enjoy as a wildcat union, ineligible for NLRB recognition, which has allowed them to disregard the usual modesty in demands and politeness in means that the Taft-Hartley rules demand.

These victories with the FTGE and Burger King are not the end. The C.I.W. has announced that it will now challenge grocery stores and other fast food restaurants to join Yum Brands, McDonald’s, and Burger King in the pass-through agreement. Every victory in this campaign has made the next victory come quicker: the Taco Bell boycott took four years for victory (from 2001 to 2005); the C.I.W. won an agreement from McDonald’s after two years of active campaigning (from March 2005 to April 2007); and these victories in campaigns against Burger King and the FTGE took just over one year (from April 2007 to May 2008). Lucas Benitez has indicated that the C.I.W. will most likely target Chipotle and Whole Foods next — that is, major tomato buyers who each have a significant stake in maintaining a brand image of corporate social responsibility. There’s good reason to hope that the trend will continue and these campaigns will lead to a speedy victory.

Fellow workers, this past week’s victories for creative extremism and wildcat unionism are both an inspiration and a reminder. We should never forget that the workers have more power standing with our hands in our pockets than all the wealth and weapons of the plutocrats and politicians. Yes, we can do it—ourselves. And we will.

See also:

King Ludd’s throne

Over at LewRockwell.com Blog, Karen De Coster recently posted about Ford’s Camaçari assembly plant in Brazil, taking it as an opportunity to complain about the way union thugs [sic] run Ford’s business in Estadounidense assembly plants, and how Ford may have trouble introducing a similar manufacturing model in U.S. plants because the UAW is hesitant. Other than noting that the stories are little more than a couple of glorified Ford Motor Company press releases, passed off as journalism by the Detroit News, I don’t have anything in particular to say about the set-up Camaçari, or for that matter about Ford Motor Company or the UAW. (I consider the both of them to be brontosaurs of state capitalism — massive, slow, stupid, and probably doomed to extinction.) But I do want to mention De Coster’s boilerplate complaints against labor unions, and what they presuppose.

De Coster, like lots of other anti-union libertarians, claims that unions are economically harmful because they’re toxic to efficiency and flexibility. The idea is that organized workers will tend to use their organization to oppose advances like automation, technological upgrades, flexible job duties, and reorganization of processes for greater efficiency. Partly because union contracts tend to preserve old job descriptions in amber, to better mark off each worker’s turf, and partly because organized workers will use their coordinated bargaining power to oppose anything that reduces organized workers’ hours or introduces new, not-yet-unionized (or differently-unionized) jobs into the shop. I don’t necessarily find this complaint very persuasive. But. hell, let’s grant most of it, for the sake of argument. Suppose that a union like the UAW does tend to block upgrades for greater efficiency and flexibility. If that’s true, why is it true? Because the unionized workers don’t own the means of production.

It’s no surprise that there would be conflicts between the interests of the workers and the interests of the boss and board when it comes to innovation in shop-floor technology or processes. For a wage laborer, sometimes new technology and new processes mean easier and better work to do; often they mean that your hours will be cut or you’ll lose your job entirely. In any case they will be deployed and integrated into the flow of work according to what the boss finds most useful; they may very well result in you, as a wage laborer, getting stuck with speed-ups or harder work.

None of this is a decisive argument against innovations in shop-floor technology or processes; sometimes things have to change, and change can be hard. But it is a natural source of conflicts between labor and capital. When workers are organized — and when the goals of the organized workers are limited to eking out the highest hourly wages and benefits, the most reliable hours, and the easiest conditions, that they can get within the existing ownership structure and business model of the corporation, through stage-managed labor actions, back-room negotiations with the boss, and multiyear fixed contracts, while the boss and the board keep ahold of final control over conditions on the shop-floor and most or all of the residual profits from any efficiency improvements, what you’ll tend to see is a perpetual collision between a small but powerful coterie of managers and owners, who have every reason to try to shove new processes and technologies down their employees’ throats, to the extent that they can get away with it, and a consolidated mass of workers who have little reason to care about starving themselves lean in order to fatten profits that don’t go to them. Why should workers want to do more work faster, or to take on more flexible job descriptions, if they only stand to lose hours or subjected to speed-ups for their trouble? Both workers’ livelihoods and process efficiency get caught in the crossfire.

But the business model offered by that small coterie, and the union organizing model offered by that consolidated mass aren’t the only business models or union organizing models on offer, and the fact that they are so prevalent 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. Alternatives like that offered by the Industrial Workers of the World and other state-free wildcat unions, which called not for a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, but rather for abolishing the wage system, and replacing it with worker ownership of the means of production, coordinated through decentralized, participatory unions.

If the workers themselves jointly own the means of production, then the union has no reason to sandbag efficiency upgrades: if organized workers keep most or all of the residual profits then they have every reason to want more flexible job descriptions, more efficient processes, and greater integration of labor-saving technology. Maybe it’ll mean fewer hours of labor; but since the worker keeps the increased profits, the reduction of hours is a net gain rather than an economic blow. And if workers make agreements amongst themselves as to the conditions of their own labor, they have little reason to want their specific role in the shop written on tablets of stone, and little reason to fear new processes or technology which they are free to take up or not to take up on their own terms and at their own pace, rather than as dictated by a chain of command.

De Coster trashes the UAW for responding to the incentives that the wage system presents for their workers; but rather than getting rid of the UAW, the better solution would be to quit the griping and change the incentives. There is no natural connection between labor organizing, on the one hand, and Luddism or labor-contract sclerosis, on the other. It’s a matter of the artificially rigidified economics of state-subsidized corporate capitalism, and the artificially narrowed vision of the state-patronized establishmentarian labor movement. The only reason that centralized, state capitalist corporations like Ford find themselves confronting top-heavy establishmentarian unions like the UAW over efficiency upgrades is that the both of them have conspired — with the active patronage and regulatory encouragement of the United States federal government — to sustain a business model in which the vast majority of workers have no stake in, and thus little or no natural interest in, the efficiency of the shop, and little or no control over how new processes or new technology, if implemented, will affect the hours and conditions of their labor.

The solution isn’t more ruthless corporate union busting; the solution is to strike at the root of the problem, by abolishing the government economic regimentation that sustains both establishmentarian unionism and state capitalism. If the UAW is cut free from the smothering patronage of the State, and becomes what union so often were before the Wagner/Taft-Hartley era — a wildcat industrial union, free to play hardball and free to set its sights not just on negotiated wage and benefits settlements, but on the unionized workers themselves owning the shop, the machine and the tools — then King Ludd’s throne will crumble out from under him, and you’ll soon start to see unions that not only accept, but champion innovations in technology and industrial processes. If workers own the shop, why wouldn’t they want to increase their own efficiency? After all, they get to keep the difference.

See also:

May Day 2008

There will be a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!

—Last words of August Spies (1887-11-11), immigrant, anarchist, and Haymarket martyr

Fellow workers:

Today is May Day, or International Workers’ Day, a holiday created by Chicago workers—most of them anarchists—to honor the memory of the Haymarket martyrs and to celebrate the struggle of workers for freedom, for a better life, and for control over the conditions of their own labor. It was created during the radical phase of the struggle for an eight-hour day: after legislative campaigns by the Knights of Labor and the National Labor Union failed, labor radicals in Chicago — organizers like Albert Parsons, Lucy Parsons, August Spies — declared that workers should take matters into their own hands, in the form of direct action on the shop floor. Workers would no longer try to get an eight-hour day by promising a useful and compliant voter base in return for patronage from politicians. To get an eight-hour shift, workers would make their own: in many shops, workers in the International Working People’s Association would bring their own whistle to work and blow it at the end of an eight hour shift — at which point most or all of the workers on the floor would just get up and just walk off, like the free people they were, whether or not the boss demanded more hours of labor. At the height of the struggle, they organized a General Strike, in defiance of the bosses and in spite of repeated violence from the Law.

Today is also the third annual day of rallies, strikes and marches against the criminalization of immigrant workers. A day which immigrant workers have chosen for actions against the bigotry of nativist bullies, the violence of La Migra, and the political system of international apartheid, as contemptible as it is lethal. A day to proudly proclaim We are not criminals and We are not going anywhere, to demand the only political program that recognizes it — open borders and unconditional amnesty for all undocumented workers.

And it is a joy for me to read that today is also a day of strikes against the bosses’ war in Iraq, which will shut down all the sea ports on the west coast of the United States, as an act of defiance against the State war machine and against the worthless political opportunists who promise to end it while voting, over and over again, to sustain it:

Amid this political atmosphere, dockworkers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have decided to stop work for eight hours in all U.S. West Coast ports on May 1, International Workers’ Day, to call for an end to the war.

This decision came after an impassioned debate where the union’s Vietnam veterans turned the tide of opinion in favor of the anti-war resolution. The motion called it an imperial action for oil in which the lives of working-class youth and Iraqi civilians were being wasted and declared May Day a no peace, no work holiday. Angered after supporting Democrats who received a mandate to end the war but who now continue to fund it, longshoremen decided to exercise their political power on the docks.

— Jack Heyman, San Francisco Chronicle (2008-04-09): Longshoremen [sic] to close ports on West Coast to protest war

The Longshore workers have the explicit support of postal workers in New York and San Francisco, and I hope this will be only the beginning of ongoing, widespread industrial action to end a war that political action — even after two election cycles, after hundreds of millions of dollars, after countless hours of lobbying and electioneering, after a change in government, and with the backing of an overwhelming supermajority of the populace — has proven completely incapable of ending.

This is May Day as it is and ought to be. A Day of Resistance against the arrogance and power of bosses, bordercrats, bullies, and the Maters of War, who would harass us, intimidate us, silence us, exploit us, beat us, jail us, deport us, extort us, and do anything else it takes to stop us from coming into our own. A day to celebrate workers’ struggles for dignity, and for freedom, through organizing in their own self-interest, through agitating and exhorting for solidarity, and through free acts of worker-led direct action to achieve their goals, marching under the banners of We are all leaders here and Dump the bosses of your back. A day to remember:

There Is Power In A Union

There is power, there is power,
In a band of working folk,
When we stand
Hand in hand.

—Joe Hill (1913)

Radio Bilingüe has a list of immigration marches and rallies across the country today. I plan to be at the mitin in Las Vegas tonight:

  • Las Vegas immigrant rights mitin (rally)
  • Tonight, May 1, 2008, 7:00 PM
  • Federal Courthouse, 333 Las Vegas Blvd S.

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.

In this season and in these days, in the midst of Babel during its most raucous festival—when so much of what we see and hear are the endless shouts of professional blowhards who know of no form of social change other than political change, and who know of no site of political change other than the gladiatorial arena of electoral politics, and who seem to know of no form of electoral politics other than polling, horse-trading, and endlessly shouting about a series of nomenklatura-contrived issues, which boil down to little more than a media-facilitated exchange of racist, sexist, ageist, and authoritarian barbs among the nomenklatura-approved serious candidates—it’s important to remember that, in spite of all the noise and spectacle, the most significant events for labor and for human freedom are happening in the streets of cities all over the country and all over the world, where workers are organizing among themselves, demanding their rights, fighting for their lives, and defying or simply bypassing the plutocrats and their so-called laws. In the U.S.A., while the punch-drunk establishmentarian labor movement reels from one failure to another, some of the most dynamic and successful labor struggles in the past few years have been fought by a grassroots union organized along syndicalist lines without NLRB recognition, using creative secondary boycott tactics which would be completely illegal if they had submitted to the regulatory patronage of the Wagner-Taft-Hartley system. There is a lesson here—a lesson for workers, for organizers, for agitators, and anti-statists. One we’d do well to remember when confronted by any of the bosses—whether corporate bosses or political, the labor fakirs and the authoritarian thugs styling themselves the vanguard of the working class, the regulators and the deporters and the patronizing friends of labor all:

Dump the Bosses Off Your Back

Are you cold, forelorn, and hungry?
Are there lots of things you lack?
Is your life made up of misery?
Then dump the bosses off your back!

—John Brill (1916)

Happy May Day, y’all.

Elsewhere Today:

Further reading: