Which Side Are You On? Explaining what happened to labor in America

Discuss

62 Responses to “Which Side Are You On? Explaining what happened to labor in America”

  1. Jeff9821 says:

    Noen

    “Because he negotiated with management and those are the terms they both agreed to. Why are you so arrogant that you think it is your place to judge others? Who the hell do you think you are?”

    That was not a negotiation. Getting what you want under threat of a strike is a form of extortion, not negotiation.

    You vastly oversimplify the worker/manager relationship. Using hyperbole does nothing to advance your point. Unions have long since grown too powerful in this country, and they are now just as guilty of extremes as the industrialists of the previous century.

  2. zuzu says:

    What about those of us who are anti-union and anti-management? I mean, why pick a side when you can oppose everything? Both unions and traditional employment structures are top down mandatory systems organized around hierarchies. The fact that each can check the abuses of the other is pointless- both are inherently poor systems, built around the idea of production as a process and the assembly line mentality of labor. In other words: corporations and unions are a relics of 20th century industrialism.

    Hear hear! (Just read The Future of Work.)

    In computing terms, it’s the same false dichotomy as “client and server”, but on the Internet everyone is a peer. (Although some sites are just your computer on dynamic IP, while other sites are Google.com.)

    “Capital” vs. “Labor” is also a false dichotomy. “Labor” is just the renting of your body (i.e. capital) — which includes your brain/mind for knowledge workers — in exchange for whatever capital the buyer also agrees to (usually money).

    In other words, “labor” is just one kind of capital, among many. Everything you own to augment your ability to think and act is also capital, and that’s all that cars and computers to factories and mines are too. (Just as also some people are profoundly more genetically adept at music, or mathematics, or gymnastics.)

    We’re cybernetic organisms, ever since our distant ancestors first picked up a jawbone and used it as a weapon.

    p.s. Unions contribute to causing unemployment. Keep that in mind during these hard times.

  3. dstntmbrk says:

    NN, y r hlrs!

    “Y’r qbblng vr smntcs. Lk sd, th dffrnc s n th cntrct. Y cnvnntly sdstppd tht pnt.”

    slv sgnng cntrct! RFLM!

  4. agnostoman says:

    I’m “pro-union” in the conceptual sense, but not in the current implementation sense. Have you ever tried to do work at a Union shop? Stop by your local Ford plant to see how difficult it is. Try to carry your own box from the recieving area to your work area. Try cleaning up after yourself when you’re done. Come back and tell me how that worked out for you.

    Unions are no longer about being paid a “fair” wage and doint “fair” work. The modern union stands for doing the least amount of work possible for the most money.

  5. zuzu says:

    This is your youth and naiveté showing. People can’t always just quit and move.

    I’m curious to hear why you think why not. If the answer is “house and kids”, well, we’re back to my argument that most people can’t truly afford a house and kids.

    Labor is just not as mobile as Capital is. That is just an unavoidable physical reality.

    No, it’s a problem of political borders. More nations need to follow the lead of the Amsterdam Treaty and Shengen Agreement; free movement of people between the NAFTA members would be a good start. Anything less is tantamount to, “Papers, please!”

    Paris Hilton has never worked a day in her life and there are many more like her.

    She’s an entertainer; she does “work”, and I’m sure her capital “works” (e.g. her money not sitting in a mattress, but being loaned or invested into others to do real things).

    Their lives are hidden from view for a reason.

    Mostly to avoid the mob violence of those inciting “class warfare” like you’re hinting at. At least, that’s the lesson I learned from the Johnson family in Born Rich.

    In a crisis where your family had the only bomb shelter in town, and it only has room for your family, what would you do?

    c.f. Executive Order 6102

    Perhaps in your field everything is fine right now but there are other engineering fields that have been decimated. Their wages undercut by cheap labor from India or elsewhere.

    Yeah, providence forbid that the really poor people get those jobs instead of you.

    Putting your self interest in with management is a big mistake.

    Again, this is a false choice. This social division doesn’t exist any more than different “races” exist.

  6. BingoTheChimp says:

    @ COREY and ZUZU

    Thanks for the posts! Both books look very interesting and I’m looking for’d to them! I suspect that we’re not quite at the “future” of work yet, so we still need to safeguard our rights to organize, unionize and jazzercise. The world is still full of people willing and able to take advantage of workers in the olde-fashioned sense.

  7. Anonymous says:

    If you ask me the root of the problems lies with the unfair practice of usury and the monetary system itself but I have to agree that the governments primary job should be to make sure that the companies and their owners do the right thing as far as its citizens are concerned. They should be informed on what the owners do with the power placed in their hands

  8. NidSquid says:

    I’m interested to read this book to get a different perspective on unions. I have a knee-jerk dislike for them because my experiences with unions have been exactly like what HARRKEV describes in #11. In every experience I have had with unionized labour, they have been lazy and with a strong sense of entitlement – 2 qualities I dislike immensely.

    In all my working career I have treated my employer as my working partner with the understanding that both of us need to do our parts to be successful. If the company does not thrive I don’t either and if I don’t work well, the company does not thrive.

    Unionized labour screams “I got mine, you can go to hell” – no company with employees with that attitude can expect to survive.

  9. zikzak says:

    @ zuzu & t3knomanser: Your criticism of the top-down, bureaucratic nature of unions is very apt. In my opinion, the elaborate hierarchy of large unions is the main reason they’re so shitty: The “rank and file” aren’t really making the decisions, they’re just working for two large institutions now instead of one.

    But there’s nothing about unions that say they must be that way. Why not a decentralized, directly democratic union? Why not a union made of peers, who substitute networked decision-making and organizational software for the bureaucracy and officers of the past? In the near future, I can see the “rank and file” gradually realizing that they don’t actually need the cruft of an old-style union in order to organize and collectively bargain with their employer.

  10. noen says:

    Wow Harrkev – Those are some terrifying horror stories. Shall I get you some smelling salts? A man who works for a living wants to take a lunch break! Will the horrors never end?

    “If an auto worker, who might have a high-school education at best, makes about the same amount as I do, who has a Master’s degree in engineering, something is slightly wrong.”

    Indeed, perhaps there is. Maybe if you formed a union you could get fairly compensated instead of whining about how those you deem inferior to you are not living in squalor.

    Zuzu
    “In computing terms…”
    “We’re not computers, Sebastian, we’re physical.”

    “”Labor” is just the renting of your body (i.e. capital)”

    Which is no different than slavery. The only difference being the terms of the contract. A union is a means of collective bargaining or negotiating for a better contract. There really IS no other means by which those who provide labor capital (as you describe) can effectively bargain for a better deal.

    Anarcho syndicalism claims to offer a better alternative than the Labor-Capital dichotomy but I’m unsure that would actually work in real life. It certainly ain’t gonna happen in the US. Not in this century.

    The pendulum has swung too far to the right. About time that changed.

  11. Harrkev says:

    #17, Noen:

    I am not against people taking a lunch break. However, sometimes, you have to roll up your sleeves and get the job done, even if it means taking a 10-minute lunch break every month or two. But not a union man. Heaven forbid that he takes less than his assigned lunch break, even once.

    It also annoyed me that I could not even touch this card while I was at the customer’s site. I helped design it, I debugged it, I touched every part of the card for months. Yet when I get to the customer’s site, a union rule hampered our productivity.

  12. BingoTheChimp says:

    @ AGNOSTOMAN

    Unions are no longer about being paid a “fair” wage and doint “fair” work. The modern union stands for doing the least amount of work possible for the most money.

    You are making the mistake of generalizing about all unions based on your limited exposure. Try your sentence above on a Teachers’, Healthcare Workers’ or Garment Workers’ union, to name just some obvious examples.

    It’s not black and white, as Corey’s post clearly states. Everyone seems to think the UAW and Teamsters (for better or worse) are representative of the “modern” union and it’s just not true.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Unions wouldn’t be necessary if government truly represented the people – the majority of whom are workers. There is something wrong with the psychology of those who don’t think we should all care about the welfare of others. The corporate owned media of America and the other western countries have indoctrinated the populace (to varying degrees) to believe that socialism is some kind of evil. That it is somehow synonymous with totalitarianism. Socialism is essentially the government doing it’s job of representing the rights and welfare of it’s people.

    In many ways America represents freedom. It’s protection of individual rights for example. But that is under constant threat by the dominant elite. Socialism is not the threat to America’s freedoms. The interests of the powerful always have been a threat to the interests of the people. World history shows us that.

  14. tentimes says:

    tin tin has some interesting things to say about unions -

    http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20090304204058584

  15. devophill says:

    !!Those are longshoremen, there!! (Like me.) Yay. Now, I’ll RTFA.

  16. zuzu says:

    “”Labor” is just the renting of your body (i.e. capital)” Which is no different than slavery.

    No, it’s very different. Slavery would be if someone else “owned” your body instead of you. (Meanwhile your consciousness is trapped inside “someone else’s” body.) Hence the principle of self-ownership. I said rent, not a transfer of ownership.

    There really IS no other means by which those who provide labor capital (as you describe) can effectively bargain for a better deal.

    Of course there is: If you don’t like it, quit and work somewhere else. Just as if I don’t like a Ford car I buy a Toyota car instead. Or if I don’t like the price that one retailer sells coffee for, I buy it from other.

    It’s called competition, and it’s always in the best interest of the consumer. Yes, selling your services of labor can be hard business, but when you do earn that money, be assured that everyone else trying to sell you something is working just as hard to please you.

    You are making the mistake of generalizing about all unions based on your limited exposure. Try your sentence above on a Teachers’ … union

    Teachers unions are just as bad; particularly the aforementioned emphasis on seniority over ability.

  17. NidSquid says:

    Noen,

    Recognizing a difference in capabilities among people is neither arrogant nor judgmental.

    Compensation should be directly related to contribution. Different people contribute more or less value to an organization based on their skill sets. Heck, the engineers who are more experienced and skilled than me should be paid more!

    To expect a level of compensation that is not in keeping with your contribution is wrong.

  18. zikzak says:

    @zuzu: I’m curious to hear why you think why not. If the answer is “house and kids”, well, we’re back to my argument that most people can’t truly afford a house and kids.

    You should expand on this, because at face value it seems psychopathic, so I’m sure the explanation will be very interesting. If you’re arguing – as it seems you are – that the reason people can afford to raise families is because society hasn’t sufficiently embraced the free market…well, I guess I’d have to agree :)

  19. zuzu says:

    But if the costs are real, then they’re just being externalized to others. Is that right? (Just as with the mortgage crisis.)

    I’d love to get to the origins of this sense of entitlement people have to “house and kids”.

    How about I be entitled to a pony and a rocket car?

    (Clearly, denying me my pony and rocket car is “psychopathic”.)

  20. zuzu says:

    Zuzu, that’s an analogy, not real-world identity. Capital and labor are two different things.

    Management does exist as a separate class.

    “Doesn’t have a genetic basis” doesn’t mean “not real.” Race is most assuredly real.

    Social constructions do not make things real, any more than popular belief in God, or angels, or ghosts, or bigfoot make them real.

    This applies to all forms of “social identity”.

    (Ok, technically, this gets into Charles Sanders Peirce territory on semantics, such as “The Fixation of Belief“, and being precise about “real” vs. “actual” — IIRC, or whatever terms he used.)

    It is unseemly to make remarks like that when in all other instances you’ve taken a callous attitude toward the poor.

    How have I been callous to impoverished people? (Other than, perhaps, to suggest that they cannot also afford to have offspring of their own, just as they cannot afford mansions and skydiving lessons.)

    Second, how soon do you expect those legal changes to happen? Is there any certainty that they’ll ever happen? (Answer: no.)

    The world is what we make of it. If this requires changing the agendas of public discourse, then so be it.

    You can look at how much the gap widened between rich and poor over the past decade or so, and conclude that class warfare is something the working classes engage in?

    Invoking “class” as a function of economics, rather than political power, to create and “us versus them” mentality, is typical of the historic (i.e. turn of the 20th century) definition of “class warfare”.

    I’ve seen you make your “most people can’t afford houses and children” argument before. I’ve never seen you justify it. So tell us: what changed, and when did it happen?

    The shift from a primarily agricultural socioeconomy to a primarily industrial one, and now again to a primarily knowledge-based one. ala Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave. In an agrarian society, offspring were essentially slave labor, and reduced operating costs of farming. However, with the rise of industrialization (beginning with fertilizer for the farms, IIRC), children largely changed from economic benefits to economic burdens.

    Today, the cost of raising a child to be well suited to the critical thinking, creativity, and scientific reasoning skills required of modern knowledge work is astoundingly high. (In part this is reflected by ever increasing requirements of “official” education… high school, undergraduate, and now graduate school if not full PhDs.)

    Zuzu @23, there’s an economic principle called “friction” that you need to become better acquainted with.

    Please elaborate on your context here. I’m familiar with transaction costs, but insofar as changes of employment go, if you’re wise enough to save rather than rely on credit, the economic frictions are rather minimal. (I also acknowledge some additional burdens if you’re tied to a 15-30 year mortgage, but again, owner-occupied housing has been so vastly subsidized since the end of WWII that this seems to be yet another unintended consequence of social planning.)

  21. HeruRaHa says:

    Thanks for recommending this…. I’ve always found myself in the odd position of being pro-labor, but anti-union… with EFCA coming to vote soon in Congress, this has been a bit more on my mind recently. Perhaps a bit of good old fashioned reading will help me understand how, in the face of all the crap unions are responsible for, they can possibly be any better for the health and wealth of the workers than corporate management.

  22. NidSquid says:

    #17:

    “Indeed, perhaps there is. Maybe if you formed a union you could get fairly compensated instead of whining about how those you deem inferior to you are not living in squalor.”

    I don’t understand your outrage. Why should someone with a high-school education whose job is to move my computer from one end of my cubicle to the other even be on the same payscale as someone with an advanced education and vast professional knowledge? Noone is entitled to anything, we all have to work for what we can have.

    Statements like that do absolutely nothing to dispel the notion of the union entitlement mentality.

    I understand what Harrkev is trying to say. As an engineer myself I am more than satisfied with what I make – it’s not an obscene amount of money by any stretch of the imagination but it’s a very fair wage for the work I do.

    So I am not undercompensated but I do feel that unions are overcompensated. And that hurts the business entity as a whole. And your suggestion that I should form a union and demand more pay is ridiculous. I get paid a fair wage. Why would I demand more simply because I feel like I deserve it? By what measure? On what grounds? And when the business cannot meet the labour demands and crumbles, I’m out of a job!

    Why does the employer/employee relationship have to be adversarial? Neither one can do without the other and if both work together, great things can be achieved.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like a good book. For those interested int he topic of labor history, some recommendations:

    Strike! by Jeremy Brecher
    Labor’s Untold Story by Boyer and Morais
    Dynamite by Louis Adamic
    We Shall Be All: A History of the IWW by Melvyn Dubofsky

    Are all fascinating reads covering the early era of labor history when the state’s iron fist was fully out of the velvet glove. The level of violence and chicanery companies and the government were willing to stoop to in crushing worker’s organizations will astonish those who aren’t familiar with the history.

    More recently Kim Moody’s stuff, Mike Davis’ “Prisoners of the American Dream” are top notch.

  24. error404 says:

    How to make cars in the US.

    The bosses hate the workers.

    They realise that under NAFTA they can sack all them f*ckers and move the plant to Mexico.

    South of the Border the cars cost a lot less to make.

    No one in the US can buy them because the bosses laid off their workers and their MARKET.

    Oh and no one else in the world buys american cars.

  25. Big Ed Dunkel says:

    Does it have Archie Bunker’s mistaken reference to the AFL-CIO as the “UFO-CIA”?

  26. SeamusAndrewMurphy says:

    Boy, this is one cantankerous lot.

    My personal experience: there is only one thing worse than being a member of a union. That’s not being a member of a union. But let me tell you, being confined by union rules and attitudes is pretty terrible. On the other hand, being without certain union protections has been a sometimes terrifying onslaught of arbitrary, capricious, and unaccountably hostile behavior.

    A big problem with unions is that they’re run by their members. Wow, I can’t believe the people elected to represent the unions I’ve been in. Still, the big problem with management is also the people running the show. No one should mistake for one minute that, for the majority, corporations are not benignly despotic, they are just despotic.

    I can certainly understand individual exasperation when dealing with union members. One might want to consider though that the shitty attitudes of the union employees are almost always a learned reaction to equally duplicitous and shitty behavior by management teams.

    One other thing to consider: labor power is truly hobbled compared to the mid-twentieth century. Small business is hobbled in the same way. There is absolutely no way for an American worker or small business to compete with other industrial economies with guaranteed health insurance or with “developing” economies that treat their citizens as throw-aways undeserving of even business subsidized health insurance. It suits trans-nationals just fine, but they’re not going to be the engine of economic growth or higher standards of living. That’s what the currently pooped on small businesses are for.

  27. t3knomanser says:

    What about those of us who are anti-union and anti-management? I mean, why pick a side when you can oppose everything?

    Both unions and traditional employment structures are top down mandatory systems organized around hierarchies. The fact that each can check the abuses of the other is pointless- both are inherently poor systems, built around the idea of production as a process and the assembly line mentality of labor.

    In other words: corporations and unions are a relics of 20th century industrialism.

  28. Jimbo2K7 says:

    Point number one: Just because you are more educated does not mean your labor is worth more than the guy busting his back. I have met more well educated idiots in my life than I care to remember. I have also met simply brilliant people lacking nothing more than college credentials. The sheepskin doesn’t always really mean anything. To say otherwise is just ugly elitism.

    Number two: Unions operate at a serious disadvantage. Most union members and officers come from the labor force. Many are dedicated but not trained in dealing effectively with MBA’s and labor attorneys. They do their best, but can easily be swayed or corrupted by management, and it happens so often that it diminishes the effectiveness of unions. That is deliberate, and I have witnessed it myself as a union officer for many years.

    I don’t know what the solution is except for labor laws that help level the playing field between highly skilled and financed management and moderately skilled and under-compensated union officials.

    Unfortunately labor laws intended to do this have been weakened or done away with entirely, to a point that the Department of Labor is more of a corporate mouthpiece for keeping organized labor in its place.

    Number three: Union officials are obligated to represent all union members in disputes with management, whether they are truly deserving or not. Kind of like being a public attorney – even the guilty get their day in court. It is terribly frustrating but unavoidable, and it distorts peoples image of what unions do. Management often takes advantage of this by overloading unions with frivolous actions that clog the grievance procedures and create further discontent with the unions. This doesn’t make unions bad, but it does affect peoples perceptions.

    It is relatively easy for companies to create discontent and distort what unions are about, and they feel it is in their interest to do so. Again, it is the failure of labor laws to prevent this that has resulted in the decline of unions.

  29. jacobian says:

    Labour is distinct from other capital in that it is a *human* component. Other bits of capital are just not as important because they aren’t human

    Labour is in opposition to capital because capital needs to reduce wages maximally to obtain profits. Only cooperation among workers can avoid attacks against wages.

    Unions actually have a beneficial effect on the economy. They increase working wages which leads to greater aggregate demand.

    The forms that unions take can be hierarchical and bureaucratic. However, this isn’t an argument against unions, it’s an argument for horizontalism.

    As for capital, it isn’t actually that mobile. The reason that it currently moves is directly related to the fact that borders exist to keep labour captive. If labour wasn’t captive, then capital would move a lot less, as it wouldn’t be chasing labour in regions where state violence (to break unions) lack of regulation on labour and poor environmental conditions keep profits high.

    I think the world needs a proper syndicalist movement. Corporations are international, and can move freely *AND* get a special dispensation from the state. Give labour the right to form unions which are protected in the same way that corporations are, and which are as international as corporations are and allow the free movement of labour and we’d be moving to a much freer society.

    Freedom of movement would finally solve the problem of under-development as we’d have to ensure that places were nice to live in so that everyone doesn’t move to the imperial core. We’d stop screwing workers in third world countries with low wages.

  30. Rindan says:

    I have deeply mixed feelings about unions as they are now. Collective bargaining is not a bad thing, nor is having an organization to look out for workers. The problem I have is with their conflicting interest that lead to inefficiency almost for its own sake.

    Teacher unions are an excellent example. More pay for teachers is not a bad thing, but it isn’t a good thing in it of itself. I want my teachers better paid so that we get better teacher. When you see unions fighting for contracts that make it basically impossible to fire under performing teachers or prevent excelling teachers from receiving superior compensation, I get angry.

    Unfortunately, unions are not for more efficient workers or supporting superior workers. They are for the majority of workers. The easiest way to make a majority happy is to simply give them more stuff the longer they stay in the game, rather than for being better. This results in some of the utterly fucked up contracts that unions some times impose. When an engineer literally can’t touch a tool or spin a knob because it violates a contact that says that only union technitions can, I am upset.

    I don’t know what the answer is. I want unions that support and encourage excellence, not the dull drone of mediocrity. A union that fought for giving outstanding teachers truly superior pay would be something I support. A union that fights to make sure even the most dismal of teachers can’t be fired on the other hand is something I have little interest in. Instead, unions fight to shell out the most cash to whoever managers to keep sucking air the longest in some sort of screwed up pyramid scheme.

  31. Raj77 says:

    BCSIZEMO- being unable to fulfil your job description is just cause for dismissal, and anyone who tells you that unions don’t accept that (at a pinch) is trying to sell you something. Where “something” is the bosses’ propaganda.

    If “laziness” means “not doing 20% more than you are paid for”, as it has in a few jobs I’ve held, then the worker in question is simply refusing to be exploited and sticking to his contract. Which is the only moral thing he can do.

  32. Halloween Jack says:

    Cory, it’s worth mentioning that Tom Geoghegan is running for Congress in Illinois’ 5th District, which seat has not only been occupied most recently by Rahm Emanuel but also in the past by Rod Blagojevich and Dan Rostenkowski, two of the most corrupt politicians in Illinois history. I hope that Chicago Boing Boingers come out to vote for Geoghegan instead of one of the run-of-the-mill party hacks that are also contending for the seat.

  33. SeamusAndrewMurphy says:

    Cripe, I obviously meant that corporations are “not” benignly despotic.

    Typo.

  34. Takuan says:

    Hi! How a union behaves is a direct reflection of how its membership wants it to. Yup, leave it all to a few and sooner or later it goes corrupt. On the other hand, a union with well attended meetings, fully staffed member committees and an executive that fears the vote of the members is likely to be responsive to external realities and reasonable at the bargaining table. And strong enough to strike if that is what is needed.

    So long as I have to work for a living, I will be on the union side. If fortunes smiles on me with unearned wealth, I’ll immediately jump to the other side. How about you? You rich already?

  35. normal1 says:

    How timely is this? Unions have been relentlessly attacked and their value to employees buried by Republicans intent on elevating business intersts above all else. We are finally realizing that the conventional wisdom that Republicans are capitalists, Democrats are socialists is false. Republicans talked the talk of capitalism, but never walked the walk. And so, all the attacks throughout the years on Dems as socialists were based on false pretenses; they weren’t practicing capitalism! They just abused it to justify their thuggery.

    It’s almost painful to watch them scramble to explain why it isn’t socialism (evil commies!) to use taxpayer money to bail out bankers, but it would be death to America to support worker’s rights, universal healthcare, etc. But, as an admirerer of propaganda, I am impressed with their zeal to keep the dream alive.

  36. zuzu says:

    Why does the employer/employee relationship have to be adversarial? Neither one can do without the other and if both work together, great things can be achieved.

    Right on!

    In all my working career I have treated my employer as my working partner with the understanding that both of us need to do our parts to be successful. If the company does not thrive I don’t either and if I don’t work well, the company does not thrive.

    Exactly.

    It’s not about “management vs. labor”, it’s about wealth creation through providing what people want for a price they can afford.

    No one in the US can buy them because the bosses laid off their workers and their MARKET.

    You’re merely describing a deflationary cycle to a faulty extreme.

    Consider our necessary deflationary correction now. As people can afford less, eventually prices for goods and services will drop accordingly. Prices are all relative to supply and demand; specifically prices as a medium of exchange reflect dynamic supply and demand. c.f. price signals

    (Setting aside our fundamental monetary policy problem of causing inflation to begin with, because the money masters wrongly believe that deflation is to be prevented at all costs.)

    For example, if prices for everything were suddenly halved today. So you’re earning half as much as you were, but everything else costs half as much too, how would your life be any different? Would you be “half as wealthy”?

    Yes, the adjustment of deflation is difficult… in that period between when you don’t have as much money but prices for what you need haven’t dropped yet. But this is precisely the inverse of the problem of inflation, where you were consuming more than what the actual supply could sustain. (If that inflation went on, you’d have shortages of real goods, and couldn’t buy them no matter how much money you have.)

  37. Cunning says:

    Noen, Bladerunner reference, ftw.

  38. jacobian says:

    @56

    Firstly, anyone who thinks that inflation is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon has already lost the plot. It’s clearly not the case from empirical studies of the money supply. I think it’s time to drop the quaint theories of the Austrian anti-empiricists.

    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2009/02/steve-keen-roving-cavaliers-of-credit.html?showComment=1234141620000

    Consumer spending for its own sake is called waste, and it’s economically destructive.

    If people get the real goods and services that they want in a market, then it has to come from them being payed sufficient amounts for them to get it. Demand is not a function of abstract wants. It is dictated by the amount of money received in the labour market.

    If we want to be empirical then neo-classical theory shows itself as being a bunch of rationalisations for laissez faire.

    Look at union membership by country and GINI coefficients over time. You can see when wage increases stop in the US and Britain despite increases in GDP.

    http://www.evil-wire.org/~jacobian/gini-union.png

    Arguably, all capital (i.e. private property) is an extension of your body. The clothes you wear, the food you eat, the computers you think with, the car that transports you, and so on.

    Spoken like a true neo-classical anti-humanist bent on rationalising unbridled capitalism even when it clearly focuses on the wrong subject. I think you need to starve for a bit in the third world so you can remember where you body is.

  39. zuzu says:

    How a union behaves is a direct reflection of how its membership wants it to.

    By the same argument, so does the membership of a corporation.

    So long as I have to work for a living, I will be on the union side. If fortunes smiles on me with unearned wealth, I’ll immediately jump to the other side. How about you? You rich already?

    So all owners and managers are “rich already”? They don’t “truly” earn their wealth? Ever been an entrepreneur?

  40. key says:

    @Zuzu
    I’m enjoying reading this exchange and I like your arguments. (I’m a former union organizer, just to let you know where I’m coming from. I’m not entirely thrilled about the state of labor in America for several reasons, but my reasons are probably different than yours. Anyhow, I digress.)

    I just have to point out something:
    I’m sure her capital “works” (e.g. her money not sitting in a mattress, but being loaned or invested into others to do real things).

    One of the big problems we have in this country is that for the past few years, this has been less true than it has in the past. A lot of money has been doing nothing but earning more money, as it is invested in perfectly abstract investments like energy speculation or mortgage derivatives. This money DOESN’T trickle down to people who need to borrow; it just circulates among those who already have a lot of money. Some of them win, some of them lose, but it really never gets down to the people who could make it productive.

    I completely agree that investment on the part of those who have money is good and necessary, but it has to be productive investment.

  41. Davinder says:

    @31 Jeff9821:
    That was not a negotiation. Getting what you want under threat of a strike is a form of extortion, not negotiation.

    If you’re trying to buy a car from my dealership and you say you won’t meet my price, is it extortion when I don’t give you the car?

    If the company wants to buy labour, but won’t meet the asking price, why aren’t union members entitled to withhold their services? How is that extortion?

  42. Takuan says:

    yup, and who said middle managers and small business owners were smart? For the early aging, sacrifice of all other life and total ingratitude from higher ups (in the case of managers, owners just have to lick bank and big customer butt), the only reward is the illusion of control.

  43. Halloween Jack says:

    Oh, crap: the primary for the seat has already been held, and Geoghagen lost. Dang it.

  44. zikzak says:

    The labor struggle is much bigger than any union, and in some cases is even at odds with the unions. Sometimes, it takes a good wildcat.

    Workplace democracy is a very important thing to fight for. Often unions are a powerful vehicle in pursuit of it, and sometimes they’re a roadblock.

    Me, I think of unions as a tactic, one of many tools available for the advancement of the rights of poor working people. When the tool works, use it. When it doesn’t, abandon it. What we definitely don’t need is to categorically reject that tool just because it isn’t right in a given scenario.

  45. noen says:

    Tim Wise speaking at the Unitarian Universalist Community Center in Ridgewood, NJ on January 6th, 2005

    This talk could be called “What’s the Matter With White People”. In it he talks about how white privilege harms not only minorities but also harms whites. He mentions specifically unions that discriminated against blacks and how it’s the result of the false consciousness of race.

    For a long time those in power have divided the working class by race, by religion or by anything they could find. Just so long as it served it’s purpose of keeping us in chains.

  46. Anonymous says:

    @SQUID,

    If you feel your wage is fair, why do you care what anyone else makes? Your elitism is showing… surprisingly, idiots who do unremarkable things who happen to be good-looking make more than you too.

    Your need to have people ‘under’ you in terms of both pay and rank may mean something…

    The fact is, a lot of rich people don’t have to do anything but have millions because of work done by their great-grandfather’s slaves — union workers want only to keep their job to ensure their family’s continued comfort.

    Or are you suggesting that people with ‘only’ a high school education don’t deserve a house or an education for their kids?

  47. noen says:

    Harrkev
    “sometimes, you have to roll up your sleeves and get the job done, even if it means taking a 10-minute lunch break every month or two.”

    Except that he knows something that you don’t seem to know. That if he gives up his breaks and his lunch here and there he will be asked to give up more and more and more. He knows this because there was a time when you didn’t get breaks all. When you worked for a solid 16 hours.

    Do you not notice how in the way you even pose the question it’s all about you?

    Zuzu
    “No, it’s very different. Slavery would be if someone else “owned” your body instead of you.”

    You’re quibbling over semantics. Like I said, the difference is in the contract. You conveniently sidestepped that point.

    “Of course there is: If you don’t like it, quit and work somewhere else.”

    This is your youth and naiveté showing. People can’t always just quit and move. Ever hear of “company towns”? Labor is just not as mobile as Capital is. That is just an unavoidable physical reality.

    NidSquid
    “I don’t understand your outrage.”

    Because you’re not better than he is. Because he negotiated with management and those are the terms they both agreed to. Why are you so arrogant that you think it is your place to judge others? Who the hell do you think you are?

    “Noone is entitled to anything, we all have to work for what we can have.”

    Actually, we are entitled to some things. To be treated with dignity, to be treated as a human being, to have our rights respected. You’re wrong that everyone works for what they have. The privileged do not work. Paris Hilton has never worked a day in her life and there are many more like her. Even the “hard working capitalists” do not work nearly as hard as they let on. Their lives are hidden from view for a reason. Many people don’t even know that we have an Aristocratic class in America.

    “Why does the employer/employee relationship have to be adversarial?”

    Why does the slave/slave owner relationship have to be adversarial? There was a word for slaves like you. Now… I know that I am exaggerating. I do so for effect, to make a point. This nice cozy “relationship” you think you have will evaporate the moment it’s in Capital’s interest to change it. Perhaps in your field everything is fine right now but there are other engineering fields that have been decimated. Their wages undercut by cheap labor from India or elsewhere.

    Putting your self interest in with management is a big mistake.

  48. dstntmbrk says:

    NOEN, glad you could read my comment before I was disemvoweled.

    “You’ve never heard of indentured servitude? Throughout history many slave/owner relationships were contractual.”

    I have heard of indentured servitude, and simply put,

    indentured servant =/= slave

    The difference between an indentured servant and a slave is the difference between the white American settlers who worked a few years to pay off their travel debts and the Africans who were chained and packed like sardines and shipped to America to toil without compensation for the rest of their lives.

    Let’s stick to your original argument- That voluntary employment is the same thing as being enslaved, just with a difference of contract. My point was that slaves (unlike indentured servants) have no choice in the matter. I am not making an argument for or against indentured servitude. I’m just taking aim at your incredible hyperbole.

    There are far more libertarian arguments against voluntary slavery than there are for it. Here’s Rothbard…

    “The concept of “voluntary slavery” is indeed a contradictory one, for so long as a laborer remains totally subservient to his master’s will voluntarily, he is not yet a slave since his submission is voluntary; whereas, if he later changed his mind and the master enforced his slavery by violence, the slavery would not then be voluntary.”

    @46
    Hope this is enough substance for me not to be censored. BTW Teresa, I tried posting my response to NOEN on “Why the Real Estate Boom Won’t Bust and other funny books still for sale on Amazon” for the third time now. Could you please make sure it goes through? I promise there is not a rude word in it.

  49. Anonymous says:

    I do understand that I’m rather late to this party, so hate to make the claim “last word,” but I think it’s worth addressing Harrkev’s perceptions of unions. Personally, I belong to a union. Refusing to pay my dues requires my employer to fire me. And I hate that one way or the other, I will be screwed (by the employer, who pays me, or the union, who i pay).

    I think Harrkev is actually right on this one. The unions interfere much more than they help, in as much as there are things that I am willing to do that are forbidden to me because I do not work in the specific department where the work would be done. Things go wrong sometimes, and I am not allowed to help make them better. THAT is my primary objection with unions.

    However, if your theoretical high school grad auto worker makes as much money as you might make doing the same job, then you should feel cheated, for having cranked up the debt and/or paid for that degree. You cannot seriously expect that a job that a high school graduate can perform well enough to merit a high salary should necessarily pay you more because you have a document that says you are smarter or more qualified than he is. Indeed, this poses a hiring block. Ever hear of an application being refused for “overqualification?”

    It happens. Not everybody has a degree, and the simple reality is that if everybody did, you’d find people with them working at McDonalds. (You actually already can).

  50. gd23 says:

    “You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

    The Matrix (1999)

  51. zuzu says:

    They increase working wages which leads to greater aggregate demand.

    “Aggregate demand” is smoke and mirrors.
    Real wealth creation is caused by return on investment.

    Consumer spending for its own sake is called waste, and it’s economically destructive.

    Unions actually have a beneficial effect on the economy.

    No, they don’t. They cause unemployment and reduce economic efficiency.
    c.f. Wages, Unemployment, and Inflation

    Labour is in opposition to capital because capital needs to reduce wages maximally to obtain profits.

    Businesses seek to lower all costs, which is bounded by supply. It’s not just wages, but all operating costs including equipment (e.g. “raw materials”).

    But no one will agree to an exchange that isn’t mutually beneficial, so supply and demand balance each other out according to the ratio we call prices.

    Labour is distinct from other capital in that it is a *human* component. Other bits of capital are just not as important because they aren’t human

    Arguably, all capital (i.e. private property) is an extension of your body. The clothes you wear, the food you eat, the computers you think with, the car that transports you, and so on.

  52. JArmstrong says:

    @#3/5

    Yes, Geoghagan did not win the primary, although he made a good showing. As far as Rostenkowski and Blagojevich go, I do believe they are two of the most corrupt Illinois politicians to get caught.

    I look forward to reading this book. I first joined two unions when I was ten years old and have always been proud of my status as a union man. However, for the last five or six years, I have been plagued with concern over the question: What happens to the Union when it has achieved all that it set out to do (safe work environment, fair pay, and healthcare), and it appears to be a behemoth that wants to get more than what is fair?

  53. Anonymous says:

    I’d like to second the anonymous declaration above that Mr. Geoghegan’s cover story in the latest Harper’s is *superb* and should not be missed. And if you haven’t shelled out the measly 16$ for a year’s subscription to Harper’s…what can I say?

  54. noen says:

    Jeff9821
    That was not a negotiation. Getting what you want under threat of a strike is a form of extortion, not negotiation.

    Doing what your boss tells you to do or else you’ll get fired is also extortion. You do not seem to have thought very deeply about power and how it functions in out lives. A strike is a perfectly legal act.

    dstntmbrk
    A slave signing a contract! ROFLMAO!

    You could at one time sign a contract to enslave yourself in the US. You’ve never heard of indentured servitude? Throughout history many slave/owner relationships were contractual.

    Walter Block

    Block, along with Robert Nozick is one of the leading libertarian defenders of slave contracts, arguing that it “is a bona fide contract” which, if “abrogated, theft occurs” and critiques other libertarians who oppose voluntary slavery as being inconsistent with their shared principles.

    NidSquid
    Recognizing a difference in capabilities among people is neither arrogant nor judgmental.

    That’s absolutely true. However, Judging people based on perceived differences is.

    “To expect a level of compensation that is not in keeping with your contribution is wrong.”

    How do you know what metric to use? Shouldn’t the best measure of the worth of one’s contribution be “the best compensation I can negotiate”? On the other hand, would not free market principles say that if you are receiving less in compensation for your contribution that therefore what you have contributed is of lesser value? Why are you jealous of those “uneducated workers” whom the free market has obviously deemed deserve to be paid more than you do?

    Zuzu
    (Clearly, denying me my pony and rocket car is “psychopathic”.)

    No, blithely dismissing the needs of people for food, shelter and reproductive rights is.

  55. AnjaFlower says:

    I love union history, esp. the old radical unions – CNT, anyone – due partially to my family’s involvement in the movement, but also because it’s just great human drama and I really do care about the well-being of the working class. I, after all, am only one step away from being an unskilled worker myself.

  56. Anonymous says:

    Geoghegan also has the cover story in the new Harpers. It is, of course, excellent.

  57. zikzak says:

    @37,zuzu: There are far and away enough resources to ensure that everyone can have a home and kids if they so choose. There might be enough to ensure that everyone can have a rocket car, but most don’t want that, so I don’t really see the connection. Perhaps you could swap your home for a live-in rocket car :)

    The reason I brought up psychopathy is because the reason that people have a “sense of entitlement to house and kids” seems so blindingly clear it’s difficult to believe a well adjusted person wouldn’t understand it. It’s like wondering why people feel entitled to eat something other than moldy bread. People like decent food. People like having a family (procreative or otherwise). People like having a home they can call their own. These are virtually universal human desires, though apparently not completely universal.

    Making the above things available to people is one of the main reasons for having an economy, capital, labor, etc. in the first place. So it seems like you’re putting the cart before the horse when you say that there’s something wrong with people’s desire for these very basic things because a pure capitalist economy cannot provide them.

  58. key says:

    Thanks for this, Cory — I’m definitely adding this book to my list.

    Can I suggest, in the spirit of this post, that instead of linking to Amazon in this case, you link to Powells.com, which is unionized?

    http://powells.com/biblio/65-9781565848863-2

  59. bcsizemo says:

    All in all an interesting and frankly intellectually invigorating discussion…

    While the parts about division between “labor” and management seem clear, the reasons I think are not so.

    From my experiences management fears it’s labor. And that fear comes from the idea that being honest and fair could lead to a lack of control. I’ve hardly ever had a boss or manager be open and honest about anything truely important. Most will treat their employees in a childlike way at some time or another. Possibly this isn’t a percieved action by the manager? Maybe they truely don’t know they are doing it…I hope so. But it doesn’t change the fact they do.

    And frankly even the slowest person I have worked with can see right through it. They know you aren’t will to treat them with the respect they deserve. That breeds the distrust of management….

    An example:

    Eariler this week my company “let go” (fired) roughly %20 of our workforce. Now after all this we had a little meeting. It was question/answer time and someone asked, so how many people got fired. The plant manager’s respond, “We don’t talk about things like that.” Really? Cause you know I think we can count, I’m pretty sure we can figure it out on our own. But giving us a crap answer only makes us distrust you more.

    Now I do live in a right to work state, and you can leave or be fired at anytime. So yes, if you don’t like it then leave. But I think this is a way of being, something that has been spread through companies for some unknown reason.

    And on to reason #2. Being PC. I hate it.
    Running a company should be an efficient and productive arrangment. Workers should be able to do their job assignments, mangers helping as needed (and covering their assignments), and everything running smoothly. But no, the company has to worry that they can’t fire an employee without just cause or else they might get sued… WTF. If you are a slack ass lazy employee you need to be fired, period. This is a job, you are getting paid to do it. (I have been on the labor side much more than the management side, but I believe this holds true for all employees not just the labor side).
    Amazing enough I have found only the lazy employees will disagree with you on this.

    I don’t have a true opinion on unions, as I have never been exposed to one. I can see the positives…and the negatives. Which in any captalistic society is greed. Welcome to Amercia, where’s my slice of the pie?

    No need to respond, just adding more thought to the fires…

  60. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Community Manager says:

    Let me start by stating my biases: I’ve read this book, highly recommend it. Thomas Geoghegan is a strong, clear author who puts his information and arguments out where you can see them. He writes about the politics of labor as though no one had ever done it before.

    Jarmstrong @9: Then you work to reform it, just as you would with any other organization — and all organizations that last a while and do real work wind up having to be reformed now and then. It says nothing about the nature of unions that it happens to them too. It’s a completely normal process.

    What you don’t do is get rid of the union. That’s like saying that having a well-run company means you can get rid of management, since they’ve plainly accomplished all they set out to do.

    By the way, if your union has accomplished everything it set out to do and is sitting pretty now, you’ve been extraordinarily lucky.

    Harrkev @13: I’ve also seen corporations with extraordinarily stupid, arbitrary rules. One tries to get them changed. I don’t know of any other human institution where imperfection or transient stupidity are taken as an argument for the abolition of the entire institution.

    Zuzu @14:

    “Capital” vs. “Labor” is also a false dichotomy. “Labor” is just the renting of your body (i.e. capital) — which includes your brain/mind for knowledge workers — in exchange for whatever capital the buyer also agrees to (usually money). In other words, “labor” is just one kind of capital, among many.

    Zuzu, that’s an analogy, not real-world identity. Capital and labor are two different things.

    Nidsquid @17:

    In all my working career I have treated my employer as my working partner with the understanding that both of us need to do our parts to be successful. If the company does not thrive I don’t either and if I don’t work well, the company does not thrive.

    It’s a good attitude. Do you by any chance work in the computer industry, or one of its outgrowths? That’s an anomalous area for labor. Companies are constantly changing, and are heavily dependent on the specialized expertise of their employees. Labor is skilled (and constantly updates those skills), is fairly mobile, and during most of the industry’s history has been in constant demand. That gives them a lot of bargaining power.

    Most industries don’t have that favorable a balance of power, from the employee’s point of view. Thus the invention of unions and collective bargaining: it allows labor to negotiate with management in situations where the disparity in power between management and individual employees would be too great for that to happen.

    Unionized labour screams “I got mine, you can go to hell” – no company with employees with that attitude can expect to survive.

    No, it doesn’t. That’s not an inherent property of unions, though paid union-busting propaganda is fond of presenting it as though it were. Unions know that if the company stops working, so do their employees.

    If you want a real example of that attitude, look at the highly compensated and wildly self-confident “visionary” management teams who get control of established, productive firms, like Ron Perlman with Marvel, Kerry Killinger with Washington Mutual, or Barry O’Callaghan with Houghton Mifflin, and walk away a few years later with millions in their pockets and the company in ruins.

    Zuzu @23, there’s an economic principle called “friction” that you need to become better acquainted with.

    Nidsquid @25:

    Why should someone with a high-school education whose job is to move my computer from one end of my cubicle to the other even be on the same payscale as someone with an advanced education and vast professional knowledge?

    Because a lot of their skills and experience weren’t acquired in a classroom, and didn’t come with a diploma attached. You see them move your computer. You don’t know what else they do. Well-paid unskilled blue-collar jobs of any kind are extremely rare these days.

    Look: in one pan of this scale, I’ve got a copywriter and document editor who got an MFA from a university writing program. In the other pan, I’ve got someone with a high-school diploma who has the necessary skill set and experience to handle site maintenance at an office building. You tell me which one is harder to find, and has more companies out there that would be glad to hire them.

    Jeff @31:

    Getting what you want under threat of a strike is a form of extortion, not negotiation.

    If getting what you want under threat of termination isn’t extortion, then neither is getting what you want under threat of a strike. Collective bargaining just helps balance the inequities of scale.

    Dstntmbrk @32, it’s easier to get away with being rude if you say something of substance while you’re doing it.

    Zuzu @33:

    I’m curious to hear why you think why not. If the answer is “house and kids”, well, we’re back to my argument that most people can’t truly afford a house and kids.

    In the millennia since civilization was invented, the default condition of humanity has involved having a place to live. Children have frequently been part of the deal. In fact, that arrangement has been extremely common right up to the present age.

    I’ve seen you make your “most people can’t afford houses and children” argument before. I’ve never seen you justify it. So tell us: what changed, and when did it happen?

    More nations need to follow the lead of the Amsterdam Treaty and Shengen Agreement; free movement of people between the NAFTA members would be a good start. Anything less is tantamount to, “Papers, please!”

    First, that only approaches possibility with your hypothetical employee who has no family and no place to live; and who, we now learn, either speaks numerous languages, or works at jobs where language skills are not required. Personally, I think you’ve mistaken him for an electron.

    Second, how soon do you expect those legal changes to happen? Is there any certainty that they’ll ever happen? (Answer: no.) Why should the chance that that might someday happen keep workers from trying to get better treatment where they are now?

    Now, I think we’d have a better system if aliens landed and gave us lots of magic technology that would solve all our pesky old problems and guarantee each and every one of us a fulfilling, high-status job with an above-average salary. The day that happens, I’ll stop thinking workers can do better in negotiations with their bosses if they organize.

    Mostly to avoid the mob violence of those inciting “class warfare” like you’re hinting at.

    You can look at how much the gap widened between rich and poor over the past decade or so, and conclude that class warfare is something the working classes engage in?

    Perhaps in your field everything is fine right now but there are other engineering fields that have been decimated. Their wages undercut by cheap labor from India or elsewhere.

    Yeah, providence forbid that the really poor people get those jobs instead of you.

    It is unseemly to make remarks like that when in all other instances you’ve taken a callous attitude toward the poor.

    Putting your self interest in with management is a big mistake.

    Again, this is a false choice. This social division doesn’t exist …

    You’re sounding a bit Martian there. Management does exist as a separate class. It’s measurable, perceptible, and widely recognized. It’s why, when you get on a plane, most of the people in the first-class cabin look vaguely similar. It’s why some employees get hiring bonuses and stock options and golden parachutes, and feel they’re entitled to raises and bonuses in years in which their company’s profits tank, and others get fired by the numbers in “right-sizing” operations undertaken purely to spark a temporary rise in the company’s stock prices.

    Alternately, consider “Dilbert.” Its style of humor is comedy of recognition. If management didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be Dilbert strips tacked up on cubicle walls all over the English-speaking world.

    You may have worked in circumstances where the existence of management wasn’t screamingly obvious, or you may have failed to notice its existence, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    … any more than different “races” exist.

    Geneticists tell us there’s no real difference between one supposed race and another. However, if you’ve got negroid features, tightly kinked hair, and skin that’s darker than a paper bag, you live in a world in which everyone thinks those things make a difference. That perceived difference changes everything from your probable lifetime earning power to your chance of being randomly stopped by police. Moreover, you’re the child and grandchild and great-grandchild of people whose lives have been configured — and in the overwhelming majority of cases, severely limited — by that same perceived difference. The stress and impoverishment that have marked their lives will affect yours as well.

    “Doesn’t have a genetic basis” doesn’t mean “not real.” Race is most assuredly real.

    The only people I’ve seen say otherwise were, strangely enough, all white. That’s because nothing happens to white people who pretend that race doesn’t exist. But if your visibly identifiable ethnic heritage is black, oriental, amerind, hispanic, or some other variety of brown, and you act on the assumption that race doesn’t matter, you’ll get very different results.

    SeamusAndrewMurphy @45, I’ll fix that for you.

  61. Harrkev says:

    I have seen and heard of the down side of unions. I am an engineer, and I once had to deliver a product to an aerospace company. The engineers who worked there were not even allowed to touch the hardware. We had to have a technician there to touch everything — a “job description” issue. The engineers wanted to work late to get the job done, but we could NOT without making the tech stay late, so we did not. And this tech was never willing to skip a break or take a short lunch.

    I have co-workers who are also engineers who have told me stories about getting in trouble for moving their computer from one side of their desk to the other. That is the job of a union guy.

    I am all for fair and proper treatment of everybody, and for good wages. However, nonsense like what I have listed above makes me dislike unions, because it cripples a other non-union employees from doing what it takes to get the job done. Some union employees have a “how little can I get away with doing” mentality, and due to union rules, cannot be fired.

    I also understand that some unions have a focus on “seniority” where how long you have been there is more important that how good a job you are doing.

    I do NOT like to see people taken advantage of, but I also do not like to see businesses taken advantage of. If an auto worker, who might have a high-school education at best, makes about the same amount as I do, who has a Master’s degree in engineering, something is slightly wrong. This just puts American businesses at a disadvantage compared to other countries (as can be seen in today’s auto market).

    I would like to think of unions as a “safety valve.” It should be hard to form a union, but the threat of a union should be enough to keep management honest. Everything needs to be a balance. If management is too strong, workers suffer. If the union is too strong, the company cannot remain competitive.

Leave a Reply