To Save the Labor Movement, We Must Destroy the Labor Movement
November 28, 2011

Kevin Drum is usually pretty solid on labor issues, so it’s more than a little jarring to see him give his qualified endorsement to obvious quackery like this:

Congress should authorize employee associations that are easier to form than current unions, but which do not have the power to interfere with managerial prerogatives (which is pretty much every subject other than employee compensation as determined by a collectively bargained contract). Of course, if the new types of employee organizations are not suffocating their members, they may in fact find it easier than old unions to attract new members.

Author Alan J. Haus never gets around to explaining how unions “suffocate their members,” but apparently it has something to do with a unions’ “power to interfere with managerial prerogatives,” or bargain on anything that doesn’t directly pertain to wages. That’s an odd way to define suffocation.

The maneuver Haus is trying to pull here is an oldie but goody: conflating employee interests with those of management, and suggesting that traditional unions are diametrically opposed to both. The unspoken thesis is that class conflict is something stirred up by innovation-hating unions, not the natural byproduct of a system that relies on worker exploitation. What Haus would have us believe is that everyone can be on the same team, so long as workers don’t put up a fight. In other words: give managers freedom to do whatever they want (except, Haus graciously concedes, when it comes to wages), and the benefits will trickle down to everyone!

I can see why the promise of conflict-free labor-management relations would appeal to Drum, but he should be smart enough to know that Haus is selling snake oil. Ever since the beginning of the 20th century and the advent of scientific management, conservatives and business-friendly “progressives” have foretold a bold new era of cooperation between workers and employers. Mysteriously, realizing this dream has always required that workers cede just a little bit more control of their own labor. And then a little more, and a little more. Haus offers us nothing but a variation on the theme. “Just give up this one more thing,” he promises us, “and this time, I swear, it will happen.”

Well, why take his word for it when we can see for ourselves how it’s worked out so far? I would suggest Drum read his own work to find out.

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Taking Unions Out of the Workplace
June 28, 2011

In These Times’ Joe Burns:

Like SEIU, an increasing number of union activists and theorists are looking to center union strategy far from the workplace. Rather than relying on the traditional union tactics of organizing, collective bargaining and political action, many trade unionists are instead focusing on protests against corporate targets and community organizing. Such actions get members into the streets to directly confront corporate profiteers and allow unions to organize around broad-based themes.

But as commentator Randy Shaw notes, the idea that building “some new and amorphous ‘mass organization’ that will help elect and then pressure pro-union politicians reflects a strategy that has already failed, and ignores that union power is based much more on the success of workplace organizing.”

But the bigger problem with this plan is philosophical, not strategic. Moving organized labor’s focus from the workplace would be a bad idea even if doing so produced better policy outcomes. That’s because labor, unlike most other grassroots political movements, is not simply valuable insofar as it can achieve desirable policy goals; it is valuable in of itself as a workplace-based system of democratic governance by which workers can check employer domination.

Because this point is so rarely acknowledged, organized labor’s value is often underestimated even by members of the nominal left. So you have people do things like point out that union X supports undesirable policy Y, and let that single, context-free example serve as an implicit criticism of the entire labor movement. One union’s endorsement of a distasteful policy doesn’t obviate the fact that, without unions (much less the freedom to organize unions), workers are left at the mercy of their employers’ whims, no matter how unjust. To suggest that X’s support of Y somehow negates these broader concerns is a bit like using one state legislature’s passage of a bad bill as an argument for absolute monarchy.

To shift organized labor’s center of gravity away from the workplace would be to tacitly surrender to the specious X-Y argument. It would effectively serve as a renunciation of the core values that make unions necessary and good. Instead, unions should be doing exactly the opposite: not transforming themselves into a subsidiaries of, but forcefully restating the case for worker self-governance.

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Labor Studies
May 26, 2011

Made it official yesterday: In August I’ll be leaving DC and the fine people of Media Matters for New York City and CUNY’s Labor Studies program.

I’ll admit that labor — unlike, say, civil liberties — has not been a longstanding preoccupation of mine. It’s always be on my radar, and I’ve always been generally supportive of unions, but if you flip through this blog’s archives or my larger body of work, you’ll find barely anything on the subject. So what changed?

Several things. Wisconsin was one of them. DC was another. The longer I’ve stayed in this city the more dissatisfied I’ve become with what Mike Konczal once referred to as pity-charity liberalism. This country’s deep systemic problems cannot be solved with robust welfare programs alone. Not if those programs are still to be administered by the few, with no meaningful input from the many.

What this country then needs must be a significant rebalancing in the distribution of political power. I see no evidence that this can be achieved through what have become the conventional means for creating change. So if we’re going to expand democratic participation to a far broader swath of the citizenry, we need to first redefine what it means to participate. Surely, in an enlightened democratic republic, it is not sufficient simply to vote and mouth off from time to time.

What we need are broad-based coalitions that can provide a serious counterweight to centralized power. And I believe unions are the best model we have of how that would work.

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