There is No Alternative, Restaurant Work Edition
March 12, 2012

Union members picketing outside the National L...

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Nona Willis Aronowitz has a good article in the latest issue of GOOD about young, frustrated restaurant employees trying to organize. In a generally shitty and abusive service sector, restaurants stand out as particularly exploitative; half of all workers making below minimum wage work at restaurants, with the burden falling especially hard on women. Yet despite that, Aronowitz writes, a lot of younger restaurant workers are reluctant to support unionization efforts:

Activists like Erik face a two-pronged problem: Middle-class kids don’t want to bother with unions because they have one eye on the door. Workers from the permanent underclass like Levi don’t join because they accept that these jobs are shitty, and if they’re fired, they’ll just have to go get another one. It happens all the time—Levi lost his job this fall, for reasons having nothing to do with the union. Turnover is what the industry depends on.

The problem with middle class kids strikes me as one of education: like students in unpaid internships, it seems like white-collar hopefuls seeking temporary restaurant labor have no recognition of themselves as part of a broader worker class, and don’t see how the exploitation in the restaurant industry can distort the entire labor market. Efforts like the Wobblies’ admittedly sort of quixotic Starbucks campaign (which Aronowitz shouts out in her article) are encouraging because they provide a vehicle for raising these issues.

Levi’s problem is not one of education. As a member of the permanent underclass, he’s better informed about the structural violence of the restaurant industry than those middle class kids. But he also recognizes that, if he openly supports the union, he’ll be fired and pushed into (at best) an identical job at another restaurant. In part this is because what’s left of the social safety net is structured, as I’ve written before, to force people into whatever work is available. In part it’s because modern labor election law is firmly on the side of employers. Levi may have the formal right to organize within his workplace, but that doesn’t mean his boss can’t fire him for whatever other reason — and if he takes up what smells like a wrongful termination with the NLRB, there’s virtually no chance they’ll move fast enough for even a positive ruling to make a difference.

So the remedy, if it exists, is a holistic one: education and organizing, a restructured and reinvigorated welfare state, and strengthened worker protections in labor law. But in addition to that, I wonder if any attempt at restaurant organizing doesn’t need to be an industry-wide effort, with UNITE HERE’s modern hotel organizing work serving as a model.

I’m still a labor neophyte — one who’s also still working out his own feelings on this stuff — so on that question I’ll defer to any more experienced movement hands who want to weigh in. But for now, an industry-wide restaurant organizing push is almost surely a pipe dream — a lot is going to have to change before that becomes conceivable.

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Labor and Progressives in the Progressive Era
March 10, 2012

Bleeding Heart Libertarians is generally one of the more thoughtful political theory blogs out there, so this post was a disappointment. Basically, in the course of accusing Corey Robin of badly mischaracterizing libertarian views, author Jessica Flanigan herself badly mischaracterizes the historical relationship between unions and the progressive movement. She writes:

But I also suspect that there’s a deeper, more fundamental anxiety about libertarians that goes beyond politics. Internal to progressivism there is a tension between its historical pro-union and direct governmentalist roots and its avowed concern for the worst off. In practice, it looks like direct governmental intervention and union support no longer works to the benefit of society’s worst off. Progressive opposition to policies like voucher programs are a great example of this tension, as is the current health care mess and the regressive social security system. In a lot of cases, market solutions do a better job of furthering progressive aims than the state run policies that progressives favor, and even the worst off value economic liberty.

Let’s table any questions about the relative merits of school vouchers and social security for now, since it’s not in my wheelhouse and argument-by-links is generally an indication that we’re supposed to take pronouncements like “vouchers are awesome” and “social security is regressive” as premises. I’m willing to do that for the sake of this particular argument. But there’s a very curious omission here: after going on about the “historical pro-union and direct governmentalist roots” of progressivism, Flanigan goes on to talk about only the latter root-category. It’s almost as if she had to get in a casual swipe at the labor movement before moving on to what she really wanted to talk about.

The counter-argument, I suppose, is that progressive opposition to vouchers is all about unions, specifically the teachers’ union. But A) no, and B) you can’t expect to be taken seriously by anyone with any interest in organized labor if you choose to treat the labor movement as just another interest group whose primary goal is to lobby the government for goodies. Being “pro-union” means a hell of a lot more than just endorsing legislation that some unionized workers might like.

But perhaps the most glaring problem with the above passage (at least from a labor perspective) is its blithe reference to progressivism’s “historical pro-union roots.” Yes, the interests of early 20th century progressives and organized labor did often align, but there were also serious philosophical clashes between the two parties. In particular, the progressives had a technocratic rationalist streak that led to some rather authoritarian views on the proper role of labor in society. Some of the era’s most prominent progressives even endorsed Frederick Taylor’s systematic assault on workers’ control over their own labor. From David Montgomery’s classic Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles:

Thus Taylor roundly denied even “the high class mechanic” could “ever thoroughly understand the science of doing his work,” and pasted the contemptuous label of “soldiering” over all craft rules, formal and informal alike. Progressive intellectuals seconded his arguments. Louis Brandeis hailed scientific management for “reliev[ing] labor of responsibilities not its own.” And John R. Commons considered it “immoral to hold up to this miscellaneous labor, as a class, the hope that it can ever manage industry.”

“Historical pro-union roots,” indeed.

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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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#OWS and Organized Labor
October 28, 2011

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 18:  Members of the Occ...

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Having previously compared the New Left to Occupy Wall Street, Shawn Gude wonders aloud why the latter is so much more inclined to play nice with labor unions. His theory:

Constant rearguard attacks and mass deunionization have surely play a part. Labor is beleaguered—not an ossified, establishment force. And the cultural chasm between the labor rank-and-file and leftist seems to have shrunk; organized labor has moved to the left in recent decades, and the left has moved to the right (no more antiwar sentiments transmogrifying into anti-soldier enmity). I just can’t imagine anything comparable to the Hard Hat Riot happening now.

The first part of that sounds right, though I’m not so sure about the bolded portion. It may well be true that organized labor has liberalized significantly on social issues, but I don’t think they’ve done so out of proportion with trends in overall societal norms — and besides, it’s not like all the true leftists were ever entirely purged from the movement. As for “the left,” whether or not it moved right sort of depends on who you’re talking about. The Democratic Party has certainly undergone a sharp rightward tilt in many respects, but I don’t think Shawn was referring to them. If we’re instead talking about the anarchists and other hard leftists who were caucusing at OWS from the beginning, then I’d argue there’s been very little shift towards the center in those intellectual traditions. It’s not like anarchists have gotten significantly less anarchist of late. (And outside of those ideologically concentrated cells, the intellectual makeup of OWS is too diverse and fraught with internal dissent to even call it “the left” without qualification.)

But then, I know very little about the New Left. What I can talk about with slightly more authority is US labor history in the first half of the 20th Century. That was a period when organized labor was the left in America; maybe not necessarily all of the rank and file, but among staff and leadership the philosophical gamut ran from center-leftism to syndicalism, socialism, anarchism, and out-and-out Communism.

I won’t be able to do justice to the possible causes for the New Left’s formal split with organized labor, but I will note one key factor Shawn didn’t mention: overall economic climate. The 60s were a time of relative prosperity, at least for white America. Between the New Deal and the Great Society, ambitious social welfare proposals were now mainstream propositions.. These weren’t exactly the conditions for class struggle.

Contrast that with the current economic climate, which more closely resembles the conditions that led to peak labor activism in this country. The modern labor movement was born in the Gilded Age and sustained itself through a succession of financial crises which eventually culminated in the Great Depression. Today we face decades of stagnant wages, a crippling financial crisis, Gilded Age-level inequality, and what one might well call another depression. In times like these, one of the left’s primary concerns is class, and organized labor’s value becomes self-evident. The big question now is whether that’s enough.

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