The Strategic Defeat of Labor

by KEVIN CARSON

The decline of organized labor (from more than 30% of non-farm private sector workers in the ’50s to around 6% today) is often presented as something that “just happened” — a spontaneous fact of nature beyond human control, like glaciation or asteroid strikes. Far from it.

Both the declining bargaining power of labor since 1980, and the stagnation in real wages accompanying it, are products of deliberate human agency: A systematic revolution imposed from above, by the state in alliance with Big Business, to shift income upward on a massive scale.

From the early ’70s on, the business press pushed scare stories — and think tanks cranked out alarmist “studies” — about a looming “capital shortage,” and the need to shift a major portion of national income from consumption to investment. A 1974 Business Week article warned:

“Some people will obviously have to do with less. … [I]t will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow — the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more. … Nothing that this nation, or any other nation has done in modern history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must now be done to make people accept the new reality.”

That meant government “austerity” (read: Cuts in the “social safety net,” not in wealth transfers to  the Military-Industrial Complex and Big Business in general) and a cap on real wages.

From the Volcker Recession of the early ’80s to the present, fighting inflation has been the Federal Reserve’s priority. And fighting inflation translates, quite literally, into weakening the bargaining power of labor by throwing million out of work whenever labor threatens to get the upper hand in labor negotiations.

A great old Tom Tomorrow cartoon from the ’90s shows “Greenspanman,” normally a mild-mannered banker, reacting to news of falling unemployment and rising wages: He throws the lever on his interest rate machine to “raise unemployment to a nice healthy level.” In the following panel, a worker demanding a 25 cent raise is told “Hah! Don’t you know that Greenspanman has alleviated the labor shortage? Your inflation-inducing demands will fall on deaf ears now, my friend!”

Lest you think this mere satire, consider Greenspan’s own remarks to Congress at the same time. Greenspan reassured Capitol Hill that he didn’t foresee an increase in interest rates for the time being, despite unemployment levels that threatened to fall below 5%, because the job insecurity of the tech economy was almost as good as high unemployment in reducing the bargaining power of labor (and hence upward pressure on wages).  For America’s central bankers, “inflation” = “high wages.” Do they consider a tenfold increase in profit inflationary? Um, not so much.

The executive branch under Reagan also made a strategic decision to bust unions, starting with the PATCO strike. The administration also packed the National Labor Relations Board with members seriously disinclined to take the side of union organizers punitively fired (illegal under the terms of the Wagner Act).

Don’t like the Wagner Act? Good for you. Bear in mind, though, it was the federal government — acting on behalf of employers — that encouraged labor to turn to the Wagner model of certification elections in the first place. For the same reason they’d previously backed company unions under the American Plan, big employers like General Electric liked industrial unions as officially certified bargaining agents for an entire workplace. That an end to the need for negotiating with a whole host of balkanized trade unions in the same workplace, and put the union leadership in the position of enforcing contracts against its own members, in the event of slowdowns or wildcat strikes.

As Adam Smith observed so cogently over two hundred years ago, when government undertakes to regulate relations between workmen and their masters, it usually has the masters for its counselors.

I’m all in favor of labor abandoning the Wagner model. I’d love to see workers decide, in lieu of NLRB certification, to simply start acting like a union by way of unannounced one-day walkouts and sickouts, slowdown, work to rule, wildcat strikes, open-mouth sabotage, and sympathy and boycott strikes aimed at disrupting corporate supply and distribution chains.

Know what would happen if workers adopted this approach on a large scale? Employers would scramble to invite ALF-CIO organizers into the workplace. They’d encourage employees to sign union cards and canvass their workforces, holding meetings to encourage them to vote for certification.

If labor stopped playing by the bosses’ rules and adopted a strategy of full-blown guerrilla warfare, the bosses would be begging us to sign a contract — the same way they did when Wagner was passed in the first place.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.

 

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. He is a mutualist and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
September 4-6, 2015
Lawrence Ware
No Refuge: the Specter of White Supremacy Still Haunts Black America
Paul Street
Bi-Polar Disorder: Obama’s Bait-and-Switch Environmental Politics
Vijay Prashad
Regime Change Refugees: On the Shores of Europe
Kali Akuno
Until We Win: Black Labor and Liberation in the Disposable Era
Arun Gupta
Field Notes to Life During the Apocalypse
Steve Hendricks
Come Again? Second Thoughts on My Ashley Madison Affair
Paul Craig Roberts
Whither the Economy?
Ron Jacobs
Bernie Sanders’ Vision: As Myopic as Every Other Candidate or Not?
Rob Urie
Capitalism and Crisis
Jeffrey St. Clair
Arkansas Bloodsuckers: the Clintons, Prisoners and the Blood Trade
Richard W. Behan
Republican Fail, Advantage Sanders: the Indefensible Budget for Defense
Ted Rall
Call It By Its Name: Censorship
Susan Babbitt
“Swarms” Entering the UK? What We Can Still Learn About the Migrant Crisis From Che Guevara
Andrew Levine
Compassionate Conservatism: a Reconsideration and an Appreciation
John Wight
Adrift Without Sanctuary: a Sick and Twisted Morality
Binoy Kampmark
Sieges in an Age of Austerity: Monitoring Julian Assange
Colin Todhunter
Europe’s Refugee Crisis and the Depraved Morality of David Cameron
JP Sottile
Chinese Military Parade Freak-Out
Kathleen Wallace
The Child Has a Name, They All Do
David Rosen
Why So Few Riots?
Norm Kent
The Rent Boy Raid: Homeland Security Should Monitor Our Borders Not Our Bedrooms
Michael Welton
Canada’s Arrogant Autocrat: the Rogue Politics of Stephen Harper
Ramzy Baroud
Palestine’s Crisis of Leadership: Did Abbas Destroy Palestinian Democracy?
Jim Connolly
Sniping at the Sandernistas: Left Perfectionism in the Belly of the Beast
Pepe Escobar
Say Hello to China’s New Toys
Sylvia C. Frain
Tiny Guam, Huge US Marine Base Expansions
Pete Dolack
Turning National Parks into Corporate Profit Centers
Ann Garrison
Africa’s Problem From Hell: Samantha Power
Dan Glazebrook
British Home Secretary Theresa May: Savior or Slaughterer of Black People?
Christopher Brauchli
Poor, Poor, Pitiful Citigroup
Norman Pollack
Paradigm of a Fascist Mindset: Nicholas Burns on Iran
Barry Lando
Standing at the Bar of History: Could the i-Phone Really Have Prevented the Holocaust?
Linn Washington Jr.
Critics of BlackLivesMatter# Practice Defiant Denial
Roger Annis
Canada’s Web of Lies Over Syrian Refugee Crisis
Chris Zinda
Constitutional Crisis in the Heart of Dixie
Rannie Amiri
Everything Stinks: Beirut Protests and Garbage Politics
Graham Peebles
Criminalizing Refugees
Missy Comley Beattie
In Order To Breathe
James McEnteer
Blast From the Past in Buenos Aires
Patrick Higgins
A Response to the “Cruise Missile Left”
Tom H. Hastings
Too Broke to Pay Attention
Edward Leer
Love, Betrayal, and Donuts
Louis Proyect
Migrating Through Hell: Quemada-Diez’s “La Jaula de Oro”
Charles R. Larson
Class and Colonialism in British Cairo
David Yearsley
Michael Sarin: Drumming Like Summer Fireworks Over a Choppy Lake