FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Strategic Defeat of Labor

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.

 
More articles by:

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. 

Weekend Edition
June 15, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Dan Kovalik
The US & Nicaragua: a Case Study in Historical Amnesia & Blindness
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Yellow Journalism and the New Cold War
Charles Pierson
The Day the US Became an Empire
Jonathan Cook
How the Corporate Media Enslave Us to a World of Illusions
Ajamu Baraka
North Korea Issue is Not De-nuclearization But De-Colonization
Andrew Levine
Midterms Coming: Antinomy Ahead
Louisa Willcox
New Information on 2017 Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Deaths Should Nix Trophy Hunting in Core Habitat
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Singapore Fling
Ron Jacobs
What’s So Bad About Peace, Man?
Robert Hunziker
State of the Climate – It’s Alarming!
L. Michael Hager
Acts and Omissions: The NYT’s Flawed Coverage of the Gaza Protest
Dave Lindorff
However Tenuous and Whatever His Motives, Trump’s Summit Agreement with Kim is Praiseworthy
Robert Fantina
Palestine, the United Nations and the Right of Return
Brian Cloughley
Sabre-Rattling With Russia
Chris Wright
To Be or Not to Be? That’s the Question
David Rosen
Why Do Establishment Feminists Hate Sex Workers?
Victor Grossman
A Key Congress in Leipzig
John Eskow
“It’s All Kinderspiel!” Trump, MSNBC, and the 24/7 Horseshit Roundelay
Paul Buhle
The Russians are Coming!
Joyce Nelson
The NED’s Useful Idiots
Lindsay Koshgarian
Trump’s Giving Diplomacy a Chance. His Critics Should, Too
Louis Proyect
American Nativism: From the Chinese Exclusion Act to Trump
Stan Malinowitz
On the Elections in Colombia
Camilo Mejia
Open Letter to Amnesty International on Nicaragua From a Former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience
David Krieger
An Assessment of the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit
Jonah Raskin
Cannabis in California: a Report From Sacramento
Josh Hoxie
Just How Rich Are the Ultra Rich?
CJ Hopkins
Awaiting the Putin-Nazi Apocalypse
Mona Younis
We’re the Wealthiest Country on Earth, But Over 40 Percent of Us Live in or Near Poverty
Dean Baker
Not Everything Trump Says on Trade is Wrong
James Munson
Trading Places: the Other 1% and the .001% Who Won’t Save Them
Rivera Sun
Stop Crony Capitalism: Protect the Net!
Franklin Lamb
Hezbollah Claims a 20-Seat Parliamentary Majority
William Loren Katz
Oliver Law, the Lincoln Brigade’s Black Commander
Ralph Nader
The Constitution and the Lawmen are Coming for Trump—He Laughs!
Tom Clifford
Mexico ’70 Sets the Goal for World Cup 
David Swanson
What Else Canadians Should Be Sorry For — Besides Burning the White House
Andy Piascik
Jane LaTour: 50+ Years in the Labor Movement (And Still Going)
Jill Richardson
Pruitt’s Abuse of Our Environment is Far More Dangerous Than His Abuse of Taxpayer Money
Ebony Slaughter-Johnson
Pardons Aren’t Policy
Daniel Warner
To Russia With Love? In Praise of Trump the Includer
Raouf Halaby
Talking Heads A’Talking Nonsense
Julian Vigo
On the Smearing of Jordan Peterson: On Dialogue and Listening
Larry Everest
A Week of Rachel Maddow…or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ronald Reagan
David Yearsley
Hereditary: Where Things are Not What They Sound Like
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail