FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

 
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. 

November 22, 2017
Jonathan Cook
Syria, ‘Experts’ and George Monbiot
William Kaufman
The Great American Sex Panic of 2017
Richard Moser
Young Patriots, Black Panthers and the Rainbow Coalition
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima Darkness
Lee Artz
Cuba Libre, 2017
Mark Weisbrot
Mass Starvation and an Unconstitutional War: US / Saudi Crimes in Yemen
Frank Stricker
Republican Tax Cuts: You’re Right, They’re Not About Economic Growth or Lifting Working-Class Incomes
Edward Hunt
Reconciling With Extremists in Afghanistan
Dave Lindorff
Remembering Media Critic Ed Herman
Nick Pemberton
What to do About Al Franken?
November 21, 2017
Gregory Elich
What is Behind the Military Coup in Zimbabwe?
Louisa Willcox
Rising Grizzly Bear Deaths Raise Red Flag About Delisting
David Macaray
My Encounter With Charles Manson
Patrick Cockburn
The Greatest Threats to the Middle East are Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman
Stephen Corry
OECD Fails to Recognize WWF Conservation Abuses
James Rothenberg
We All Know the Rich Don’t Need Tax Cuts
Elizabeth Keyes
Let There be a Benign Reason For Someone to be Crawling Through My Window at 3AM!
L. Ali Khan
The Merchant of Weapons
Thomas Knapp
How to Stop a Rogue President From Ordering a Nuclear First Strike
Lee Ballinger
Trump v. Marshawn Lynch
Michael Eisenscher
Donald Trump, Congress, and War with North Korea
Tom H. Hastings
Reckless
Franklin Lamb
Will Lebanon’s Economy Be Crippled?
Linn Washington Jr.
Forced Anthem Adherence Antithetical to Justice
Nicolas J S Davies
Why Do Civilians Become Combatants In Wars Against America?
November 20, 2017
T.J. Coles
Doomsday Scenarios: the UK’s Hair-Raising Admissions About the Prospect of Nuclear War and Accident
Peter Linebaugh
On the 800th Anniversary of the Charter of the Forest
Patrick Bond
Zimbabwe Witnessing an Elite Transition as Economic Meltdown Looms
Sheldon Richman
Assertions, Facts and CNN
Ben Debney
Plebiscites: Why Stop at One?
LV Filson
Yemen’s Collective Starvation: Where Money Can’t Buy Food, Water or Medicine
Thomas Knapp
Impeachment Theater, 2017 Edition
Binoy Kampmark
Trump in Asia
Curtis FJ Doebbler
COP23: Truth Without Consequences?
Louisa Willcox
Obesity in Bears: Vital and Beautiful
Deborah James
E-Commerce and the WTO
Ann Garrison
Burundi Defies the Imperial Criminal Court: an Interview with John Philpot
Robert Koehler
Trapped in ‘a Man’s World’
Stephen Cooper
Wiping the Stain of Capital Punishment Clean
Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail