Labor Roundtable: Kevin Carson
by Kevin Carson
[Editors note: This is the first post in a series – or ‘roundtable’ – on the rise and fall of organized labor in America. Other guest authors will be posting, and we urge others to submit posts as well. Regular League authors are also encouraged to chime in.]
In a recent post, “Labor 2.0 (initial thoughts),” Erik Kain asks:
Does a revived labor movement require protectionist policies, increasing tariffs, etc.? If not, what policies do need to change in order to strengthen labor? Obviously something is out of balance between big business and the working class. Question #2: Does a revived labor movement require harsher immigration policies?
It would certainly help if some policies change. But the room for change lies mainly, not with adding further economic intervention to aid labor at the expense of capital, but rather with eliminating those policies which currently benefit capital at the expense of labor. The question is not what new laws would strengthen the bargaining power of labor, but which existing ones weaken it.
This was the subject of a recent research paper I did at Center for a Stateless Society (“Labor Struggle: A Free Market Model“), in which I discussed these issues at much greater length.
The most obvious forms of state intervention that hobble labor are legislation like:
1) The provisions of Taft-Hartley which criminalize sympathy and boycott strikes;
2) The Railway Labor Relations Act and the “cooling off” provisions of Taft-Hartley, which enable the government to prevent a strike from spreading to common carriers and thus becoming a general strike; and
3) “Right-to-Work” (sic) laws, which restrict the freedom of contract by forbidding employers to enter into union shop contracts with a bargaining agent.
Further, we should examine the extent to which even ostensibly pro-labor laws, like the Wagner Act, have served in practice to weaken the bargaining power of labor. Before Wagner, what is today regarded as the conventional strike — an announced walkout associated with a formal ultimatum — was only one tactic among many used by unions.
Labor struggle involved, at least as much as the conventional strike, assorted forms of on-the-job direct action like slowdowns, “open-mouth sabotage,” work-to-rule, “good work” strikes, wildcat strikes, and unannounced one-day walkouts at random intervals. The idea was to take advantage of the inherent agency problems of the wage labor contract, in order to do things on the job that would drive up the costs of business and reduce the rate of profit.
Walking off the job in a formal, declared strike just gives the boss the opportunity to lock you out and hire scabs. It’s a bit like the Massachusetts militia at Lexington deciding to fight the British by putting on bright red uniforms and marching in parade ground formation.
The model of industrial unionism established under Wagner had actually been advocated before then by a major segment of capital. Industrial unionism, and the New Deal labor accord in general, was supported by large, capital-intensive, export-oriented industries for which labor costs were a relatively modest part of the entire cost package, but which had long planning horizons and the need for long-term stability and predictability. These industries were willing to trade significant wage increases, job security and improved working conditions in return for more stable control of the production process. They were willing to offer seniority and productivity-based wage increases, in return for a union policy of “letting the managers manage.”
Gerard Swope, the President of General Electric and the leading progressive capitalist associated with the New Deal, was an advocate of industrial unionism. The company unions under the American Plan, in many ways, bore a functional resemblance to Wagner-style industrial unions. Both served the employer’s need for a single bargaining unit which could keep the rank-and-file in line. After Wagner, union bureaucrats became primarily the enforcers of contracts against the rank-and-file. Unions suppressed wildcat strikes on behalf of the bosses.
To the extent that labor did get a share of productivity increases during the heyday of Consensus Capitalism, until 1970 or no, there were benefits to this model. But it diverted the labor movement into a single, statist track that left it vulnerable if employers and the state were to later decide the labor accord was no longer in their interest.
Now that capital has, in fact, decided on a neoliberal path of busting unions and capping real wages, for labor to continue to fight by the capitalist state’s rules is suicidal.
So while a repeal of anti-labor legislation would be nice, the essential thing is for labor to rediscover the wide range of direct action tactics it had at its disposal before its reliance on Wagner caused them to atrophy.
These things include:
2) The French model of socially-based unionism, in which unions derive membership from the unemployed and from individuals in non-union workplaces, as well as members of certified bargaining agents, and offer services like affordable insurance and assorted forms of training;
3) The guild model, which overlaps with socially-based unionism to some extent, offering insurance and training, negotiating with employers on behalf of members, and offering reliable certification of skill for prospective employers;
4) The counter-economic or informal economic model, which also overlaps with the socially-based unionism. Unions promote self-provisioning in the informal and household economy, promote production for barter between members, offer cheap group housing and subsistence for the unemployed, provide assorted risk- and cost-pooling arrangements amounting to a socially-based welfare state of the kind described by Kropotkin in Mutual Aid, provide access to cheap micromanufacturing facilities and internet cafes for members, and generally increase the base of independent production in which subsistence needs can be met outside the wage labor relationship;
5) Open mouth sabotage, or the strategic targeting of the company’s suppliers and outlets, consumers, the press, advocacy organizations, and institutions in the community where it is headquartered, with all the dirt on how the company treats its workers. It’s the “culture jamming” model that Frank Kernaghan used against Kathie Lee Gifford, which when coupled with the Streisand Effect is devilishly effective;
6) Networked resistance on the model of the Wal-Mart Workers Association and the Immolakee Workers, based on open-mouth sabotage and maximum public embarrassment of the employer, large-scale consumer boycotts, and broad alliances with community activists and assorted social justice organizations. This has been quite effective. It’s the “Netwar” model described by David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla at Rand Corporation — the networked swarm model used by the global support network for the Zapatistas and which was later adopted by the anti-globalization movement.