On the suspicion of unions

Last night, I talked to a young lawyer who claimed to be a Democrat, yet felt that unions should basically not exist. I’ve always found this stance puzzling. Whenever I’ve asked young liberals why they’re unfavorable to unions, they come up with reasons, but they always seem inadequate or nonsensical — so that I suspect that, at bottom, they just feel that there’s something icky about the concept.

I can see why an eager young meritocrat like this lawyer would feel like that, because a world in which unions are necessary goes against his hopes for what the workplace should be. In such people’s minds, work is basically a fair competition in which the boss makes a good-faith effort to assess a worker’s contribution and reward him or her accordingly. By contrast, a world in which unions are necessary — which is to say, our actual existing world — is a world in which the relationship between management and labor in a for-profit firm is always ultimately antagonistic, in which employers are always trying to drive down wages as much as possible.

In such a world, I don’t know what option the workers have at their disposal other than banding together and threatening to shut everything down. The bosses have the ability to destroy an individual worker’s livelihood in retaliation for basically anything — the only way to even begin to level the playing field in that situation is for the workers to exercise coersive force in their turn. Ideally, the situation wouldn’t get to the point of an actual strike, but it’s the threat of the strike that makes the negotiations urgent. And in turn, the existence of unions in one segment of industry leads other firms to treat their workers better so as to avoid the prospect of facing a similar threat.

The government can make all the laws they want, but unless the workers have real collective power behind them, those laws always threaten to become a dead letter — after all, the boss can fire you for reporting violations of labor laws! The bosses of for-profit firms are always fighting against the workers’ interests, so the workers need to fight back.

One often hears that unions have become somehow “out of date” — ignoring the fact that their decline has been the result of three decades of aggressively anti-union policy from both parties — but to be blunt, what the fuck else are workers going to do? At bottom, what is the alternative to banding together and threatening to shut everything down? The institutional structure that grows out of that will vary, but I don’t see that there is any alternative to the basic concept of a labor union within a capitalist society.

11 thoughts on “On the suspicion of unions

  1. Like everything everything?

    I’m pretty sure that strikes within a particular factory, company, or even industry have happened historically — we know that’s possible, and we know it reaped major benefits. A true general strike might also be possible, but it seems like you need to build up workers’ organization and discipline on lower levels — you can’t just skip right to it.

  2. But when it’s impossible to organize precarious workers in the workplace itself (often because it doesn’t exist, or with unemployment so high you can just fire everyone), the Tiqquniste “human strike” makes a lot more sense to me. Any sort of resistance plan that can’t include the unemployed doesn’t seem like it’s going to work in the near future.

  3. I’m not advocating simply replaying the Sit-Down Strike, Malcolm. Times have changed, and tactics need to change. That’s obvious. Yet even if the forms it takes need to be different now, the strike remains the workers’ ultimate weapon.

  4. Part of the sense unions are “icky” may be a class thing. A relative of mine spent some time trying to unionize academics in the ’60s and ’70s, and said the hard part was that academics felt unions were for non-professionals, truck drivers, plumbers, auto manufacturers, etc. They didn’t see themselves as labor.

    My guess is your young lawyer likewise feels he’s “his own man,” and not a part of a class at all. He certainly doesn’t feel his situation is connected to anyone else’s plight.

    So, no solidarity.

  5. In the United States, some trade unions have a history of mob-connections. Take the Longshore workers in “On the Waterfront”. That movie was and has been a popular face for unions for years, but the story it tells about the Longshore union wasn’t false per se and this is what I find interesting at least about Longshore union history.

    The dock workers around the Great Lakes and eventually the East Coast were organized by the International Longshore Union in 1892. On the West Coast, it was the Industrial Workers of the World, God bless ’em. The two coasts finally merged in 1919 though, and they never got a long. The ILA was based out of New York by the 20s/30s and the West coast ILA didn’t like the practice of stevedoring, which you see in On the Waterfront when they basically constrain who gets to work that day. When Harry Bridges organized the General Strike of 1934 along the West Coast, Joe Ryan the then mob-soaked ILA president from New York came out to stop this and was spat upon for demanding among other things that they stick to the stevedore hiring process, which made money for the mob. He left calling them a bunch of malcontents and communists (the ILA had an anti-communist fund, too, from which eventually Ryan would be caught stealing).

    Today, when a transnational corporation built a grain terminal in the Port of Longview and refused to hire ILA workers to operate it, even though that’s in the Port’s contract with the union, they went through another union, the International Union of Operating Engineers 701 based just south of where I live in Portland. I’m probably not doing a really good job explaining it, but the other reason trade-unionism may seem icky and thuggish is because in a lot of ways it operates in an environment of competition. The workers within the union are not really in competition with one another, but between unions the working-class can still be divided. Some labor historians, like Thaddeus Russell, think this is a great thing and praise the efforts of mob-connected union leaders like Jimmy Hoffa for busting a few legs to get what’s best for his membership. The IWW arose precisely because of this tendency for trade-unionism to devolve into a kind of labor-management industry. I think this is what a lot of people resent about unions, and when advocating unions we can’t overlook how this tendency operates and is enforced by the very environment of competition unions, by their lonesome, are supposed to make better.

  6. Joe, That’s a really good point to bring up, and I think that the narrowness of unions has often been their downfall, even leaving aside the mob element — the concrete effect can often be simply to create a privileged caste of workers. That’s why broader efforts like IWW are so essential, and I also think that Malcolm is right that under current circumstances, the movement needs to be reconceived to include the unemployed (though I’m not convinced that the original context of the union movement was necessarily less “precarious” than today’s).

  7. I second that inclusion of the unemployed, if only because we need to really rethink what the hell it means to be unemployed. Right now, it basically means you don’t have a “job” or enough of one for the underemployed, and we are all familiar with what that says about your character! While I sure as hell don’t believe most people who are unemployed are collecting unemployment and volunteering, I do know there are more 20-somethings like me in the cities who stay poor (or just the same, work for a nonprofit) to qualify for government supplements and DO volunteer. That is to say, they are maintaining a socially useful work-ethic in the absence of the kind of monetary/exchange/advantage-seeking motivation neoliberalism assumes is necessary for doing anything.

    Of course, volunteer work is derided for this and is not allowed to displace too many “good jobs”. In the case of libraries, this is why you usually can’t volunteer to be a librarian, even if you had the time and skill, but you can just shelve books. Then look at the radio-station where I work, KBOO, which has been running for almost 45 years on 95%+ volunteer work. We have volunteers do janitorial tasks and complex shows, like the Old Mole, and works of art in the case of some of our audio-drama collectives. People get paid a living wage to do what I do at KBOO in other radio-stations, and it’s no surprise that Oregon Public Broadcasting has hired KBOO engineers or journalists.

    I don’t mean to get hung up on volunteering either. People have all sorts of duplicitous reasons for volunteering, like for college credit or a “reputation” for college-applications. I just think that this kind of living alternative is what you begin to notice when you talk about bringing the “unemployed” into the “labor movement” – lest it just be some kind of “employment movement”.

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