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Labor’s Future



Rich Yeselson is always worth reading, agree with him or not. His long review essay of books by three former SEIU leaders, including former president Andy Stern and the activist Jane McAlevey, is quite good. Each of the three have different prognoses that represent their preexisting interests, which is not surprising. Stern, who may have started with his head on straight but was terrible in his last several years as SEIU president, is all into futurism and buddying up with corporate leaders, which is reflected in his love of Universal Basic Income, imposed from on high with no meaningful input from the unions that he now sees irrelevant. David Rolf is big on major wage campaigns such as the $15 campaign in Seattle, but he notes that these don’t actually help unions very much. He believes that unions should try anything, but try something. McAlevey disdains top-down campaigns and wants more organizing, which as Yeselson points out, has its own set of problems and which has been a call from labor reformers for a long time now, but often without much in the way of strategy behind it. There’s an emotional rallying cry against bureaucratic unionism involved in this line of thinking and it’s not one that I find particularly convincing, even though we do indeed a lot more organizing campaigns. As Yeselson also notes, some of each of these ideas is going to be necessary in the future.

What I think each of these writers misses, although I have not read the books, is that the ultimate problem of American unionism and thus the ultimate solution revolves around the position of the government. Unions have been strong in this nation when the government has allowed them to be strong. When the government has assisted employers in repressing them, through force or through law, nothing organized labor has done, whether top-down or bottom-up campaigns, has made much difference. It’s hard to read the history of American labor, for me anyway, without that as the central tenet. It’s uncomfortable for a lot of labor activists who have a lot of emotional baggage at stake in whatever their given critique is of the movement. Of course, none of this means we should sit back and wait for the government to someday be on our side again. Obviously, that means it would never happen. I agree by and large with the try anything strategy, even though I am extremely skeptical of UBI or for that matter anything Stern is involved with. Certainly McAlevey is right about the need for more organizing, but it’s not enough and it never has been.

All I can say is that movements of workers will never go away. Conditions and strategies change with the time and most certainly no one can argue that things will always get better, but at the core, we have to organize with the intent of moving politicians toward our side while also building worker power and capacity for organizing. Whatever that looks like on the ground, I am by and large for.

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  • There’s a basic premise that would help Democrats and labor, and it is this:

    Government should be big enough to counter-balance the tendency of big business to tilt the playing field in their favor.

    Basically, “Make your money, but keep it fair, guys.”

    When you leave capitalism alone, it concentrates power and wealth upward, to the point that the economy eventually destabilizes, because too much wealth at the top means not enough purchasing power to keep the economy humming along (see 1929 and 2008.)

  • King Goat

    I grew up in the South in a town with a lot of racial tension, about 60/40 white/black. There was a public swimming pool that my parents said used to be well maintained and popular with the whites there in their day, but after integration the pool quickly became known as ‘the black pool’ the city didn’t keep it up, and whites fled to a privately owned pool across town. My concern is that this is where labor is heading. Increasingly unions are made up of people of color, and as that increases more whites see them as ‘for black/brown/etc., people,’ not them. Heck, they’re seeing the Democratic Party like that. I wish I knew a way to change that perception and dynamic, because in the near future at least I don’t see unions, or the Democrats, doing very well without support from more white people.

    • solidcitizen

      So your thinking as progressed as far as worrying that America’s unions are becoming too brown and how this may impact the perception of unions by white people, but that’s as far as you’ve gotten? You have no further thoughts on the topic?

      I ask, because when I see that the browning of the labor movement and the Democratic party cause you concern for the future of unions and the Democratic party and you leave it at that, it becomes very easy for me to conclude that you think the browning of the labor movement and the Democratic party is a bad thing.

      Now, of course you don’t say that and it would be wrong for me to say that you do. But do you see how you kind of lead people that that conclusion? You kind of walk ’em right up to it, then just sort of walk away.

      So what do you think should be done? You’re thinking has to have progressed beyond, “Hmmm…here’s a thought.” Less browning? Brown people reaching out to whites? A sad resignation that, yep unions and Dems are in a tough way, but fuck the crackers?

      What do you got? Because you certainly have lead me to believe that you think the browning of labor and the Democratic party is a sad situation.

      • King Goat

        I’d like to see unions and Democrats succeed more. I don’t think the composition of either in terms of race should matter, it perplexes and saddens me to think so but I think it increasingly does, as an empirical fact, to many whites, and that that hurts unions/Democrats chances of succeeding. I honestly don’t know how to change it. The sad situation for me is the perception/reaction by whites, if that clarifies. That’s really where I’m at, I don’t know what else to tell you.

  • JustinRunia

    What’s the beef w/ Guaranteed Minimum Income again?

    • Tandra Nova

      Yes, I missed something as well. There has been a lot to keep up with.
      I definitely favor UBI but as far as I can tell, none of my corporate leader buddies do.

    • It’s such a reversal of American mythology about work that I can’t see it as a realistic policy option. I have no problem with it as a policy goal. But a) it’s no solution and b) the idea of American being given something for free without work involved counters two centuries of history.

      • efgoldman

        the idea of American being given something for free without work involved counters two centuries of history.

        The older I get, and the more I learn, the more astonished I am that Social Security and Medicare ever got adopted.

        • Yeah, it’s kind of amazing when any policy that advances social equity passes in the USA.

        • Brett

          Well, they did have to sell them as “earned” programs (at least for later generations). Even the more conventional welfare programs are chock full of stuff designed to exclude “undeserving” recipients (Medicaid).

      • Brien Jackson

        Medicaid isn’t attached to work.

        • It’s not and that’s why it’s by far the most vulnerable of the three big pillars of the welfare state. It’s the War on Poverty’s greatest contribution and its staying power is impressive given the broader context of American social policy.

          • Brien Jackson

            It’s not that surprising: beyond the fact that people do get squeamish about stripping people of benefits, a lot of elderly people benefit from it and obviously doctors, hospitals, pharma, etc get a lot of money from it. So there’s a solid constituency in favor of protecting it.

        • JKTH

          In-kind benefits tend to be more popular than cash benefits.

        • Brett

          It has a ton of requirements on eligibility to get it, though, and states can tighten that further. That has a long history in US “outdoor” and “indoor” relief that predates the New Deal.

          And even then, as Erik points out rightfully, it’s the most vulnerable pillar of the welfare state. We are very, very fortunate that it has (until now) avoided what happened to ADFC/TANF.

      • JustinRunia

        Two centuries of mythology, right?

        I dunno, I think you can make the political case for it, as it’s been pretty well embraced across the ideological spectrum, I think you’d actually get the most push-back from people whose ideology is based in a theory of labor (likesuchas http://www.businessinsider.com/finlands-biggest-trade-union-a-universal-basic-income-is-useless-2017-2). I think it’s a way to upend the gender and race imbalance that a lot of Labor co-signs (we will move heaven and earth for the benighted manufacturing worker, no matter how much that legitimizes the closed-border nationalism of the Right-wing, but let’s not ever think about raising agriculture wages, for example.), but that might be some third-way pie-in-the-sky thinking, I admit…

      • MDrew

        But it’s a) no “solution” only because you don’t think it will happen, right?

        • No, it’s no solution because there’s almost no way it would be high enough to take care of poverty and because it somehow exists in an intellectual world where worker power is not needed because of this entitlement program. But as we know about entitlement programs in the real world, they require vested interests to fight for them at all times because there are vested interests opposed to them that are relentless, even if such a program does actually pass.

          • Every serious proposal I’ve ever seen for UBI stipulates that it would need to be high enough to keep people out of poverty. Even Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek’s proposals specified this. (Friedman’s proposal was technically a negative income tax, but would have functioned in much the same way.)

            Of course, such a system would require constant fighting to keep it from being watered down, though. However, merely having such a system in place would also immeasurably strengthen the bargaining position of workers, because they could tell asshole bosses to fuck off without having to wonder how they’d pay the rent next month.

          • Brien Jackson

            Wait, what? If you actually passed a UBI policy then EVERYONE has a vested interest in the check they’re getting.

            • I mean, sort of? But if your annual income is $20 million per year then your UBI income is pocket change and you’re probably more concerned with moochers who aren’t working (even though there won’t be many of these) or something equally dumb.

              • Brien Jackson

                If your annual income is $20 million you’re in the top <1% of earners.

      • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

        Our country is going to have to rethink work if robots/AI replaces humans in a lot of jobs, which seems to be the way things are headed.

        I wish I could be optimistic, but early returns seem to show that this is part of why WWC life expectancies are declining.

    • NewishLawyer

      I’m not against it. I just don’t see it as likely for a huge number of reasons.

      The biggest reason being that the basic UBI supporter seems to be a graduate student or someone with a graduate degree. There are plenty of people on the left who think UBI is nuts.

      Americans like to work and it takes a lot of effort to overcome thousands of years of “those who don’t work, don’t eat.”

      • Brien Jackson

        I don’t think it’s going to take nearly that much work in a not so distant future with a lower and lower demand for labor.

        • Right. Either that or we’re going to have to cap the amount people can work at something like twenty hours a week, and then vastly raise the minimum wage. Regardless, there simply aren’t going to be enough jobs at some point in the future.

          There are also plenty of people who have made proposals for UBI over the years who weren’t “grad students” or, indeed, even remotely left-leaning. Some right-leaning economists have proposed it as a replacement for existing welfare programs on the grounds of being at least theoretically more efficient.

          • Brien Jackson

            Right, and this is going to start changing the political culture of the US fairly rapidly in the grand scheme of things.

        • LosGatosCA

          in 1840 70% of the US workforce was in Agriculture, less than 2% today.

          It’s completely conceivable that 2% will be in manufacturing by 2035, when it was about 25% in 1960.

          The whole concept of work, wealth/income distribution and generally how society creates value need to be re-thought. With or without unions.

          If Facebook and Google disappeared tomorrow how much of a loss is that really? There’s only so much entertainment to supply, advertising to sell, or mortgages to refinance for people who don’t have advanced STEM degrees to work in high tech or have natural selling skills to run cons on VCs.

          • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

            There’s only so much entertainment to supply, advertising to sell, or mortgages to refinance

            Reminds me of a cartoon I saw shortly before the banks almost disappeared in the 2008 crisis. The heading was something like, “Each Nation Does What It’s Best At”. Panel one was a German who was doing some engineering work. Panel two was a guy in India providing tech support. Panel three was an American telling his banker, “I want to refinance my fourth mortgage.”

  • Future of Labor:

    1. Capital repurposes software for driverless cars to replace Labor.
    2. ?

    • solidcitizen

      1. Capital repurposes software for driverless cars to replace Labor.
      2. Corporate profits soar as labor costs are reduced.
      3. Government raises corporate taxes to capture almost all, but not all, of the profits.
      4. College education is made free for everyone.
      5. Pensions for all people over the age of 45 who has lost a job due to automation (or free trade pacts, or all the other things that alleged enrich the “nation” while leaving individuals poor).
      6. Utopia.

      • 3+ does not require autonomous machines to accomplish, and if that were a possibility we would already be experiencing it. Instead, as productivity has increased, we have basically been stuck at 2. If anything, as productivity has increased, corporate taxes have went down.

        Just as likely is the following:

        3. Now that everything can be done by machines, Capital realizes that the rest of humanity serves no purpose.

        4. Capital moves to a protected enclave.

        5. Capital decides to dispose of the rest of humanity.

        The Guardian had a good piece of commentary on this that I though was a much more likely scenario than robot utopia.

        • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

          Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riders of the Purple Wage” explored this topic in the 1960s.

  • solidcitizen

    The importance of government support for unions was brought home for me in reading about one of American labor’s most famous successful actions, the Flint sit-down strike of 1936. From the wikipedia page, “Governor Murphy sent in the U.S. National Guard, not to evict the strikers, but rather to protect them from the police and corporate strike-breakers.”

    I recall growing frustrated at the literature in that there were many, many pages devoted to the union’s thinking and actions before and during the strike at the plant (and the women’s auxiliary bringing lunch!), but not enough about how the Governor was persuaded to make this dramatic reversal from almost all other governors and presidents back to 1876. For me, it was the single most important factor about the strike, but then that story would be about political action, not the power of the workers.

    • Right. The critical point here was that workers organized to elect Frank Murphy governor. That’s at least as important as the actions of the strikers themselves. But it gets marginalized in the literature because it doesn’t serve the agenda of a lot of labor historians who romanticize workplace actions.

      In a related note, I thought I was a big cheerleader for organized labor. And then I started going to the Labor and Working-Class History Association meetings and realized that, no, compared to a whole lot of other labor historians, I am not a cheerleader for organized labor.

      • solidcitizen

        Yes, which is why I switched away from labor history in graduate school. Not only did I neither have nor want the Marxist background, but, having been a unionist, I was deeply skeptical that grand narratives of working-class solidarity drove the actions of most unionists. I was also deeply skeptical that what the American worker wants most deeply in their heart of hearts is to control the means of production. The narrative of union leaders selling out working class activism for salaries, vacations, and health insurance made no sense to me and seemed like a Marxist gloss. I may have been wrong (and may have been reading all the wrong things), but I knew I didn’t want a career arguing with my peers. So, of course, I went into labor itself where I find plenty of the same people. C’est la vie.

        • There are definitely a couple of labor historians who actively dislike me because I don’t follow this line. I think most don’t care, but the level of romanticism and narratives not rooted in reality among the labor historian community is really shocking for professional scholars.

          • Joseph Slater

            The whole “union bureaucrats selling out the radical workers” line was contrary to my actual, lived experience with unions and, later, contrary to what I found in my attempts to do primary-document labor history. Yet it’s an overarching narrative that just won’t die. It’s not shocking, though, given that you see the same ideas from certain types of leftists in political debates today: if only the sellout bureaucratic neoliberal Dems would allow Real Leftist candidates, we would be winning, winning, winning.

            • It befuddles me that these narratives are so prominent, but if you argue against this at LAWCHA, you are definitely looked down upon by some. The unwillingness to examine these questions critically by a lot of labor historians is frustrating. The arguments by trained scholars with decades of experience are almost the same as the arguments of the pissed off 23 year old who just read Zinn for the first time.

              • Schadenboner

                Kids these days, eh? When *I* was in school we got into Zinn at 14 or 15.

                Fucking millennials, ammirite?

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  • MDrew

    So is the problem with UBI explicitly that it’s not necessarily good for existing unions per se? Is that the issue?

    • No, that’s an irrelevancy to the point of whether it is good or not as policy.

      • MDrew

        And indeed, if it were good/helpful policy, who would even care about that, right?

  • Tancred

    I tend to agree. There are certain people on the Left who think that the problem with labor unions is that they aren’t radical enough. This is problematic for several reasons:

    1. I have yet to see any strong evidence that radicalism by itself makes unions successful. Giving rousing speeches and having discussions about socialism is all well and good but what is the real practical benefit?

    2. Many union workers are not left-wing and would be turned off by this sort of activism. Plenty of union workers are culturally conservative and some even vote Republican. Making unionism about radicalism is likely to turn them off and turn off workers that you may want to organize in the future.

    3. The majority of union staffers do not really fit the stereotype of the rich, corrupt and distant bureaucrats that some on the Left like to complain about. Interestingly, this stereotype is close to the one propagated by conservatives.

    4. Many unionized workers don’t bother to attend meetings and don’t seem to care about the union even as it fights for them every day. These people are almost invariably the same ones who will complain about bad contracts or other problems when they come up. Union officials can only do so much to get members to care.

    I think the American labor movement needs to look at the labor system in other countries for guidance on strategy because the decline of unions across the industrialized world has not been uniform. It has been much worse in some countries than others, with the U.S. probably being the worst county for organized labor. This causes me to believe that the problem is not necessarily globalization or technological change since other industrialized countries have faced the same or similar forces and their unions are still stronger than ours.

    See this CEPR study from 2011 for a discussion of this issue: http://cepr.net/documents/publications/unions-oecd-2011-11.pdf

    • LosGatosCA

      The biggest problem for unions is exactly what this post points out, the rich and Republicans have successfully aligned the government with business interests against workers and unions.

      The 1932-1975 period was the exception rather than the rule. My personal view is that the Depression, the aftermath of WWII, the consensus during the Cold War, and Dwight D Eisenhower’s full support for the safety net made the difference.

      Basically every full spectrum social program came in to being during those years, including the EPA and OSHA and the long overdue civil rights acts.

      And then the rich said, enough is enough and started the long counterattack with busing, the abortion turning the tide for them politically (building/firing up a base) until they have achieved pre-1929 levels of inequality and won’t willingly stop until the whole New Deal is dismantled. Unions are just part of that dismantlement. Just like they want to drown the government in the bathtub.

      When unions no longer exist, the greedy sadists will just find other targets that are keeping them from owning everything and everybody.

      ETA – See the Powell memo, (also too, the domestic application of the Powell Doctrine- substituting money for military force)

      • Tancred

        In addition to what you point out I would also say that the Great Depression and World War II created a more pro-solidarity culture among the population. Mass collective efforts tend to create bonds between people and reduces “I’ve got mine, screw you” thinking. Participation in civic organizations was also very high in the immediate post-war era. Now the population is very atomized and most people are highly individualistic in orientation which runs counter to the whole point of unions.

        There is a school of thought that says that ordinary working people only make big gains when major shocks happen to the system, so plagues, wars, major economic meltdowns, etc. The Great Recession could have been one of those turning points but for a number of reasons it didn’t work out that way.

        I don’t necessarily agree with the catastrophist school, partially because I don’t think it can be assumed that left-wing forces will win in the event of a major crisis. As we are seeing in the U.S. and in Europe it is just as likely that right-wing populists can win instead of the Left.

        But I do wonder what it will take to force the political establishment into a more pro-worker direction. The Democrats are better than the Republicans but they are only as left-wing as the organizations behind them. Weak unions mean that Democrats will likely seek funding and allies among sections of the capitalist class such as Silicon Valley or Wall Street.

        There is also the problem that companies in the U.S. have made the decision to take what David M. Gordon called “the low road” in his excellent book “Fat and Mean.” Companies from the U.S. and the other Anglophone countries decided that instead of working with unions to be successful they would bust unions and create a huge army of managers to discipline workers. For some reason Anglophone countries tend to be very anti-labor compared to other Western countries.

  • rjayp

    Public policy absolutely matters. Unions pretty much got nowhere until the passage of the Wagner Act and a government willing to enforce its provisions in a muscular manner.

  • AMK

    I don’t think it would be particularly hard to tie UBI to “work” in a way that would make it acceptable to most people. Make people join volunteer organizations for X number of hours per week to get their checks, create deductions for criminal offenses, etc..

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  • Brett

    You said “basic income”, Erik. Prepare for a 75-comment thread that says literally nothing new.

    Unions have been strong in this nation when the government has allowed them to be strong.

    This. Unfortunately, it creates a chicken-and-egg problem: you need favorable governments for unionization, but it’s hard to get that when unions are weak. Creating a broader progressive movement that sees unions as a positive part of that and something worth strengthening would be the key here, and there are some promising signs of that. Targeting employers that promote a progressive image is probably part of it as well, since a key factor in union strength in Europe versus the US was that employers in Europe didn’t fight so aggressively against bargaining itself (and have their own employer associations for bargaining).

    Although sometimes I wonder if we’ll ever get something truly like the progressive conditions of the 1930s. Progressives* of that era had a strong belief in rational central planning and the like that doesn’t exist so much today, something that was heavily reinforced by the successful World War 2 planning. Hell, that was the rationale officially used for things like the NLRA – that it would promote collective bargaining for a socially useful purpose to reduce social strife, etc, etc (although I’m sure I’m at least partially wrong on this and Steve Attewell would have vastly more to say).

    * Hell, even some of the bigger plutocrats had it. J.P. Morgan hated “wasteful competition”, and Theodore Vail used it as a rationale for forming a telephone monopoly with federal sanction.

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