August 8th, 2005

Tarot - The Tower

Immanent Shutdown, Again

Crap. I'm farther behind on the Internet bill than I thought, to the tune of $141.21. Due immediately. Shutdown immanent. And I have absolutely none of that. The few contributions I got the last time I asked were barely enough to cover my checking account fees. So don't be surprised if one of these days the journal entries stop until the SSI thing gets untangled (which could be weeks), or I get a major donation, or I end up homeless and camped at some friend's house who has Internet access.
Brad @ Burning Man

Why Labor Organized

Over the last couple of weeks, there was a lot of major politicking and upheaval in the AFL-CIO. Many of you didn't notice. Most of you wouldn't care even if I told you about it. And that, more than anything, is why what happened is important and why the wrong side won. But before I can try to convince you of that, I need to explain some of my favorite bits of 20th century history. Please understand that what you are about to read is an oversimplification. But then, almost by definition, pretty much everything you read about history, and certainly everything you read about broad movements in history that can fit in a half a dozen or so paragraphs, has to be an oversimplification. I hope this one will be useful to you, and interesting, because this is how I keep it all straight in my head.

When you go into a potential employer for a job interview, there comes a point where the interviewer asks you how much money you expect to get paid if you get the job. That's the opening salvo in the negotiations, the haggling, over the price of your labor. However, you are at a huge disadvantage in that negotiation, one that's similar to the disadvantage you're normally at when you buy a used car: the other side has nearly all the information, while you're working mostly blind. And they like it that way. Which means that if you don't know what your labor is worth, they may be able to trick you into working for half of what the job is really worth. They can then use the fact that you were willing to work for that much as a club to bludgeon the others into taking that little, or future hires at least. This is only one of the many downward pressures on wages. But endless downward pressures on wages, without some kind of countervailing force, lead to a world where nobody has any money to buy consumer goods with. That's why it was hard-core right-winger Henry Ford, a man so right-wing that he worked for the Nazis in World War II, who appalled the rest of his industry by raising wages in a very public way. He didn't do so because he was a bleeding heart liberal. He didn't do it to win votes from poor people for some political cause or other. He did it because he needed to sell cars, and nobody could afford them. But it couldn't last, not as long as the other auto makers were paying less and couldn't be persuaded that he was right, so eventually Ford Motor Company had to pay the same crappy poverty level wages that everybody else did.

Organized labor, as an idea, is meant almost entirely as a way of bringing some balance, openness, and equity to the salary negotiating process. Doing so doesn't automatically guarantee higher wages. (Ask the current members of the SIEU.) What it does do is guarantee that before you agree to a wage for your labor, you have some idea how much economic value your employer will get out of you, and what other workers doing the same job at the same level of productivity and training are getting paid. But when this idea was very new, the question came up: organize labor how? Which groups of workers should receive company information together, and negotiate together? There were three prevailing models, each of which had its own drawbacks.

The American Federation of Labor model was to organize workers by job title. It had the advantage of having historical precedent in the skilled-craft guilds of early Renaissance Europe. It also makes a certain amount of sense, because it fixes the price of a specific type of labor at a specific skill level across an entire industry. That way no employer has to worry about some other employer getting the benefit of being able to get machinists, or whatever, for a cheaper price per hour. Just as one barrel of oil costs the same whether you're going to use it for fuel, to make plastics, or to make fertilizer, one hour of an electrician helper's labor would cost so much no matter what you were going to use it for, and one hour of an apprentice electrician's labor would be worth so much more, and so on for journeymen and masters. The economic drawback of it is that it ignores regional differences, differences in working conditions, and any other non-economic reason why a member of a specific trade might prefer to work at one employer instead of another. The other drawback the model had is that it was strongly preferred by employers, who covertly supported AFL unions out of fear of the other two. Since AFL union officials were getting paid by both sides, corruption became endemic, and that's why virtually every time you hear of a union being part of the Mafia infrastructure, involved in election fraud, or both, there's a job title in the name, and/or the word "federation."

The Congress of Industrial Organizations model was to organize workers by company, then expand to cover all the companies in the same industry. Since negotiations would be entirely, or almost entirely, within a single company, the company could share proprietary financial information with the negotiating team without having to give it away to their competitors. But the economic drawback of this is that not all workers at the same company have similar problems or similar interests. It leads to arguments about whose labor is more essential to the company and therefore ought to be compensated more, which is a harder question to answer than it sounds. But worst of all, the CIO model resembled Marxist-Leninist "soviet" organizing models closely enough that the Soviet Union saw the CIO as a potential ally, and covertly funded it heavily. Even before that secret got revealed, the similarity was enough to unnerve employers, who feared the CIO and practically had to be forced by the government at gunpoint to negotiate with CIO unions. And to this day, whenever you hear of a union being accused of being a tool of anti-capitalist left wingers, that union's name almost always includes the name of an entire industry.

The International Workers of the World model was to organize workers all over the world by social class. Their theory was that the other reason workers are at a disadvantage in salary negotiations, and in general, is that the bankers and investors who might fund competing companies in a freer market are members of the same privileged social class as the current generation of CEOs and major shareholders, and they act to serve their class interests by protecting each other from potential competition. Also, they understood that organizing the workers within a single country wouldn't solve any problems, because countries would use each other as excuses to drive wages down, by threatening to take whole industries to wherever labor was cheapest. Their proposed solution was the One Big Union, a world-wide monopoly on labor, a separate quasi-governmental international body that would set wages. The biggest problem they had was that this made them a trans-national and pacifist organization during wartime, which made it easy to paint them as treasonous, even easier than it was with the "Communist" CIO unions since for part of that time the Soviet Union was allied with us against the Nazis. What's more, talking openly about social class and organizing scared the living daylights out of everybody in the upper and middle classes in America; so did their popularity with political anarchist leaders. So the government declared open war on the IWW, and through a campaign of frame-up prosecutions and targeted assassinations destroyed every effective leader the IWW had, leaving the incompetent and shrill ones behind, which is why the IWW only barely exists and represents hardly any workers anywhere in the US.

So when the National Labor Relations Act got passed, part of the deal was that the anarchist unions would be excluded, and the AFL and CIO would be merged into a single organization under close government scrutiny which was intended to squeeze out the mobsters and the Communists (although it took decades to achieve that); under those conditions, companies were required at pain of law and under threat of everything from steep fines to temporary nationalization to allow workers to join unions and to negotiate with any unionized workers in good faith. Workers at individual companies who wanted to unionize could choose for themselves whether to organize across industries by job title or across job titles by industry. In the early days, the right to strike was enshrined in law as yet another club to get employers to negotiate in good faith. Once companies got it through their heads that the federal government's National Labor Relations Board really would punish them for cheating or holding out, the government legalized "replacement workers" and outlawed most anti-scab tactics, effectively reducing the right to strike to a right to make toothless protests.

Assuming my Internet connection lasts that long (which is not a given), I'll tell you next what the national offices of a labor federation (as opposed to a labor union) are for, and why the last election for AFL-CIO president really, really matters, and why I think the wrong side won.