Saturday, April 27, 2013

Labor's Giant Step Backwards

This post is about the precipitous decline of the union movement, and is based on three articles--two in this week's Militant (by Alyson Kennedy and Frank Forrestal), and the third by Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect.

Kennedy continues to report on the mineworker's pension problems, about which I blogged last week. Patriot Coal Company has declared bankruptcy and is asking to be excused from paying pensions to 10,000 retired miners (along with 13,000 dependents), when only 1600 Patriot employees are members of the United Mineworkers (UMWA). Most of the retirees never worked for Patriot--instead they were employed by Peabody Coal or Arch Coal. In that post I incorrectly implied that Peabody Coal had gone out of business. That's not true--it is alive and well, presumably as a non-union company. It has completely divested itself of Appalachian mines, operating only in the Midwest and the Rockies. The UMWA's claim is that the Patriot Coal spin-off was set up to fail from the git-go.

I don't know if that last claim is true, and in any event it doesn't matter. The Marxist (and union) conceit is that capitalists keep some large stash of cash that they could pass out to the workers if they just wanted to. It's the Scrooge McDuck image of capitalism, and it's totally false. In reality, a commodity business like coal operates on very tight margins--likely only pennies on the dollar--and that's all the money they've got to play with.

So the union tacitly acknowledges that Patriot doesn't have the resources to make good on the pension promises--that's why they're also picketing Peabody's headquarters in St. Louis. That's the primary topic of Kennedy's current article. Peabody is a somewhat larger company, with 8300 employees in both the US and Australia. Without the illusory stash of cash, the only place Peabody could get the money to pay off the union pensions is from either its customers or current employees. The customers won't bite--the coal market is shrinking. And the current employees--non-union and not from Appalachia--won't be inclined to contribute to pensions more generous than anything they themselves have been promised. From Ms. Kennedy's report, it appears that none of Peabody's current workforce is participating in these protests--why should they?

The union will lose this fight. They can't strike against a bankrupt company in a weak market--then everybody is unemployed. And they can't strike against Peabody because they don't work for Peabody. Neither unions nor companies can produce cash out of thin air--the union contracts are a fraud. The workers have been consistently lied to for decades.

Frank Forrestal's article is about the lockout of sugar workers in North Dakota. The lockout by American Crystal Sugar Company lasted 20 months, and Forrestal now reports that the workers ratified a contract  just like what they'd been offered at the beginning. In the meantime they're numbers have dwindled, and it looks as though the returning unionists will be a minority in the workforce. The union has been comprehensively defeated.

A second union conceit is that unions increase the wages of the entire working class. During the 1950s and 1960s this appeared to be true. Wages were increasing across the board, and unions just took a little bit more than their share of the extra gravy. Their wealth grew slightly faster than everybody else's, making it look like they were leading the way. But by the mid 70s productivity increases slowed down, and with it also the increase in per capita GDP. Hence there wasn't enough extra gravy to go around, and as a result the union bennies came out of everybody else's hide. People don't really mind if extra gravy gets spread out unfairly, but we hate to lose ground when the gravy runs out.

So just as the non-union miners aren't going to subsidize their colleague's pensions, neither will sugar workers or consumers subsidize union work rules. Unlike Peabody Coal of yore, American Sugar told their employees the truth--you work at market rates or you don't work at all. No false promises, and in the end everybody will be better off.

Marxists will claim that union workers are not in competition with other workers, but rather with capitalists. This simply isn't true. Capitalists cannot set wages--those are subject to the market. There is a separate market for capital, which also is determined by supply and demand (or at least should be, though the government is now artificially lowering the cost of capital). A capitalist needs to make a market return on investment in order to justify taking the money out of the bank. Capital and labor are mostly separate markets and not in competition with each other--rather like cars and avocados. Few people say "I'm not going to buy a car today because I'd rather buy an avocado."

So that brings us to Harold Meyerson's piece, entitled How Unions Are Getting Their Groove Back. In other words, Mr. Meyerson wouldn't buy a word of what I've just told you. In his view unions have turned the corner and are on the rebound. His lede paragraph:
Yesterday—April 24th--a red-letter day in the annals of worker mobilization in post-collective-bargaining America. In Chicago, hundreds of fast-food and retail employees who work in the Loop and along the Magnificent Mile called a one-day strike and demonstrated for a raise to $15-an-hour and the right to form a union. At more than 150 Wal-Mart stores across the nation, workers and community activists called on the chain to regularize employees’ work schedules. And under pressure from an AFL-CIO-backed campaign of working-class voters who primarily aren’t union members, the county supervisors of New Mexico’s Bernalillo County voted to raise the local minimum wage.
So Walmart workers are at the opposite end of the economic food chain from coal miners. Miners are in a basic resource industry, and if the world really were Wobbly-friendly, then in principle  they could shut the whole thing down. Retail workers--one step away from the consumer--have no such power. The best they can do is shut the store down. If the miners can't pull off a successful strike, then surely Walmart employees won't be able to, either.

Walmart is impossible to organize. The retail trade is so disperse and varied that shutting down one store just won't make any difference. Indeed, Walmart has clearly indicated that it will simply shut down if forced to unionize. Walmart is a labor-intensive business, unlike mining, which is capital-intensive. That means that Walmart can just walk away from the business at relatively little cost. Walmart employees know this--that's why they've never voted to unionize.

And one really has to laugh at the economic ignorance of the Bernalillo county supervisors. They think they're all powerful--by the flick of a pen they can raise the standard of living of everybody in the county. I'd like to know why they are so chintzy--why didn't they raise the minimum to $100/hour, or even $10,000/hour? I mean if it's that easy to make everybody rich, then by all means, let's go for it.

Of course it's all a fraud. The minimum wage no more increases wealth than do the fraudulent pension benefits promised union workers. Employees with defined benefit pensions--be they in the public or private sector--are victims of a huge Ponzi scheme. They will never see more than pennies on what they expect. I think that's very sad.

Anyway, kudos to The Militant for honest and informative reporting.

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