Sunday, March 15, 2015

Labor Strategy for the Coming Period

This post begins with an article in Socialist Action by Carl Sack, entitled 'Right to Work' Battle in Wisconsin. The scare quotes imply that "right to work" is anything but. Indeed, Mr. Sack claims that "Median wages for workers in states with Right-To-Work laws are almost $6000 a year lower than in states without them."

Of course that's the wrong metric. The true measure of government policy is the relative size of the total payroll--not the pay per worker. Even if the median salary is lower, but many more people are employed growing the total payroll, then both workers and society are better off.

The article (well-written and informative) reports on Wisconsin becoming the 25th state to pass a right-to-work (rtw) law. That means that workers in that state may join a union if they wish, but are not forced to do so if they don't wish. It is a right to disassociate. The so-called "battle" was a bit of a dud. There were a few demonstrations around the state, but the law passed with surprisingly little controversy.

The big brouhaha occurred in 2011 when the newly elected Republican governor and legislature defanged the public employee unions, essentially imposing rtw-light on them. Accordingly, as Mr. Sack reports, this "...has decimated the membership of the state’s public worker unions and the wages and benefits of public workers here."

So that begs the question. If unions are so valuable to workers, why don't they flock to join even without the legal obligation? The reason is pretty obvious--unions are no longer able to deliver benefits to their members commensurate with the union dues. Thus most workers simply choose to stop paying dues. I'm forced to pay dues to the professors' union, even though I don't think I derive any benefit from it.

Mr. Sack suggests that the public employees back in 2011, and private sector unions today, should have called for a general strike rather than fight the changes through the political process. Of course that wouldn't work. Public employees are not popular people these days. (Scott Walker has won three elections in four years, all by substantial margins.) Going on strike would simply have meant they'd all be fired.

The college professors wouldn't even be missed if they went on strike.

An article in North Star (whose new page design is vastly improved) by Ben Smiff is entitled In Search of Workers' Power. This engaging piece is about "deindustrialization," and attempts an analysis about how the labor movement should respond to the phenomenon.

Deindustrialization has two parts: 1) an increasing percentage of labor is working in so-called service industries, and 2) manufacturing has moved to rural places in the Southeast, far from any union influence.

Mr. Smiff recounts the efforts of workers in Minneapolis sandwich chain called Jimmy John's to organize a union. They eventually failed--by narrowly losing an NLRB vote. Why--if a union were such a slam-dunk good thing--would the election even be close? Because there is no money in fast food. The union would never be able to keep its promises. The only "benefit" accruing to the employees is the right to pay union dues.

Mr. Smiff notes that manufacturing remains a major part of the American economy, still employing 9% of the labor force. {Emphasis mine}
What’s more, as Kim Moody and Charlie Post point out in a recent article in Socialist Register 2015, despite overall losses in manufacturing jobs over the past several decades, as it stands today, “the United States produces more goods… than ever”:  ... 
The reason for this, Moody and Post note, relates to “enormous productivity increases since the early 1980s[…].” This stems from unceasing speed-ups imposed upon workers through the introduction of new machinery and, most significantly, through the social reorganization of production along more-efficient lines – so-called “lean production” techniques. {Emphasis mine}
Speed-ups is surely the wrong word. Automation, globalization, and above all, logistics, are more accurate descriptors. Manufacturers are able to deliver more products of higher quality to more people at ever cheaper prices. Only a Marxist can complain about that.

Mr. Smiff does us a good turn by citing an important article by Jasper Bernes entitled Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Prospect. Mr. Bernes is among the few Marxists who actually takes deindustrialization seriously.
Today’s supply chains are distinguished not just by their planetary extension and incredible speed but by their direct integration of manufacture and retail, their harmonisation of the rhythms of production and consumption. Since the 1980s, business writers have touted the value of “lean” and “flexible” production models, in which suppliers maintain the capacity to expand and contract production, as well as change the types of commodities produced, by relying on a network of subcontractors, temporary workers, and mutable organisational structures, adaptations that require precise control over the flow of goods and information between units.
Mr. Bernes describes accurately the dense connectivity of the modern economy, which he labels logistics. In such an environment it is almost impossible to go on strike. There exists another plant somewhere on the planet that can replace your output almost instantaneously.

Yet, as Mr. Bernes mentions, there are still a few choke points where labor holds the edge. One of these is the huge container ports, through which almost all freight must flow. He (writing in Sept., 2013) cites the Occupy blockade of the Port of Oakland. An even better example is the recently concluded work slowdown at the Port of Los Angeles. There a small group of longshoremen held a knife to the throat of the entire economy, extorting for themselves yet another large salary increase. They can get away with that as long as they don't overplay their hand. (It seems to me they've been very skillful.) For if they raise costs too high, then public pressure will eventually force their ouster, or somehow the Port of Los Angeles will be bypassed.

Mr. Bernes makes two claims--one which I think is factually wrong, and the second which makes me angry.

The first is that the new logistics is centralizing. He implies that it only works for big companies, such as Walmart. While it is true that Sam Walton was a leader in establishing the new logistics, it is not true that only Walmart-sized firms benefit from the technology. Indeed, even Ma & Pa shops use container shipping. Every product is assigned an SKU (store keeping unit), represented by the little barcode on the box. There are on the order of trillions of SKU numbers. Amazon (as best I can determine from the web) stocks 125 million SKUs. Walmart only carries around 300,000 SKUs. So of all the millions and (maybe) billions of different products out there, Walmart only sells a tiny fraction.

Most of the rest are sold by small firms. Amazon is less and less a store, and more a platform for third party vendors. My immigrant wife's employers sell products from the old country via Amazon, imported by container ship. And theirs is a small business indeed. So Mr. Bernes is wrong about how logistics favors big firms.

His second claim is even worse. He writes,
Much of the machinery of contemporary logistics aims to streamline the circulation of commodities and not use-values, to produce not the things that are necessary or beneficial but those that are profitable: individually packaged boxes of cereal, for instance, whose complex insignia distinguish them from the dozens of varieties of nearly identical cereals (sold and consumed in sizes and types that reflect certain social arrangements, such as the nuclear family).
So there it is--Marxism's dedication to poverty is laid bare. You want Cheerios for breakfast? Why you petty bourgeois scumbag! How dare you decide you want to eat something that has no use-value! After all, Jasper Bernes knows much better than you do what you should eat for breakfast. After all, he teaches poetry at UC Berkeley. He is much, much smarter than you are.

North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela are not poor because of some evil, imperialist plot. No--they are poor by design. Communism can't deal with too many SKUs. Everything has to be filtered through poetry professors. You little shits just need to get with the program.

Or face the firing squad.

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