Friday, August 11, 2017

Labor's Legitimacy Crisis

My title is borrowed from an article by Barry Eidlin, posted by Solidarity, entitled Labor's Legitimacy Crisis Under Trump. It is a quality, well-written summary of issues currently faced by the US labor movement.

Mr. Eidlin, who is a professor of sociology at McGill University, is typical of his class: sociology faculty's political opinions range from the Far Left to the Ultraleft. There is no diversity of thought in that discipline, and accordingly Professor Eidlin's conclusions are totally predictable. Indeed, for a self-described radical it is amazing how much he simply echoes what we read every day in the mainstream media.

For all that, he's a good writer and his piece is well worth reading.

The lede paragraph includes the usual throw-away insults aimed at Trump. He represents "nativist right-wing populism," similar to France's Front National (FN). Though unlike FN, which has even stooped to holocaust denial, there is no trace of antisemitism in Trump's ideology. Further, FN strongly supports dirigisme, i.e., the direct control of the French economy by the state. Trump is just the opposite--he is doing the best he can to deregulate the American economy, to give individuals and entrepreneurs as much freedom as possible to earn a living.

Trump is not right-wing. He's not even a Republican. In his heart of hearts he's a conservative Democrat--a species that in eras past has been termed a "blue dog Democrat", a "Reagan Democrat," a "Scoop Jackson Democrat," or (with reference to the more important Andrew), simply a "Jacksonian Democrat." All those labels fit. Extreme right wing does not.

Professor Eidlin maintains that workers have been bamboozled by The Donald.
The early months of the Trump administration have been chaotic, but one thing remains clear: despite Trump’s rhetorical appeals to the working class, actual workers and unions have reason to be worried. His public pronouncements about bringing back coal and manufacturing jobs are based on pure sophistry, while his less public moves to gut labor regulations and workers’ rights will hurt workers. Labor’s dire situation predates Trump by decades, but it is likely that his accession to the Oval Office will further embolden labor’s foes, much as Ronald Reagan’s election did in the 1980s.
So why do workers--union members no less--vote for a man so manifestly anti-proletarian?

Professor Eidlin never answers that very obvious question. He doesn't even ask it, likely because the answer is too discouraging. He probably thinks his fellow proletarians are too stupid, lacking the class consciousness of sociology professors. They've been duped--not just once (by Trump), and not just twice (Reagan), but multiple times (Coolidge? Cleveland?). We Republicans are just too smart for them--they fall for our tricks every time.

He's wrong. The blue collar workforce in America understands at some level that their well-being depends on the strength of the economy. Unless businesses have the freedom to maximize revenue and profit, workers won't get paid. Workers (real ones, not fake ones like sociology profs) realize that welfare makes us all poorer. They want jobs, not handouts. They're not interested in the featherbedded, inefficient, make-work projects that Hillary Clinton promised during her campaign.
In the 2016 election, despite unions spending millions of dollars and deploying major voter mobilization programs to support Democrats, Trump won 43 percent of union households, and 37 percent of union members. In some of the decisive Rust Belt states, Trump won outright majorities of union households.
Trump won precisely because of his supposedly "anti-worker cabinet." Trump's goal is to let people earn a living. You can't get paid if you don't have a job, and regulating and constraining the economy is the fastest way to unemployment. Workers get that. The union movement's fight for the working man against the entrepreneur makes sense only if the entrepreneur is making a profit. Failing that they both go down. Our sociologist friend doesn't appear to comprehend that.

That actually explains why union density in the US has been on the decline. Given thin margins and (because of globalization) a very competitive environment, there's very little left over for labor and management to fight over. It's all anybody can do to stay in business, meet the payroll, and keep the lights on. The notion that salaries can arbitrarily double (as the Fight for $15 movement demands) is obvious poppycock. Unions never could deliver on their promises, but now that's obvious.

Professor Eidlin states this idea in a different way. Talking about strikes and shop floor actions, he writes,
For the most part though, strikes and shop floor organization are things of the past. Not only are strike rates are near an all-time low in the United States, but evidence suggests that they are no longer as effective as they used to be. Meanwhile, corporate consolidation, financialization, and restructuring means that power and authority have moved not just further up the organizational chart, but have disappeared into a hazy thicket of investment funds, shell companies, and merged mega-corporations.
His thinking has disappeared into a hazy thicket of meaningless terminology. He's got the trend precisely wrong--power has not moved up into the cloud, but rather from the corporate boardroom down to the shop floor.

What does that mean? It means that the profit center of any workplace is just that workplace. If a particular manufacturing plant can't earn it's keep, it gets closed or sold off and the capital is reinvested somewhere more lucrative. That is, if workers go on strike they're basically striking against themselves. No factory can earn a profit if the employees stop working or maliciously slow down production by some shop floor action. There are no cross-subsidies anymore. The money you earn is the money you keep. If you don't earn, you lose your job.

Example: read (e.g., in Sam Walton's autobiography) how Walmart store managers are treated. They're never more than one bad decision away from being fired. The store has to meet revenue and profit targets every single day. If the store can't keep up it's closed. Walmart is a low-capital business--the physical stores and parking lots are a very small part of their total expense. They can walk away very easily, as they did in Jonquiere, Quebec. A union will destroy Walmart's business, forcing them to close the whole enterprise. Their employees understand that, and store managers definitely understand that.

In his own way Professor Eidlin also sees this.
In this new environment, many argue, workplace organizing can only have limited effects. Unions’ leverage must be exerted elsewhere, either in politics or capital markets. Almost by definition, that means that unions’ primary activities must happen at the staff level, in the strategic research and legislative action departments — not in the workplace. Unsurprisingly, unions that subscribe to this analysis, most notably SEIU, have transformed themselves in ways that make their workplace presence even more remote.
This paragraph shows up unions for what they really are: an extortion racket. I know they don't intend to be that--I am certain that people like Professor Eidlin act with the best of intentions. But the fact is that a union needs to put itself between a company's employees and it's customers to extract money. Some of that money is shared with the employees, but much of it goes to paying the union bureaucracy. The result is that either the customers pay higher prices, or the employees receive lower salaries, or some combination of both. Nobody really gets any richer except maybe a few union bureaucrats.

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