The Fall of the House of Labor

Since the last issue of this zine, in which I critiqued labor unions, these organizations have been prominently in the news again.  The biggest stories have been about the passage of a “right-to-work” law in Michigan and the Hostess bankruptcy, which many have blamed on greedy unions.  Labor is clearly under attack from business owners and politicians, and these two events, happening so closely together, have prompted me to once again devote most of the space in the December 2012 issue of anchorage anarchy to a consideration of the labor movement.

The Hostess with the Mostest (Corporate Thieves, that is)

When Hostess announced a couple of months ago that it was declaring bankruptcy, it publicly laid responsibility for its decision at the feet of its unions.  The company said it could no longer afford the pay and benefits its employees were demanding at the negotiating table and closed its doors to most of its workers.  It fired 18,500 workers with no severance and no payout of unused vacation time.  Hostess said it could not pay retiree benefits and has not contributed a penny to its pension plans for a year now.

But interestingly, despite its claims that it can no longer afford the workers who actually produced the products that generated at least $2,300,000,000 over the last year, the company petitioned for and was granted in bankruptcy court approval to pay $1,750,000 to 19 executives as they dismantle and sell off the company.  This payout does not include the $175,000/month that will continue to be paid to the Hostess CEO.  They justified this by saying they need to have a well-run plan to offload their assets in order to pay off the $860,000,000 they owe their “secured” creditors.  Naturally the plan is to make sure these wealthy investors get whatever money can be made off the sale of the company’s remnants before they even consider putting any money towards their $1,000,000,000 unfunded employee pension liability.

None of what happened was a surprise.  Just as companies value their managers and investors/shareholders over their productive workers when their business is going well, they look out for the people at the top when things goes sour.  Despite talk of corporate missions and core values and other trendy management-speak, corporations value the people who put in the money and occupy the offices over the people who put in their labor power, the people who actually produce the services and things of value that the company sells at a profit.  The higher-ups claim that everyone is a stakeholder, both stockholder and worker, but they really only care about themselves and their wealthy cronies.

This basic inequality is hard-wired into capitalist businesses.  In the typical corporation, the workers may create wealth and generate profits for the company for years, but they never end up having any ownership in the company, or any decision-making rights.  They have no real stake in the company (even when officially considered “stakeholders”) that they own and can sell if and when they leave.  The investors and stockholders on the other hand, who have done no actual productive work, have a share in the company that they can sell or trade whenever they like, and have a legal claim to payment for in the case of a bankruptcy.

That’s what happened at Hostess: the owners and managers mismanaged the company into failure (ie, it was no longer profitable enough for their tastes) and then demanded that workers take cuts in pay and benefits to maintain the profits of (non-working) investors.  When the workers refused, having already given back enough, the company locked them out.   Now owners and executives will all leave by deploying golden parachutes of various configurations, while the workers are on the streets with nothing.  Once again the wealthy stay wealthy and the workers get poorer.  And unions get the blame.

Of course, this is all made possible by the government.  The bankruptcy court endorsed the outrageous payout to Hostess executives to manage the bankruptcy.  The government allows corporations to be viewed as “persons” and protects individual stockholders and managers from liability for their bad decisions.  It preserves property rights that make it illegal for the dispossessed Hostess workers to occupy their workplaces and run the business themselves.  No matter how long someone works at a company or how much they contribute to corporate profit, the workers remain employees and are never allowed to own what their labor has created.  The only investment in a company recognized by capitalist companies and the state is the investment of cold, hard cash—the investment of years of one’s life and labor gains a worker nothing but a pension which the company will then feel free to default on.

The Right to Work (for Less)

And then there’s so-called “right-to-work” laws, which were enacted in important states this year: Indiana in February and Michigan just this month.  These laws prevent companies and unions from agreeing to agency shop provisions in their contract which require workers who choose not to join a union to pay a representation fee to the labor organization.  The justification for such fees is that labor laws and government agencies (like the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and National Labor Relations Board NLRB)) require unions to represent all workers in their government-delineated bargaining unit whether they join the union or not.  These unions are sometimes called majority unions because they gain status as the exclusive bargaining agent of a group of workers by winning the majority of votes in a representation election.  This eliminates any competing unions in the workplace, but is gained at the cost of being required to represent non-members.

Where there is no mandatory fee, the dues of members subsidize the costs of representing the free-riders who pay nothing to the labor organization but gain all the benefits granted under a collective bargaining agreement, including representation by union stewards during grievance procedures and even legal counsel paid for by co-workers if a case goes to arbitration.  This can be quite costly and the added expense of representing folks who don’t pay dues can restrict the ability of unions to put funds towards organizing other workers, maintaining union-run benefits plans, or reimbursing members for the time spent negotiating contracts and representing fellow-workers.

That is exactly the reason business-owners and their allies in government support right-to-work laws.  When unions are weak and poor, they are less able to organize new workplaces, which means new enterprises can more easily open and do business as non-union operations, paying workers less and granting more meager benefits.  Businesses see dollar signs from increased profits and politicians who are allied to them lust after corporate donations and increased tax revenues from businesses that move into these “right-to-work” states.  According to these anti-union folks, wages are about 10% less in these states, but unemployment is also lower, by about the same percentage.

Even if these figures are accurate, the anti-union argument is an elaborate charade.  Unions do not bankrupt companies, corporate greed does.  When unionized workers make more money, owners may make less than they otherwise would, but never as little as their employees.  Companies don’t run away from unions because their stockholders are being forced to get foodstamps.  It’s just that, in their eyes, they never can make enough money.  If some profit is good, more is better, and it doesn’t matter if they leave behind an impoverished workforce when they close up shop and move to a more company-friendly state.  If they really were interested in making sure that everyone had the real right to work, that everyone who wanted a job had one, they would give up a little of their profit and share the wealth by hiring more workers themselves.  But that is not their “business model.”  They no more believe in any universal right to work than anti-abortionists believe in a universal right to life.

Labor, Heal Thyself 

But whatever the real motivations of these anti-union campaigners, the way unions have traditionally done business has opened them to valid criticism.  Unions do use a portion of member dues for lobbying and other political activities.  They do overpay bureaucrats and other hacks who commonly make more money than the workers they are charged with representing.  They do take political positions in conflict with the views of at least some of their members.  These kinds of things breed resentment on the part of non-members forced to pay fees to these organizations, and even among some of their members, as well.

And unions have themselves to blame for the fact they must represent non-members.  The establishment labor movement accepts, in fact endorses, majority unionism as the model for american labor relations.  The unions supported passage of NLRA and still believe it was the natural culmination of their efforts to organize american workers.  Part of that devil’s bargain with the state and business was that unions gained protection from competition in the workplace by accepting the requirement to represent non-members.  And the big unions show no interest in giving up majority unionism.  But if these unions fail to reconsider their organizing strategies, internal structures, and political alliances, they run the risk of going out of business entirely in the face of the current offensive by the “right-to-work” types.

A Union of Egoists?

As I noted in the July anchorage anarchy, the labor movement has failed to live up to its promise as a force for fundamental social change.  Recent events make me even more concerned about the future of trade unions in this country.  While I remain very critical of mainstream unions, they do remain at least a partial buffer against corporate predation on workers.  The earnings of the wealthiest 1% increased 5.5% last year while earnings fell by 1.7% for the least wealthy 80%.  Unions, despite their numerous faults, have traditionally been a counterweight to such disparities in wealth and income.  Most of us would be worse off economically without them.

Unions need to clean up their internal messes and purge themselves of the bureaucrats and politicians that have run the movement into the ground.  They also need to distance themselves from the state and politicians if there is any chance of revitalizing the labor movement.  Obama bailed-out business owners and banks while sacrificing workers and home-owners.  State legislatures in the old industrial states which for years supported unions are now passing right-to-work laws.  And government-enforced majority unionism is coming around to bite the unions in the arse.  The labor movement needs to stop seeking shelter under NLRA and try some new approaches.

Among the other posts on this page, you will find an article that first appeared in the anarchist and individualist zine The Storm in its winter 1982/1983 issue.  In it Maureen Flannery tells of her experience with a minority, individualist, free union in 1960s San Francisco.  It demonstrates what can be achieved by people acting freely on their own behalf—without bureaucrats, with mandatory dues, without the NLRB.  You can also read a letter from Peter Lamborn Wilson which I received in response to the July 2012 issue of anchorage anarchy.  Since I had already planned to reprint Maureen’s article before I received Peter’s letter, it was an interesting synchronicity that he, too, points out that an individualist/egoist approach is better than a collectivist one in labor organizing (as well as in every other area of social life).  Enjoy.

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