Erik Kain had a curious piece recently in Forbes called the Economics of Unions. In his article, he argued for less regulation of unions and called for an end to corrupt and “unimaginative” leadership. He said that public sector unions may “actually be defending the interests of service recipients at the expense of their bureaucratic bosses,” and suggested that teachers unions serve the interests of students, as they “have often been the only group poised to resist authoritarian school reformers.”
While all this might seem surreal coming from a Forbes writer, it seems less so when placed in the context of Kains’ overall perspective. He is a libertarian who loves capitalism and personal freedom, but hates government. For example, when he argued that organized labor since Taft-Hartley was a “creature of state-capitalism,” he was implying that the state is already too involved in the economy and that there should be less regulation and oversight of business, something that would be terrible for workers, as it would increase corruption, pollution and workplace injuries and deaths.
His hatred of government can also be seen in his perverse portrayal of public sector workers as freedom fighters in the war to shrink Big Government. He glowingly quotes Kevin Carson (libertarian blogger who refers to himself as a “free market anarchist”), who believes in “Removing the parasitic middlemen [i.e., politicians], who have inserted themselves into the relationship between service providers and recipients. . .” Carson also argues that “Anything that strengthens the hand of public sector workers against the commanding heights of the state, also weakens the hand of the state and its plutocratic allies.”
Don’t get me wrong. I hate plutocrats and state bureaucracies as much as the next guy and I’d love to see public sector workers in complete control of their workplaces. (However, I’d prefer even more a system without bosses, rulers or oppression of any kind, in which everyone was able to enjoy the good things in life). Nevertheless, it is absurd to think that public sector workers are somehow going to bring down the state or its plutocratic allies, and even crazier to believe that this would bring on a utopian paradise, while leaving capitalism intact.
Speaking of crazy, what the hell is “free market unionism?” The concept is oxymoronic (or just plain moronic), unless you consider unions a protection racket, as some critics do. Perhaps he is suggesting that unions should act more competitively, which would clearly not be in workers’ interests as it would pit them against each other in the competition for jobs, exacerbating the downward spiral of wages and benefits.
On the other hand, in the context of Kain’s other arguments, it would seem he is arguing for the repeal of all labor laws, so that workers can enter into “voluntary” relationships with their bosses. Such an argument presumes that the employing class and labor have similar interests and a willingness to negotiate in good faith, which is simply untrue. Workers enter into relationships with bosses because they have no choice. They must either work for wages, or starve—hence the term wage slave. Bosses, on the other hand, are most interested in maximizing productivity and lowering costs. Thus, they have an interest in keeping wages and benefits low and in maximizing their control over the workplace. The willingness to sit down and talk does not lead to a good contract. It is workers’ ability and willingness to go on strike or otherwise impair business as usual that compels the boss to sit down and talk.
Contrary to Kain’s assertion, organized labor has been a “creature” of capitalism since well before Taft-Hartley. Indeed, from the earliest days of capitalism most unions accepted the bosses’ right to profit from the labor of the working class, and most have bought the delusion that there would be no work at all if it were not for the beneficence of the capitalists. This is not to say that unions have always been obsequious. Far from it. Thousands of workers in the U.S. alone have been slaughtered by cops, soldiers, private security and vigilantes in conflicts with their bosses over wages and working conditions. However, when business leaders finally recognized that co-opting labor was cheaper and more profitable than dealing with ongoing strikes and disruptions to production, they began to tolerate unions and collective bargaining, albeit with many strings attached, including the demand for increased labor laws to enforce those strings.
Kain argues that right to work laws “impose artificial restrictions on voluntary association and the ability of employers and employees to bargain.” However, it is misleading to call the restrictions artificial. There is very little that is “natural” about the relations between workers and bosses. Virtually everything about the economy results from deliberate choices and decisions, most often made by the ruling class and imposed on workers. What is important is that right to work laws restrict employee freedom to join unions and weaken labor in its struggle against capital. This is true of most labor laws, as Kain acknowledges: “the entire suite of labor laws, even those passed ostensibly to bolster labor, have weakened unions and made them less dynamic and less suited to modern economic conditions.” The National Labor Relations Act, for example, came in the wake of a militant wave of strikes. While the law legitimized unions and collective bargaining, it also limited how unions could be organized and how they could fight, while increasing their bureaucratization and weakening their militancy.
Despite my criticisms, I think Kain is absolutely right that our unions are top heavy and ossified and that labor laws have only exacerbated these problems. However, the solution is not to embrace free markets and trust that workers and bosses will find a way to all get along, or that union leaders will suddenly become creative or courageous. In fact, the first step is for rank and file workers to recognize that the bosses are not their allies, that they have nothing in common with the bosses and that their relationship with their employers, no matter how pleasant it may seem on the surface, is adversarial by definition. The boss determines the conditions of employment, including wages, benefits, safety, and job duties. The employee can either accept these terms unquestioningly or negotiate and fight for something better. However, they will rarely win this fight alone. The power of unions is their ability to organize large numbers of workers to withhold their labor and to disrupt business as usual. Until they are ready and willing to use this weapon, they will continue to be pushed further and further back. Contrary to Kain’s feigned concern that unions are stymied by the law, workers can still strike, regardless of the law (as long as they are willing to risk the consequences, as labor has done so often in the past).