Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Crippling the Right to Organize?


Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
In an Op-Ed in the New York Times on December 15, William Gould (Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, 1994-1998) argued that American workers will lose their right to be represented by a union on New Year’s Day because the National Labor Relations Board will lose its quorum and therefore its ability to decide cases.

The Sky Is Not Falling On New Year’s Day (It’s Been Falling All Along)
In reality, the NLRB lost its quorum in 2008, when three of its five seats became vacant and Democrats and Republicans repeatedly blocked each other’s nominations. In March 2010, Obama made 2 recess appointments, which temporarily gave the body feet again, but those will expire at the end of the year. Thus, the NLRB has been crippled for years, with a brief and impotent respite in 2010. Its status in 2012, therefore, will be more of the same.

Without a functioning NLRB, Gould argues that employers will be able to interfere with union elections. They won’t have to recognize unions that have been supported by majority votes and they will be able to illegally fire workers and without being compelled to reinstate back pay.

All of these are terrible for workers, of course. The problem is that bosses have been doing these things for the past 70 years (particularly during the last 40 years, when employers started to exploit more loopholes in the National Labor Relations Act), even with a functioning NLRB, which exists as a sort of “supreme court” for labor conflicts. Like the Supreme Court, the NLRB has been subject to the same fluctuations and whims of presidential politics and has often ruled against the interests of workers. Even when “pro-union” officials have served on the NLRB, the board has functioned primarily to ensure that private business is allowed to operate with as few constraints as possible in their pursuit of profits. That is to say that even when it has forced employers to provide back pay or accept the results of a union election, the employers were still permitted to underpay and overwork their employees, while extracting huge profits from their labor.
Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
 A Union Is Only As Strong As Its Membership (Not Its National Laws)
The NLRB came into existence in 1935 with the passage of the Wagner Act, which came in response to years of labor unrest, including several major General Strikes in 1934 (e.g., San Francisco Waterfront, Minneapolis Teamsters, New England Textile workers, Toledo Auto-Lite) that left many workers dead and hundreds injured.

The Wagner Act and the NLRB were designed as bones to be tossed to the unions to make them more quiescent. The labor unrest, particularly the General Strikes, came at great cost to capital and the capitalists recognized that making a few small concessions, like allowing the right to organize and collectively bargain, not only would keep their employees on the job and making profits for them, but could also be used to manipulate union leadership and get them to be more compliant partners. Unions, too, would have new rules they would be expected to follow. Strikes could occur, but only after certain hoops had been jumped through. Arbitration, mediation, cooling off periods, fact-finding, are all ways to take the wind out of workers’ sails and chill their tempers, while keeping them in the factories making widgets for the bosses.

The Wagner Act and the new NLRB did give labor many new rights and privileges, but in the long-term it also took the teeth out of their movement. Admittedly, there was an upsurge in strikes and union organizing immediately after the passage of the act, but this subsided as the bosses learned how to manipulate the new laws and labor leaders were coopted. Even so, there were few General Strikes after the passage of the Wagner Act, with the Oakland General Strike of 1946 being the only notable exception.

Part of the problem was the unions themselves, which by this point were almost entirely oriented toward the self-interest of their own membership, rather than the interests of the working class as a whole, and a general acceptance of the existing social order. That is to say they accepted the right of a tiny minority of the population to maintain a monopoly on wealth and political power, as well as the inequality and privation that resulted. Indeed, they saw their bosses not as oppressors, but as benefactors whose existence was required in order for them to receive a paycheck, even if that paycheck was barely enough to pay the bills. This was in marked contrast to the perspective of revolutionary unions like the Industrial Workers of the World, who not only fought for short-term improvements in pay and working conditions, but for the long-term abolition of the wage system and bosses.

While there were numerous strike waves after the passage of the Wagner Act, particularly in the 1940s and 50s, unions began to use this tactic less and less, focusing more on political action (i.e., getting “their” guys elected to public office) and legal action (i.e., getting the NLRB to rule in their favor). This approach gave the bosses the clear advantage. They could do whatever they wanted in the workplace and then hope (or lobby) for a favorable ruling by the NLRB, keeping profits high and workers’ income low in the interim. They have far more money than the unions, which gives them the clear advantage in terms of getting their guys elected to office and in terms of stacking the NLRB in their favor. Furthermore, regardless of who is in office, the political and legal systems are both designed to favor capital over labor.

While political and legal actions are indirect and fickle means to achieve workers’ interests, direct action (e.g., strikes, boycotts, slow-downs, sabotage) places direct pressure on the bosses and is much more effective at achieving workers’ demands. It directly empowers workers, instead of leaving them at the mercy of political middlemen and bureaucrats. It reminds the ruling elite that their ability to rule is tenuous and not assured.

Prior to the Wagner Act, there were still unions and successful strikes. Workers could not count on the courts or governmental bodies to defend their interests, so they relied much more heavily on direct action. Labor can still do this and, in fact, has no other choice. Even with “pro-labor” representatives on the NLRB, labor had been steadily losing ground over the past 40 years. This was due in large part to labor’s unwillingness to emphasize organizing and direct action and its overemphasis of union resources on political and legal action, generally at the expense of organizing. With an eviscerated or nonexistent NLRB, perhaps unions will recognize this truth, and focus once again on their one true strength: their ability to withhold their labor.

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