I recently came across an interesting blog piece by Stewart Acuff called The Future of the American Labor Movement. One thing I liked about his piece is that he correctly identified several important areas the labor movement has ignored over the years. However, like many on the left, he completely misunderstands the relationship between labor and capital and this leads him to the erroneous belief that the interests of workers can be saved entirely through political action, while ignoring labor’s most effective weapon, the strike.
Acuff points out that the 1935 Wagner Act, which was revised and reborn as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), does not cover large percentages of workers (e.g., public sector workers, agricultural workers and domestic workers). These latter two groups comprise many of the lowest wage and most abused workers in the nation. For those who are covered by NLRA, the law significantly limits their freedom to form unions, bargain collectively and strike. He argues that the labor movement needs to fight NLRA-type protections for all workers and start to vigorously organize the millions of non-unionized workers in the country, while also fighting for legislative changes that would improve workers’ living standards, including a higher minimum (living) wage and single payer health plan.
Unfortunately, Acuff misunderstands the relationship between labor and capital, claiming that the lack of “real and full freedom to form unions and bargain collectively is the core of our economic crisis.” The economic crisis is, in reality, a crisis of capital—the temporary failure to acquire as much profit as desired in the usual way. To be sure, times are tougher now for the rest of us, but the economic relations are essentially the same as they have always been. The employing class owns the means of production and thus controls the conditions of work, while the workers are dependent on the employers for a job and wages. This allows employers to pay workers less than the value of their labor and pocket the difference as profits (i.e., exploitation). When times are tough for capitalists, they slash wages and jobs and demand more from those who remain, thus ensuring continued profits over and beyond what they need to live far more lavishly than their employees.
Unions and collective bargaining merely allow workers to negotiate their working conditions and compensation with their bosses, but never to actually challenge their subservient relationship, let alone demand full autonomy, power or control over the means of production. Thus, unions and collective bargaining help perpetuate the continued profit-making by the capitalist class by insuring that workers stay on the job to be exploited (i.e., paid less than the value of their labor).
Furthermore, the right to form unions and bargain collectively, in and of itself, does little for workers if they cannot mount an effective strike. During collective bargaining, each side makes proposals, argues its case and they either come to an agreement or not. The boss can always say “no” and the workers have little recourse when this happens except to appeal to his compassion or threaten to harm him. Although there are a number of tactics that have been used by workers over the years, the strike (and its variants) is the most effective means to extract concessions from bosses, as it hurts their bottom line. The longer workers remain off the job, the longer they lose profits.
While union membership has been on the decline (partly as a result of downsizing, union busting and outsourcing), unions have also become increasingly reluctant to engage in strikes and other job actions. Acuff laments how “35 years of assaults on workers and unions have led to 35 years of stagnant wages,” yet the unions have done little to resist this. Indeed, by increasingly choosing political action over direct action, the unions have been complicit in this.
Like many on the Left, including the leaders of the unions, Acuff has misconstrued the problem as a political problem: “What does the absence of organizing and collective bargaining rights say about freedom and democracy in the United States?” In actuality it says very little about freedom and a lot about the relationship of democracy to capitalism. We do, in fact, have the right to form unions, strike and bargain collectively, but the state has imposed numerous restrictions and limitations and it has done so legally and democratically and for the benefit of the bosses. What most on the Left fail to recognize is that despite its definition (rule by the people), democracy is not the same thing as People Power and does not serve the economic interests of the masses.
Though Acuff sounds like a critic of mainstream unionism, his critique suffers from many of the same faulty premises. While it is true that governments can take away collective bargaining rights (as they recently did in Wisconsin), organizing is something that people can and sometimes must do, regardless of rights and laws. Likewise, before we had a legal right to strike, workers still struck and risked jail, beatings, deportations and murder. Unfortunately, the major unions have accepted the rules and laws imposed on them by capital (i.e., they obediently follow the dictates of NLRA and Taft-Hartley) and even undermine wildcat initiatives by their members, thus squelching rank and file autonomy and passion. In Wisconsin, when workers started talking about a General Strike (which is illegal under the Taft Hartley Act), the major unions sent their members home from the state house occupation, arguing that the most strategy was to vote the crooks out of office.
It is true that wages have been stagnant or declining over the past 40 years and that working conditions have deteriorated (e.g., longer hours, speedups, increased workloads). It is also true that the wealth gap has grown rapidly in that period and living conditions for most of us have declined as a result. In response, the unions have done virtually nothing to fight to reverse these trends. Rather, they have almost universally negotiated contracts that merely slowed down the process. Ultimately, if unions want to increase their membership and status among workers, they will have to demonstrate that they have the power to make aggressive demands on the bosses and win them through strikes. Until then, unions will seem like a burden to many workers that simply take a cut of their already meager wages in exchange for more status quo.