Saturday, December 15, 2012

Right to Work: Are Unions Still Relevant?

With the union protests in Wisconsin, the teachers’ strike in Chicago, the closing of Hostess, the Right to Work law in Michigan, and other recent events, the discussion about the usefulness and role of unions continues to regain importance in the public sphere. In the U.S., anti-union forces really began to mobilize in the 1980s and have taken advantage of every opportunity to raise questions about the continued relevance of unions. The pro-union voices have typically responded by listing all the things unions accomplished a hundred years ago, thus unintentionally contributing to the perception that unions are a relic of a bygone age, operating within an archaic and simultaneously (paradoxically) overly-bureaucratized structure.

It is interesting to look at how this dynamic played out in the recent debate over Michigan’s Right to Work legislation. On the face of it, and as the bill is publicly presented, the issue revolves around whether union membership should be a choice or a mandate. Thus, it is packaged in the typical liberal discourse of “freedom of choice.” This ensures widespread support.

This “freedom of choice” rhetoric is also used to strengthen strategically propagated (though not entirely false) images of unions robbing paychecks for dues and forcibly promoting their political agendas. Under these circumstances, it seems reasonable that a person may wish to decline participation in a union. And why should any person be forced to join any organization?

Every potential bit of evidence of union coercion is thrown into the spotlight and continually regurgitated to support the ideological goals of the anti-union forces, who have substantial media influence. Employer coercion, in contrast, often lurks beneath the surface and escapes widespread attention. The fact of the matter is that the opposition at stake is not that of union coercion versus freedom, but rather of union coercion versus employer coercion, and unions and employers are not equal forces. It is a well documented fact that employers use every manner of intimidation available to them to discourage union participation. If union participation is not mandated, there is nothing to stop the employer from trying to mandate the opposite, as Walmart, for example, has done. Furthermore, such weakening of unions will by necessity undermine their ability to negotiate. What leverage will unions have when a pool of non-union reserve labor is always available? The ultimate effect of eliminating the mandate, then, is the complete emasculation of unions and the obstruction of their most central function.

This is where the question of their relevance comes in. It is often argued that they really don’t serve any necessary function today. The world of the Industrial Age has long passed, and the concerns of that era are no longer valid. Why is it, then, that U.S. corporations do not hesitate to engender the exact same conditions in other parts of the world, where no opposing force exists to stop them? From Foxconn in China to the Walmart sweatshops in Bangladesh... it is clear that industry still operates according to the exact same principles. I have heard the rebuttal that there are cultural differences in those parts of the world, that they are not as developed or enlightened, and that it is better than sitting in the jungle eating poop. This, of course, is racist. The appeal to “culture” most often is a racial argument. The reality, as I have already explained many times in this blog, is that forces of global capitalism have created underdevelopment and poverty in the Third World. So sweatshops most certainly are not saving them from some supposed savage life. Moreover, industry is not culturally biased. It will build sweatshops wherever it is allowed.

Of course, then the whole issue degenerates into the question of whether workers should willfully work for less than they need to survive or be happy seeing domestic jobs disappear. The very fact that this is an either/or situation proves the inhumanity of capitalism.

So, if one looks at the global organization of production, it is clear that the existence and proper functioning of unions are key to ensuring that workers in particular countries make enough money to feed themselves and their families. In fact, unions have been necessary to the development of capitalism as a whole. The worker unrest that emerged in its earlier stages would have certainly destroyed the entire arrangement if the creation of the welfare state and unions had not placated workers and made them more amenable to being exploited. In some sense the work of unions serves the general conditions that support the functioning of the capitalist system. Not only does it control worker unrest, but higher wages in one business or industry is beneficial to all the other industries in the form of expanded demand. On the other hand, capitalists have always been more concerned about their immediate interests, which union bargaining does frustrate. More than that, the greatest threat posed by the existence of unions (regardless of whether they are functioning effectively or not) is that they organize the working class. Capitalists realize that their system has shaky foundations and have always feared the revolutionary potential of an organized working class. This fear is probably the primary driver for the coordinated propaganda against unions.

If unions have become in any way irrelevant, this is the crucial area where that has occurred. In the past, unions had connections to revolutionary political parties and organizations. They questioned the system and in some cases tried to fight against it. The biggest blow to the power and relevance of unions was, in the decades following the Great Depression, when the Democrats incorporated them into their coalition. Unions no longer promote the type of consciousness that is needed to challenge capitalism. They function as a wing of the Democratic party. They are happy to concern themselves primarily with the haggling over wages and benefits (which I do not mean to disparage) and have ceded any broader transformative role. In that sense, they are supporting the system that oppresses them.

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