no third solution

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Can Workers Homestead Their Jobs?

August 29th, 2011

In Adamic’s Dynamite!, I came across an interesting argument for workers’ rights to their employment. Basically the argument goes that, “We (as organized labor) worked for years in order to make these jobs what they are today, in terms of benefits, wages, hours, conditions, etc., and that therefore they belong to us.  So when a scab worker comes in and takes the job, he is essentially stealing from us.”

They claim is that the workers have helped shape and define the job, its responsibilities and reward, etc., and as a result they have a legitimate claim to it.You can certainly interpret this argument as a form of homesteading and at a glance it is compelling.

Is it valid though? I’m not sure. I see two major flaws with the argument.

  1. Assumes that because conditions once prevailed which justified a certain compensation, that those laborers are forever after entitled to that same level of compensation.
  2. An unhealthy fetish for “high” wages, which I would probably attribute more to the psychology of capitalism than to genuine worker-owners in a free market.

Regarding #1, this assertion is intuitively bullshit because when a product or service is no longer (as) valuable or necessary, it ceases to command the same remuneration. For example, if medicine could cure all ailments and diseases, a Doctor’s services qua Doctor would no longer be valuable or necessary to society.

As for the canard of high wages… The problem is that high wages are indicative of scarcity, rather than abundance, and attempts to artificially preserve high prices inevitably result in the destruction of, rather than the accumulation of material wealth. The objective ought not be “high wages” but rather a high standard of living. Do not conflate the two. In a free market, prices fall as abundance (i.e., wealth) is created. Therefore it is not necessarily undesirable for prices (including) wages to fall, in fact we should expect prices to fall over time because that means that humanity is creating more wealth and abundance than they are consuming.

The union may claim “These jobs are ours. We have worked for them and made them what they are. We deserve them,” and I’m sympathetic to this position, but I think it is more of a knee-jerk reaction to try and justify one’s existence within the capitalist system, rather than a bullet-proof argument.

This post is more of brainstorming than actual argument, and I value your contributions, so echo any thoughts, comments, feedback, below.

“Big Business” is the Problem

July 27th, 2011

If a workplace needs to be unionized, it’s already a problem that “seizing the means of production” can’t fix. The problem is “Big business” no matter who’s in charge and that’s why syndicalism or trade unionism doesn’t do it for me* . I object to any organization the aim of which is to monopolize a sector of the economy (and a very large union of would do precisely that).

If the unions are meant to be a counterweight to state-granted corporate privilege, the proper recourse is repeal, revoke, or nullify all the privileges in order to facilitate the the liquidation and distribution of the wealth they have amassed**. Whether this distribution may be achieved to some degree through the state’s legal apparatus is suspect, since the “law” is the capitalists’ primary instrument of oppression.

Although I am sympathetic to many labor causes, and not opposed to their means, I have reservations about their efficacy in achieving desired results.  As an equality of means brings about equality of opportunity, the real challenge is to equalize the means and I’m not convinced this happens.

  • If successful in “seizing”, the largest unions would control the “means of production”, employed thereafter for the benefit of themselves. They may be tempted to restrict membership to ensure higher wages, and by restricting membership, the union controls access to the means of production in much the same way that the capitalist-owner does: keeping employment safely out of reach for many.
  • Since all means of production are collectively held, a dissatisfied member can’t just walk off on his own because he can’t take his “share” of the cooperative capital when he leaves. Nor can he, or a group of others decide they are unhappy with the union’s stewardship, they probably can’t instigate a micro-“strike” and claim the product of their labor, or a homestead right to a share of the collective assets.
  • The individuals would be in a position much like the majority who live hand-to-mouth today: bound to the occupation by the necessity of hunger.  And if they choose to leave, they would leave with nothing***  whereupon they would ascertain that the only thing they have to negotiate with is their own labor power; they would be at the mercy of others.

On the contrary, in a free society with the means more-or-less distributed, the average man being unhappy with his station should have options:

If he has acted wisely and put some money away, if there is freedom to buy, sell, loan and borrow, he should have the financial wherewithal take some modest risks: he can go off on his own or join with co-workers and form a competing enterprise or start a new one altogether. Or he may choose to work for someone else; since there would be no workplace large enough or economically powerful enough to exert appreciable pressure on the markets for goods or for labor. In short there should be plenty of opportunities one could pursue.

What I hope we may one day obtain is an environment where no sector of the economy (including labor) is dominated by oligopoly.

I am all for abolishing the current order of things, but I do not want to simply put the power in another party’s hands (no matter which flag they’re waving). Instead I want to abolish that concentration of power which is so easily abused.

 

I am not suggesting  there is anything inherently wrong with labor organizations. Nor am I arguing against tactics advocated by labor organizations like the IWW (direct action, “If you need a break, take one”, etc.) nor am I fundamentally opposed sabotage, etc. If you want to argue for a syndic or a co-op of a dozen people or so who have a small shop and manage that endeavor “collectively”, be my guest. I am absolutely not debating that.
** In order to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. This is probably going to be a messy process.
*** Barring of course, any prior arrangements which may provide for severance pay, or other remuneration based on length of service, etc.

Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America

July 19th, 2011

As the old saying goes, “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” and there are few times more desperate for a majority of laborers living hand-to-mouth, than being put out of work en masse. Adamic’s well-researched, but surprisingly easy-to-read Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence In America demonstrates the desperate side of the labor struggle which is rarely, if ever, taught in classrooms.

Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in AmericaAs strikes and “riots” are often portrayed in the media as unprovoked violence against the employers or scab workers, and haphazard destruction of the employers’ properties, Adamic will not let the reader ignore that in many (most?) cases, it is the the monopolists and the concentrated Big Business who are directly responsible for the opening salvo (i.e., hired thugs to bust the strikes, agents provocateurs, corrupt politicians, etc.). He also notes that while many attempts at labor organizing were demonized and even prosecuted as illegal interference with commerce, etc., the duplicitous nature of the American legal system often ignored equally heinous interference with commerce when done on behalf of organized Big Business.

Dynamite also presents a fairly compelling argument as to why organized laborers believe in a “right” to their jobs, which if you accept it, means that scab laborers would be guilty of violating that right and to some degree deserving of reactions as would any common criminal who violated you otherwise. This was an argument I had not previously encountered, but and it was definitely an “Aha!” kind of moment when I picked up on it.

Adamic is unabashedly anti-capitalist, so his character descriptions tend to favor the champions of labor, and make the enemies of labor seem characteristically repugnant. That said, he keeps a fairly even keel and is not afraid to highlight labors shortcomings, infightings, especially weak leadership, a “We’ll get ours and damn the rest” mentality (which he condemns as a byproduct of capitalism) , failures of the AFL as well as the politicking and racketeering scandals which plagued early labor organizations and it would seem, doomed them for the future.

Although Adamic does not explicitly endorse “dynamite” as a means to achieving labor’s goals, I think he is without a doubt sympathetic to its use; at least under certain desperate circumstances the majority of which cannot be blamed on the working classes.

If you’re a left-leaning libertarian or a big-L libertarian of the American persuasion, or even fancy yourself an “anarcho-capitalist” then this book will definitely give you pause to reconsider some of your positions. Otherwise I’d recommend it for anyone interested in the history of the American labor struggles, or anyone looking for an alternate account of this history.

Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence In America is available via Amazon.com.

no third solution

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