Archive for September, 2011

Happy (Not-)Labor Day

September 5th, 2011  |  Published in Politics, Socialism, Work

Today, of course, isn't the real labor day, merely a fake American version with origins in the machinations of anti-labor politicians.

Still, we can celebrate any day that's a holiday. It may be true, as this New York Times op-ed says, that "Labor Day is meant to be a celebration of work". But as the same article goes on to say:

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which has been polling over 1,000 adults every day since January 2008, shows that Americans now feel worse about their jobs — and work environments — than ever before. People of all ages, and across income levels, are unhappy with their supervisors, apathetic about their organizations and detached from what they do. And there’s no reason to think things will soon improve.

Rather than celebrate work, I'd prefer to celebrate workers. And the best way to truly pay respect to the workers of the world is not to glorify the misfortune of labor, but to celebrate those temporary moments of freedom from wage labor that the workers' movement has managed to win.

Here are a couple of relevant passages on that theme. Via Malcolm Harris, I was recently reminded of this passage from Mario Tronti that makes that's still relevant after nearly 50 years:

The contemporary forms of workers’ struggles in the heartlands of advanced capitalism unmistakably reveal, in the rich content of their own spontaneity, the slogan of the struggle against wage labor as the only possible means of striking real blows against capital. The party must be the organization of what already exists within the class, but which the class alone cannot succeed in organizing. No worker today is disposed to recognize the existence of labor outside capital. Labor equals exploitation: This is the logical prerequisite and historical result of capitalist civilization. From here there is no point of return. Workers have no time for the dignity of labor. The “pride of the producer” they leave entirely to the boss. Indeed, only the boss now remains to declaim eulogies in praise of labor. True, in the organized working-class movement this traditional chord is, unfortunately, still to be heard – but not in the working class itself; here there is no longer any room for ideology. Today, the working class need only look at itself to understand capital. It need only combat itself in order to destroy capital. It has to recognize itself as political power, deny itself as a productive force. For proof, we need only look at the moment of struggle itself: During the strike, the "producer" is immediately identified with the class enemy. The working class confronts its own labor as capital, as a hostile force, as an enemy – this is the point of departure not only for the antagonism, but for the organization of the antagonism.

If the alienation of the worker has any meaning, it is a highly revolutionary one. The organization of alienation: This is the only possible direction in which the party can lead the spontaneity of the class. The goal remains that of refusal, at a higher level: It becomes active and collective, a political refusal on a mass scale, organized and planned. Hence, the immediate task of working-class organization is to overcome passivity.

And then there's this, from André Gorz's misunderstood classic Farewell to the Working Class:

For workers, it is no longer a question of freeing themselves within work, putting themselves in control of work, or seizing power within the framework of their work. The point now is to free oneself from work by rejecting its nature, content, necessity and modalities. But to reject work is also to reject the traditional strategy and organisational forms of the working-class movement. It is no longer a question of winning power as a worker but of winning the power no longer to function as a worker. The power at issue is not at all the same as before. The class itself has entered into crisis.

So enjoy the beer and barbecues folks, and revel in your power not to function as a worker.

The State of the Unions

September 2nd, 2011  |  Published in Data, Work

Here's something timely for Labor Day: a couple of my colleagues at CUNY have produced a report on the state of union membership--focused on New York State and City, but with national numbers included as well. (I did some work on the report as well, but my role was limited to designing the layout, so I can take no credit for the writing or data analysis.)

The broad findings will not be surprising to those who follow these things: the percentage of workers who are members of labor unions has fallen at a fairly rapid pace in the past ten years, and has continued to fall during the recession. This trend is driven primarily by the decline in private sector unionization--union density in the public sector is both much higher and fairly stable over the past decade.

There are lots of other interesting details in the report, which includes breakdowns by age, gender, race, education, industry, and immigration status. You should go read the whole thing, but here a few semi-randomly chosen facts that I found interesting:

  • People with at least a 4-year college degree are the most likely to be union members.
  • This is probably because the sector of the economy with by far the highest unionization rates is education, which is also one of the biggest sectors. It's not surprising to see teachers bearing the brunt of anti-union attacks, when you realize what a huge portion of American union members they constitute.
  • In the U.S. as a whole, men are more likely to be union members than women. In New York City, though, women are actually more unionized--largely because they tend to work in the highly-unionized public sector. Women are the future of the labor movement, if it is to have one.
  • Blacks and whites are unionized at roughly equal rates nationwide, but blacks are much more highly unionized in New York, again probably because blacks are more likely to work in the public sector.
  • It's true, as you might expect, that immigrant workers are less likely to be unionized than native born workers. But that's really just a small subplot of the broader story of declining unionization: workers who immigrated recently are much less unionized than those who immigrated earlier, just as young workers are much less unionized than older workers; people who immigrated before 1990 are unionized at a higher rate than native-born workers.

For more analysis, and lots of graphs and tables, go check out the report.

These facts about unions bear on some of the recent discussions of theories of politics and the political basis of progressive politics under neoliberalism. Leftists and liberals still don't really have a credible strategy for building a winning progressive coalition that isn't centered on the labor movement. The decline in union density, and the transformation of the labor movement from a private sector to a public sector institution, force us to ask some hard questions. Either the labor movement has to be revived, or we need a new institutional basis for the left. I tend to be pessimistic about reviving labor in anything like its traditional form, since we really only have one historical example of sustained union strength, and that was based on an industrial economy that isn't coming back.

But there are obviously a lot of things that would help labor to recover at least a bit (EFCA, sigh). I'll close with one thing that's based on a personal observation, from on my experience as a member of a union bargaining committee that recently negotiated a first contract. I'm convinced that severing the connection between health care and employment would be really good for unions, despite the labor movement's opposition to some of the moves in this direction. A huge amount of our negotiating time was taken up with a fight over how the cost of health insurance would be divided between employer and employee, in the context of premiums that are accelerating rapidly for reasons neither workers nor bosses can control. The need to hold down our members' health care costs sucked up a huge amount of bargaining time and money that could otherwise have gone to providing raises or addressing other aspects of the work environment. If there were a real, quality public option for health care, I would have considered trying to sell my fellow members on a radical idea: let's propose phasing out employer-provided insurance, getting people onto public plans, and putting those employer savings into big wage increases. But for now, that's just a dream for the future, and instead the best I can tell those members is that we successfully fought for their health care costs to skyrocket less rapidly than their non-union counterparts.