May 13, 2011
Unions, Business and the State
I listened to this episode of the Diane Rehm Show last night and became increasingly depressed about China’s human rights record.
While already long aware of China’s ongoing crackdown on Falun Gong adherents and artists like Ai Weiwei (where is he?), and, frankly, not having very high hopes for the defense of human or civil rights in authoritarian states in any case, I was nevertheless especially disheartened to learn of the supposedly communist state’s brutality directed at labor activists. As one of the guests pointed out, workers do not have the right to strike or even organize independent unions in China and any attempt to organize such are dealt with harshly (with punitive measures that include torture, she insisted).
Communism’s seemingly paradoxical opposition to organized labor, which resulted in the fall of a communist regime in the case of Poland’s Solidarity movement twenty or so years ago, highlights more than anything else that unions are not first and foremost about worker’s rights but, rather, about addressing an imbalance of power.
Let’s face it, when you work for someone, they have power over you. When many work for a few, the few have power over the many. When the many organize for the purposes of collective bargaining, for example, they are attempting to establish a balance of power; the business owner can fire one person without experiencing a business consequence—it’s harder to escape the consequences if you fire everyone (though owner’s are often willing to accept such consequences when they play the “lock out” card).
In other words, organizing a union can be a logical, defensive move on the part of individuals who have little power as individuals but, at times, significant power as a group.
The state, too, can play a significant role in maintaining the balance of power, or at least tamping down significant social conflicts, by mediating between the powerful and the powerless (or disempowered). Because the state can play this role, control of the state apparatus becomes a point of conflict. The empowered want to control the state in order to leverage its resources in pursuit of their goals; the disempowered want to do the same.
So we have at least three nodes of power (or potential power): the privately powerful (the wealthy, the owners, etc.); the publicly powerful (the state, political leaders); and the collectively powerful (the majority of human individuals). Society, to roughly paraphrase Adorno, is defined by the conflict between these nodes, a conflict that is generally pursued via alliance between any two nodes against the third or by one node absorbing another and, as a kind of “supernode,” turning on the third.
One can see this latter situation occurring in communist states. The party of workers and peasants effectively absorbs the “collectively powerful” and turns on the privately powerful—expropriating them and, in the most extreme examples, incarcerating or executing them. One can also see it happening in authoritarian capitalist (or outright fascist oligarchic) states, where there is no real distinction between the interests of the state and certain private interests, to the detriment of the collectively powerful.
When a communist state, however, opposes collective empowerment, it creates a conflict between its reality and its ideology. How can the workers’ state oppose the rights of workers? They may justify this ideologically—”We represent the TRUE workers and these activists are actually agents of our enemies,” etc.—but they cannot obscure the fact that it is really just a question of maintaining an imbalance of power: the state, which controls both the means of production and the legal apparatus tout court, decrees and the workers must comply. The state will not tolerate any challenge to its authority, in this scenario, and goes to great and violent measures to protect it.
We see the same dynamic, though from a different direction, in the current Republican crusade against municipal unions and, in fact, this conflict bears within it similar ideological contradictions.
Municipal unions have been the bugbear of Republicans for some years now (I remember hearing Romney criticize Kerry for being “beholden to municipal unions” back in the Kerry v. Bush days). Why?
The obvious reason is that they are, or have been in some cases, big contributors to the Democratic Party. The next obvious reason is that municipal unions are the last bastion of unionism in the US and going after them is really just a logical extension of the business community’s long-standing opposition to unions in general.
The propagated reason is that the states are broke so workers need to make concessions (because budget deficits, according to Republican policy, should be addressed by cutting costs rather than by increasing tax revenue).
The funny thing is that the Republicans are also, when they do not decisively control it, opposed to the power of the state. This opposition is expressed both in their advocacy of deregulation and lower taxes as well as in their support for certain individual rights involving firearms and property ownership. You’d think that they would be in favor of helping the police and firefighters (teachers are more problematic since education generally poses a threat to the ruling class) defend themselves against exploitation by the state via collective bargaining, for example, but, alas, this seems not to be the case.
There are reasons, I’m told, to decry the actions of specific unions just as there are reasons to be appalled at the actions of certain business leaders and billionaires. It all depends on your perspective, as Nietzsche (who opposed unions and socialism more broadly) put it.
However, if you believe that people should not have the right to organize into unions or bargain collectively, then you are effectively saying that the few should always hold sway over the many.
The question is: If you support the right to organize, are you also saying that the many should hold sway over the few?
Or are you just saying: When there is an imbalance of power and people are being wronged and exploited, they have the right to do something about it?
Photo credit: wisaflcio.