The ‘Hire-And-Fire’ Fantasy Of The Libertarian

A central plank of libertarian (and neoliberal and conservative) opposition to organized labor, to collective bargaining, to workers acting collectively is something I term the ‘hire-and-fire fantasy’: that employers should be able to initiate and terminate their employees’ employment at will. (This power would presumably be written into the contracts they sign with their workers.) Let bosses hire and fire as they please; they know best how to run the company. At this stage, a few anecdotes about the onerous bureaucratic delays involved in getting rid of a spectacularly incompetent worker are introduced: terrible tales of how disgruntled employers were made to run from pillar to post, all in effort to take the most obvious of decisions, the taking out of the trash. Unionized workers it seems, are complacent and lazy; they know they cannot be fired; they do not work as hard as those who know the boss can, you guessed it, hire and fire them at will. The union, the workers’ collective, then stands exposed as sand in the wheel; it appears as a burden, a terrible economic and performative inefficiency getting in the way of the smooth deployment of ‘human resources.’

The problem with this argument–and it is a familiar one–is that it compares the worst of the unionized workplace with the best of the non-unionized workplace. In the former, the incompetent worker is protected by a venal union, even as an exasperated boss, who only wants to get the job done as expeditiously as possible, tears out his hair; in the latter, the same virtuous boss is able to summon the incompetent worker to his office, summarily dismiss him or her, and then get back to work. All virtue resides in the employer; the union and the worker are only imbued with sloth and insufficient motivation. This argument does not, of course, bother to examine the situation created by an incompetent boss who decides to peremptorily dismiss a blameless worker, perhaps one with a long and distinguished service record, on arbitrary and trivial grounds (perhaps a secretary did not smile broadly enough, perhaps a junior pointed out an embarrassing blunder in the boss’ presentation, pricking a thin patina of pride; the list goes on.) There is no court of appeal; there is no redressal possible; here is a paycheck for two weeks; clean your desk, and then the security guard will escort you to the elevators. Here is arbitrary and opaque power indeed; the boss can act, but the worker may not. (On the many occasions that I’ve discussed this argument with my students, there are those who will enthusiastically back the ‘hire-and-fire’ claim till I point out to them just how arbitrarily that power may be exercised by employers; then, expressions of dismay set in; I suspect the situation they had in mind was the one I described first above.)

The union’s contracts for its members seek to put in place a procedure for investigation of complaints, for workers to be granted the privilege of answering charges laid against them; they seek to shield the worker from the most arbitrary exercises of the boss’ undoubted power. The stakes are high; the worker’s livelihood is at stake. The power of the employer (sometimes a corporation) is always greater than that of the worker; collective bargaining and action and worker-protective contracts aim to address this imbalance. Those who criticize the worker’s collective body, accuse it of wielding too much power, both recognize and fail to recognize power: they notice that the workers united, cannot be defeated, but they fail to acknowledge the power the boss may wield over his employee. This blindness is not accidental; it is ideological, for its true motive is not the protection of the economic efficiency of the workplace–arbitrarily firing competent workers can very often be economically counterproductive–but the power of the boss, the maintenance of a very particular hierarchy, one that allows for certain pleasures only to be found in subjugation and the exercise of one’s will over another.

Why Faculty Lock-Outs Are Irresponsible And Inappropriate

In response to my post on Sunday making note of the lock-out of faculty at Long Island University (LIU), a Facebook friend wrote on my page:

So, I don’t understand. What makes university professors any different than people who work any other job? If you don’t like the pay, or don’t like the working conditions, simply go somewhere else. An employeer prohibiting someone from coming into their workplace who doesn’t agree to the terms of their employment is immenently fair. I’m sure the employeer (whatever, whoever, and for whatever industry) has made a calculated position to turn away their employees because they weren’t worth the compensation they demanded. The employees may not feel that way, and maybe they can come to an agreement, but maybe not and both sides go their own merry way.

Because students are people, not products; because education is not a commodity. That’s the short answer, and it should be enough. But let’s look a little closer.

The first part of the response above is eminently fair in one regard: faculty are workers who provide labor to employers; indeed, faculty organize themselves into unions precisely to make the point that they should be compensated fairly and that they deserve adequate working conditions in their workplace. Moreover, the possibility they may seek alternative employment or withholding labor (via a strike) is one their employer is aware of; these are tactics and strategies available to workers in labor negotiations.

So why criticize the employer for leveraging their power in their relationship with their workers?

Because, bizarrely enough, as just noted, there is the small matter of students and their education, the impact on which needs to be assessed when evaluating the appropriateness of any action taken by management or faculty. See, for instance, this post expressing concerns about how CUNY faculty should approach the decision to take a strike in case their negotiations with CUNY administration failed; at that stage, CUNY faculty had been without a contract for several years. That is, tactics and strategies which might compromise the education of our students were only to be resorted to as a last, radical measure when all other options had failed. (They included civil disobedience actions by faculty.) Management which took actions to compromise the mission of the corporation they managed would be looked upon very unfavorably by their shareholders; this is the situation we face at LIU. As noted in my post, LI management’s concerns seem to be exclusively financial–improving their ‘credit rating.’ Where are LIU’s students and their education in all of this?

In Long Island University’s case, there is no indication that management has these kinds of concerns front and center, no indication that management seems to understand the almost-fiduciary duty they have to their wards, their students: they have abruptly pulled the plug on contract negotiations, unilaterally declaring an impasse of sorts; they have hired inadequate, underqualified replacement workers, thus compromising the education the university provides. Just because an action is legally permissible does not make it responsible or appropriate. LIU management’s actions were not criticized in my post for being illegal; they were criticized for being grossly inappropriate to the situation at hand. LIU students have lost access to their teachers; this is very dissimilar to manufactured products losing access to their makers. (I hope this difference is clear.) LIU students have lost access to their education; this is the cost that must be reckoned with when assessing the worth of LIU management’s actions. From this teacher’s perspective, management’s actions are irresponsible and reckless, and provide clear evidence they misunderstand the nature of the work they are engaged in.

Long Island University’s Labor Day Gift To The Nation: A Faculty Lock-Out

Some university administrators manage to put up a pretty good front when it comes to maintaining the charade that they care about the education of their students–they dip into their accessible store of mealy mouthed platitudes and dish them out every turn, holding their hands over their hearts as paeans to the virtues of edification are sung by their choirs of lackeys. Some fail miserably at even this act of misrepresentation and are only too glad to make all too clear their bottom line is orthogonal to academics. Consider, for instance, the folks at Long Island University who have kicked off the new academic semester in fine style:

Starting September 7, the first day of the fall semester at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus, classes will be taught entirely by non-faculty members—not because the faculty are on strike, but because on the Friday before Labor Day, the administration officially locked out all 400 members of the Long Island University Faculty Federation (LIUFF), which represents full-time and adjunct faculty.

Yessir, what a fine Labor Day gift to the nation this makes.  When contract negotiations with your workers fail, well, you don’t continue trying to find an agreement in good faith; you just lock them out¹ and replace them with grossly under-qualified folks instead:

Provost Gale Haynes, LIU’s chief legal counsel, will be teaching Hatha yoga….Rumor has it that Dean David Cohen, a man in his 70s, will be taking over ballet classes scheduled to be taught by Dana Hash-Campbell, a longtime teacher who was previously a principal dancer and company teacher with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

As Deb Schwartz at The Nation notes–quoting Deborah Mutnick, a professor of English and a member of the union executive committee–LIU President Kimbery Cline’s administration has sought to “accrue a surplus budget,” succeeded by “firing people,” and is apparently guided by the principle that “the primary goal of the university is to improve its credit rating.”  That strategy sounds suspiciously familiar, as it should, for it is taken straight out the corporate playbook. Remember how we were told the productivity of American workers had increased in the 1980s? And then we found out it was because fewer workers were employed, and they were all working longer hours.

Such emulation of the corporate world is precisely what university administrators aspire to, of course. The same plush offices, the same air of self-satisfied importance, the same deployment of incomprehensible jargon spoon-fed to them by management consultants, the same glib throwing about of that reprehensible phrase ‘the real world.’

An unsafe worker in one workplace means unsafe workers everywhere; the wrong lessons are learned all too quickly by the bosses. LIU’s tenured and unionized faculty have been treated reprehensibly here in Brooklyn; this is a dangerous precedent and those who ignore the message it sends do so at their own peril.

Note #1:  Kevin Pollitt, a labor relations specialist with New York State United Teachers, notes that this is the first time that higher-ed faculty have ever been locked out, an achievement that LIU administration can brag about to their monetization-happy fans.

Democratic Party No Longer Against Citizens United

I concede the stage today to Glenn Greenwaldwho lays out the charge compactly:

FOR YEARS, THE Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United was depicted by Democrats as the root of all political evil. But now, the core argument embraced by the Court’s conservatives to justify their ruling has taken center stage in the Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — because Clinton supporters, to defend the huge amount of corporate cash on which their candidate is relying, frequently invoke that very same reasoning.

and then proceeds to support it with a devastatingly detailed brief.

First note that,

[In Citizens United] A primary argument of the Obama Justice Department and Democrats…was that corporate expenditures are so corrupting of the political process that limits are justified even if they infringe free speech….[But] Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the five-judge conservative majority [argued]:

independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.

….That key argument of the right-wing justices in Citizens United has now become the key argument of the Clinton campaign….Clinton supporters in 2016 are denying the corrupting effect of direct campaign donations by large banks and corporations and…huge speaking fees paid to an individual politician shortly before and after that person holds massive political power.

As Greenwald notes, such a claim goes beyond even the Supreme Court’s contention that ‘independent expenditures…do not give rise to corruption.’ Moreover, depressingly enough,

Another critical aspect of the right-wing majority argument in Citizens United was that actual corruption requires proof of a “quid pro quo” arrangement…basically, bribery….That, too, has become a core Clinton-supporting argument….Conversely, the once-beloved Citizens United dissent…was emphatic in its key claim: that there are many other forms of corruption brought about by corporate campaign expenditures….large amounts of corporate cash are almost inevitably corrupting, and certainly undermine trust in the political system, because of the many different ways…that corporations convert their expenditures into undue influence and access:

Clearly, this election season has taken us  into fantasy land, where conventional liberal pieties have been dispensed with, age-old manifestos consigned to the flames:

….Clinton supporters insist, the mere fact that a candidate is receiving millions upon millions of dollars…from Wall Street banks, hedge funds, and large corporations is not remotely suggestive of corruption….[they] have resorted to denying what was once a core orthodoxy of Democratic politics: that big corporate donations (let alone being personally enriched by huge Wall Street speaking fees in between stints in public office) are corrupting.

One more merger point between ‘right’ and ‘left,’ conservative’ and ‘liberal.’ That’s a ‘bipartisan consensus’ to look forward to, especially when the Republican Party will gleefully point to this claim being made by Democrats. The most salutary effect of this abominably long election season has been the simultaneously gratifying and dismaying confirmation of the utter corruption of the political process, and the concomitant need for a radical–you may, if you prefer, call it ‘revolutionary’–transformation to be induced in it. What we have simply won’t do.

Reviewing Doug Henwood’s ‘My Turn’ In Jacobin Magazine

My review of Doug Henwood‘s book My Turn: Hillary Clinton Takes Aim At The Presidency has just been published by Jacobin Magazine. Here is a pull-quote:

[Henwood’s] insistence on grounding his many rhetorical and analytical fusillades in the material conditions of US life ensures that his detailed, unflinching look at the Clintons’ long public history cannot be written off as a sexist attack. Instead, Henwood’s brief is directed squarely at Hillary Clinton’s political opportunism, her reflexive secrecy, her frequent patronage of friends and cronies, her belligerent approach to foreign policy, her scant legislative record in the Senate, and her unimpressive tenure as secretary of state.

To the extent that Clinton’s identity serves as a basis for Henwood’s critique, it is not her gender, but her identification with, and championing of the interests of, the powerful and wealthy American elite that makes her an unworthy candidate.

Comments welcome; if you like the review essay, please do share it.

Martin Shkreli Will Have The Last Laugh

‘We’ hate Martin Shkreli. What’s not to hate? He is rich; he gets rich off the misfortunes of others; he buys pop culture icons, treating them like trophies for decorating his den; he postures on video streams as he talks back to those we think can’t be out-talked; he talks smack on his Twitter feed and slathers smarm all over his grinning mug when he goes to Capitol Hill, pompously invoking the Fifth Amendment. Shkreli looks like those familiar assholes at bars, clubs, sports stadiums the world over. You know them well: an extravagant hybrid of the frat boy, the corporate weasel, the jock. He snorts coke off glass tables; he hires hookers; he rides in limos and drinks champagne. Yes, we know the type.

Shkreli isn’t an individual. He is an instance of a type. And he’s acting true to type. It’s all too easy in our social media bubbles to imagine that Shkreli is universally despised or reviled; but he isn’t. Folks like Shkreli aren’t despised that much. They have the wealth, the power,  and the fancy attorney plus accountant crew that every successful person requires. Far more importantly, they  have approval and support. They don’t just have the approval of those who benefit from their monies and who pick up the few scraps tossed their way if they wait attentively and fawningly around the felt-lined tables that Shkreli and his mates dine at. Shkreli works in a world in which the strategies of business lie beyond moral evaluation, where a system exists in order to be worked over, and compromised with. Shkreli’s Twitter account shows much admiration being sent his way; he is after all, an outsider–the son of Albanian immigrants!–who rose to the top, by making the system work for him. The zone he operates in is a morality-free one; it knows little of the table of values that dictates Shkreli assuage our moral sensibilities.

Shkreli wins every time not because he has the money and can buy his way out of any jam he might find himself in; he wins because he faces very little social disapproval of his actions; because he undergoes no systemic pressure to change his actions; because those who would castigate him–like Congress–do little to reign in the culture he represents. Shkreli’s smirk is not just one of bemused condescension,  it is also one of puzzlement; he was told greed is good; that unlimited acquisition was the only foundational principle required to begin acting; that praise would flow his way when he acted so. He has done so, and he is puzzled that a tiny bunch of party poopers want to rain on his parade now.

Shkreli keeps on smirking because he knows no matter how much flak he catches on a few Facebook pages, Twitter timelines, and clickbait websites, he’ll have a lot of friends and admirers left over. And isn’t that all that matters, that more like us than don’t? That he who dies with the most toys, wins?

Are There No Ethically Uncompromised Lunches In The Universe?

Once upon a time a farmer told his neighbors that they could use his land for ‘free’–as a kind of community recreational space. His neighbors were told they could set up little stalls. where they could play music, show off their handicrafts, display family photo albums, and of course, walk over to their friends’ spaces and chat with them. A large sign in small print that hung outside the entrance to the field informed the farmer’s neighbors how they should behave when they were on the premises. Most families stopped briefly to read the sign but intimidated by the number of the words on the sign, and the twisted prose, which appeared to have been composed by committee, they moved on, trusting their neighbor to do well by them.

The community meeting and recreational space soon bloomed; the number of stalls grew rapidly. The local residents got to know each other much better and many enjoyed the opportunity to inspect the personal details of their neighbors’ homes and lives. Indeed, a visit to the ‘meeting space’ became an integral part of most people’s routines; stop in for a bit, ‘check in,’ say hi to a few folk, show off your new baby, brag about your car, your vacation, and so on.

The local folk often wondered why the farmer had been so ‘generous.’ What was he getting in exchange for this ‘gift’? Cynics talked about the impossibility of free lunches, and sure enough, it was becoming clear there wasn’t one to be had in this ‘community space.’ For the benevolent farmer was indeed exacting a price of sorts.

The farmer had many business associates who wanted to sell the locals their goods–fertilizer for their fields, goods that could be gifted to their children on their birthdays, clothes to be worn at their weddings, and so on. To find out what the locals’ tastes were would have required conducting expensive, tedious market surveys; the farmer’s business associates would have had to go from door to door, asking people to fill out forms. But in this space, the farmers neighbors happily gave this information away without being asked. And the reason this information was ‘given away’ was that it was ‘being taken’ as well.

Hidden cameras and microphones recorded their comings and goings and sundry activities: who they met, what they ate at their friends’ stalls, and indeed, what they ate at home, because the locals proudly showed photos of their food at their stalls (you could build some walls around your stall but most people, finding the construction of these to be too onerous, just went in for a wall-less design), what clothes they wore, who their ‘best friends’ were, who they talked to for medical advice, who they asked for help when the going was tough, what kind of music they listened to (and played for their neighbors by way of demonstration.)

When news of the hidden cameras and microphones broke, some of the locals were irate. They didn’t like the idea of being ‘spied on’ and worried that the local potentate, always eager to exert his control over the land just a little more efficiently, would find this sort of information very useful. Yet others thought that the local robber barons, who controlled the potentate in any case, would grow more powerful as a result of knowing so much about them. And some complained that the hidden microphones sometimes reported their conversations and displays to the farmer, who cracked down on them if he didn’t like what they said or what they showed off.

But others hushed their concerns, using that ancient piece of wisdom, which the robber barons themselves had promulgated: How can you look a ‘free’ gift horse in the mouth? You got to use this space for ‘free,’ didn’t you? When the locals said that they hadn’t signed on for this surveillance, yet others told them to read the sign on the entrance carefully, and if they didn’t like it, to leave, and to take their stalls with them. So some did even as they said the sign on the entrance was vague and unspecific. Yet others, finding that the space had become an indispensable arena for communication for matters pertaining to the local village and shire, stayed on.

But many continued to ask themselves: Was it a fair ‘deal’? Indeed, was it a deal at all? Had the farmer really behaved like a neighbor in spying on his neighbors after he had invited them to use his land for ‘free’? Did the non-existence of free lunches in the universe entail that those lunches had to be ethically compromised too?