James Baldwin On The Non-Existence Of The American Worker

In The Fire Next Time (Vintage International, New York, 1993(1962), p. 88), James Baldwin writes:

People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal…but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here [in America], where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hands of the boss’ daughter.)

What does it mean to say that in this country, ‘spiritually speaking, there are no workers’? I can only venture an educated guess here as someone who has read a bit of Baldwin and been awed by the catholic generosity of spirit that is visible in the angriest of voices; I do not claim to understand Baldwin’s complicated relationship with spirituality for this is a man who was of the church, and left it, and indeed, claims that a certain kind of membership in, and affiliation with, the Christian Church is incompatible with morality (p. 47). So, to be a worker, spiritually speaking, for Baldwin would be to envision yourself as a member of a community first and foremost, a brotherhood and fraternity, a sorority and a sisterhood, one drawn together by common purpose and shared ideals, by a vision of a shared life and a common good, one achieved by joint effort, where the inevitable pitfalls of life are safeguarded by mutual security and respect and love. The workers’ union in this vision is a collective community, one dedicated to the common good of all its members, safeguarded with the passion that can only spring from mutual love. Idealized yes, but that is nature of visions imbued with love.

Such is not the community of workers here in America; here instead, workers are caught up in a zero-sum fantasy in which the rights and privileges earned by others are occasion for envy and rancor and self-hatred. As I’ve noted here, the American worker wants company in his misery, his lack of vacations, his shrinking wages, his implacable downward mobility; the unionized worker, one who has bargained collectively to secure better wages and working hours and vacation and healthcare, is not an object of admiration, but of envious fury. There is no aspirational ideal here.

Candidates for the boss’ daughter know there can only be one ‘winner’; all others are competitors to be vanquished. There can be no co-operation here; no mutual support; a ‘win’ by one is a ‘loss’ for another. Suitors compete; they are racked by envy and jealousy alike; they do not entertain noble emotions. They are hoping for luck, for recognition, for the hand of fortune to reach out and touch and elevate them; they are possessed by the desire to possess’ the boss’ riches as an inheritance that will make their dream come true, that of wealth and power and fortune made theirs by dint of a magical selection. Not by collective effort and solidarity.

How can the suitor ever see another suitor as a brother?

Step This Way For The Deunionized American Workplace

American unions look headed for another legal beating in the US Supreme Court. Pretty soon, we’ll be able to drop all pretense and just advocate beatings until the morale–of American workers–improves. The Supreme Court is about to hand their overseers a slightly thicker, more knotted, whip.

Ten Californian teachers have sued their union–on First Amendment grounds–alleging that by paying union dues “they are being forced to pay money to support positions with which they disagree.” Their plea will likely find sympathetic ears on the current almost-completely-fallen-over-to-the-right Supreme Court, which has twice ruled that “the First Amendment bars forcing government workers to make payments to unions.” These are no innocent plaintiffs; they are an integral component of a “decades-long legal campaign to undermine public unions.” (Their lawsuit has been organized by the Center for Individual Rights, a libertarian group which enjoys funding from conservative foundations.)

Of course, the plaintiffs will continue to benefit from the union’s work to secure higher wages and workplace benefits–that’s just how collective bargaining works. But the rugged individualist at the head of the lawsuit, Mr. Elrich, will have none of it. As he notes, presumably standing on a cliff overlooking the American West, through which he will roll on his covered wagon, fighting off various governmental depredators:

“I can negotiate for myself,” he said. “I’m a good teacher, highly respected, and I can go anywhere.”

If the experience of American workers in the years following the extensive deunionization of the American workplace is any indication, most teachers will  likely “go” down the ladder of economic and social advancement. But freedom, fuck yeah, so that’s cool.

The plaintiff’s First Amendment concerns appear overblown:

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., representing the Obama administration, urged the justices to leave the Abood ruling alone. Reaping the benefits of collective bargaining, he said, is not the same as being compelled to support a political position.

 “The typical worker would surely perceive a significant difference between, on the one hand, contributing to a union’s legal and research costs to develop a collective-bargaining proposal for his own unit, and, on the other hand, making a political contribution to a union-favored candidate for governor,” Mr. Verrilli wrote.

Kamala D. Harris, California’s attorney general, told the justices in a brief that workers who object to the positions taken by unions suffer no First Amendment injuries because “they remain free to communicate their views to school officials, their colleagues and the public at large.”

Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of market language forthcoming from the plaintiffs

Ms. Cuen said the unions might need to improve to keep their members.

“If they’re worried about not getting forced money from everyone, what does that say about their product?” she asked. “So maybe if we win the case and they’re worried about people leaving in droves, they might need to improve their product and make it a little more user-friendly.”

I’m surprised Ms. Cuen forgot to throw in talk of union ‘brands’ and how they are losing their ‘customers.’ Perhaps she’ll do in her press release following their legal victory.

The ‘Adversarial’ Nature of Unions

One of the strangest objections to the presence of unions in the workplace is that unions make the workplace adversarial, that they introduce conflict into the relationship between the worker and the manager (or between the two classes), that rather than letting workers and management concentrate on maximizing output (or throughput) and enterprise profit, which would then ultimately translate back into prosperity for all concerned, the union imposes an externality, a transaction cost by virtue of its fundamentally oppositional nature.

The so-called ‘adversarial nature’ of the union should not be surprising. Management and workers’ incentives often do not align, especially when the employing entity is not employee owned or incorporated i.e., it is a standard  enterprise where the economic power of capital is concentrated in a small group of owners. The goods to be maximized and minimized–wages and profits for instance–by the parties in this relationship are different and often orthogonal; it is not entirely unexpected that management and workers’ actions would bring them into conflict with each other. This situation is an almost straightforward consequence of the acceptance of two axioms pertaining to such a workplace: a) that it brings together two parties of grossly disparate economic power, with both aiming to maximize their standings in those stakes and b) that this encounter will often be a zero-sum game. Conflict seems inevitable under these circumstances.

(A little historical perspective is useful here. Early hostility to unions from management was systematic; it found a significant legal edge thanks to sympathetic courts that, having internalized the mantra that unions were irritants to markets blamed them for declining profits whenever they occurred. Indeed, the sometimes violent, protracted, and bitter history of labor relations in this country suggests that to note and object to the adversarial nature of unions is to merely note the aggressive posture of one of the two parties in an extended, hostile, and a yet-to-be-resolved conflict: at best it makes note of the obvious, at worst it seeks to obfuscate understanding of the forces that conspire to keep the workplace a space for worker control.)

What is most interesting about this almost-aesthetic distaste which underwrites the objection to the conflict-engendering union–the only one to be indicted of the charge of adversarial behavior–is the contrast it intends to conjure up with an imaginary union-free workplace, one that is productive, low-cost, profit-producing, a harmonious vale of workers and management working peacefully together with shoulders to the wheel. Such union-free workplaces in the real world, of course, now free of the friction created by the presence of the union, almost invariably do poorly on those reckonings of worker quality most beloved of unions: worker job security, inflation-pacing wages with annual raises, safe and regulated workplaces. It turns out that conflict in the workplace might be the price workers and management have to pay if the widespread ubiquity of collectively owned economic entities does not become a reality and the workplace continues to showcase relationships between powerful, capital-owning management and economically precarious worker forces.

Book Release Announcement: Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket

As some readers of this blog might be aware, I write on cricket (the sport, not the animal), at my blog The Pitch, on ESPN-Cricinfo. My first book on cricket, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket has just been released by HarperCollins.

The blurb for it says:

Cricket as we know it may soon be no more. Thanks to Twenty20, technology, media, and the sheer financial power of Indian cricket, the gentleman’s game is on the brink of radical changes. Nation-based cups might give way to T20 professional leagues; umpires might be replaced by technology; and professional franchises, not national boards, might call the shots. Could cricket go the way of professional football? Will Test cricket survive in an entertainment-driven field? Will television rights deals determine the nature of the game? This upheaval has been accompanied by conflict between the old guard England and Australia and the new boss, India. If the spirit of cricket is to survive these changes, it requires the balancing of economic, political and sporting imperatives. The game must find a way to remain a financially solvent global sport that caters to the changing tastes of its fans and players by creatively using new media and limited-overs cricket. In ‘Brave New Pitch’, Samir Chopra takes a hard look at cricket’s tumultuous present, and considers what could and should lie ahead.

That’s quite a mouthful, or two. What’s the book about, and why should non-cricket fans be interested in it? Well, among the most important of the changes noted above has been the introduction of a new format, Twenty20, which brings a telegenic and entertaining form of the game to a larger audience, and a new professional league, the Indian Premier League (IPL). Between these two, the game of cricket might be changed forever. They will have this effect because they change the political economy of cricket: they change its wage structure and make possible a brand new labor market.

The first change has already given cricket players an alternative career playing only the shorter formats of the game; the latter change is perhaps the most interesting consequence of the change from cricket being a nation-based sport to a club-based sport.  Twenty20 made possible a new professional league and now that league, and others like it, who have noticed its financial success (and its mistakes) make it possible to think about club-based versions of the game becoming predominant. Players and boards have already clashed over their differing commitments to the game; these can only be expected to increase, especially as the current nation-based forms of the game are not as conducive of a growth in the professionalization of cricket and its ability to take hold in new territories. Where and how players will want to play and what and who fans will want to watch will, of course, have the final say in these matters.

These two changes, underwritten by a massive reliance on television rights deals, are complicated by their association with the sport’s dominant financial power: India. India’s influence on the world of cricket is disproportionate, and often, the cause for friction. As a result, the game lurches toward its future, riven by persistent conflict between its stakeholders: the various national cricket boards, the fans, the players, the media. Accusations of greed, incompetence, racism, hypocrisy and bad faith fill the air; when the smoke clears in a few years, things could look very different.  This future could be a bright one, if the right kinds of balance are struck.

My book is attempt to examine some of the game’s recent history in order to try to offer my prognosis for the game’s future. Writing a book about a rapidly changing subject has not been easy; my fervent hope is that I’ve captured the most essential aspects of what lies ahead.

Note: Brave New Pitch is now available at Amazon  and at Flipkart (for Indian readers). An e-book version should be out very soon.

Labor Relations in Low Earth Orbit: The Skylab Strike

Three weeks ago,  the world celebrated the twenty-eighth anniversary of the end of the manned portion of the Skylab mission. Well, not really. Enthusiasts of manned space exploration certainly did; others had to be reminded. Students of the history of science can edify us about the scientific value of the three Skylab missions (meant to replace Apollo 18, 19, and 20). My interest here is to note the significance of Skylab for labor relations in space: the crew of the third Skylab mission, which lasted eighty-four days–Gerald Carr, William Pogue, and Edward Gibson–went on strike for a day during their stay before relenting and going back to work.

Their story remains a fascinating one, one illuminative of the dynamics between a rigid, controlling, science-regulating administration and a group of workers ostensibly selected for their discipline and the psychological wherewithal to resist the stresses of space. (By noting this incident, I do not mean to diminish the crew’s activities, and to reduce their twelve-week stint in space to this story.)

From the moment the crew went into orbit, their lives were a blur of experiment and regulation, tightly controlled by NASA at Houston. For every single second of their waking days the crew was prodded, poked, telemetered, scanned, and required to work through long, tedious check-lists of activities; every bodily function had to be recorded and regulated; this was, after all, a mission whose primary objectives included the study of the effects of long-term habitation in space. The interior of the Skylab space station might have been 350 cubic meters but there was nowhere to hide from Ground Control. This was a scientific experiment, on taxpayer expense, and NASA intended to get its money’s worth.

The trend of excessive, panopticon-like control of the crew had been set from the very beginning, when Bill Pogue had vomited shortly after arriving at the station, and decided, in collusion with the other members of the crew, to not  report the incident back to Houston. But the crew were being monitored and eavesdropped on, and soon they were being castigated like a triplet of hand-in-cookie-jar-schoolboys and being warned that all such incidents had to be recorded and reported. That early ‘eavesdropping’ incident was by far the most trust-destroying interaction between the crew and Ground Control.

Faced with remote discipline at its extreme, the crew asserted resistance. The crew acquired notoriety for ‘complaining’; they certainly had the most combative, unvarnished conversations ever with Houston, a far remove from the usual, sanitized excerpts that read, ‘Houston, all systems go, we are ready to go spacewalk and provide wonderful visuals’. Finally, matters came to a head, as Pogue, Carr and Gibson ‘took a day off’. I do not remember what Pogue and Carr did on their self-enforced furlough but Ed Gibson, the Caltech solar physicist, retired to the solar observation station and spent the entire workday recording images on his own sweet time, not bothering to make any detailed entries in his lab handbooks. ‘Negotiations’ followed; work schedules were altered; expectations adjusted, and work went on.

The Skylab story prompted much discussion about the regulation of work in space including suggestions the ‘revolt’ really wasn’t one. But these do not discount the contentious, irritable, edgy relationship between Houston and Skylab-IV, and they certainly do not refute the notion that even highly motivated, highly trained, military types and scientists, fully convinced of the value of their work, when placed in an artificially controlled, too-tightly-regulated environment, are likely to find conditions oppressive and push back.