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?

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.

Demonizing Organized Labor And The Road To Fascism

The word ‘union’ occurs five times in Jedediah Purdy‘s Jacobin essay ‘How Trump Won.’

On the first two occasions, Purdy invokes unions as part of an analysis of the demographics of Trump voters:

[U]nion voters abandoned the Democrats dramatically

Clinton was much weaker than Obama with union-household voters: he won them 58–40, she only 51–43. That’s a sixteen-point loss.

Then, Purdy goes on to speculate why union voters might have voted thus:

[L]ower-income and union voters [developed] a post-2008 sense of economic abandonment by the Democrats based on how the party has actually governed in recent years, including both the trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA and a finance industry that it strongly embraces.

A chunk of those voters are working people who, fifty years ago, might have been getting their basic political information from a union, and are now getting it from a conspiracy-minded far right that convinced them they had a civic duty to vote against the corrupt liar in the race.

On the fifth occasion Purdy makes note of Richard Rorty‘s prescient remarks about a possible evolution of American politics:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. At that point, something will crack.

Unions and their workers have cottoned on to one essential fact about so-called American liberalism and progressivism: its extremely thin patina is revealed by its attitude toward labor unions. You might be a liberal when it comes to climate change, same-sex marriage, and the reproductive rights of women, but chances are you are united with conservatives in believing ‘bosses’ and ’employers’ should be able to ‘hire and fire’ their workers as they please. Without this, you believe that workers will not be motivated to work; that incompetent workers cannot be weeded out; that workers will seek out laziness and complacency; that they will wreck public and private sector budgets with their extravagant contracts and retirement schemes. Unions–like teachers unions which prevent brilliant reformist pedagogical schemes from being implemented, public sector unions which destroy municipal budgets–are the causes of all social and economic ills.

With these attitudes towards the right of workers to indulge in collective bargaining, you reveal a very poor understanding of power and how it is acquired and exercised. You show yourself willing to let one economic class be immiserated and disempowered even as another one is simultaneously enriched and empowered.

All too many who fancy themselves social progressives or liberals–and who find themselves impatient with the protections and benefits union demand for their members–need a reckoning with the possibility that they are merely technocratic elites who find the lower classes a little too grubby for their taste and wish they could whip them into shape somehow through the latest management consultancy schemes. There is a common, shared, set of American values that unite liberals and conservatives and it includes the following principle: workers are lazy and can only be motivated by fear of dismissal. From this the corporatization of American social and political values follows. From this follows contempt of populism, of the expressed sentiments of those who cannot speak the technocrat’s language.

The abandonment of the working class and organized labor is America’s greatest scandal–and it has been for a long time. Once upon a time, unionized workers–like in the Lehigh Valley–lived in houses, drove cars, and sent their children to colleges, secure in the knowledge that the American Dream was working for them, that the upward mobility of the next generation was visible in their own lives. There is no such comfort now, and none is forthcoming. The economy has been financialized, manufacturing of tangible commodities sent overseas, unions disbanded and demonized, wages sent plunging, new systems of values put in place.

The insecure, nonunionized worker is perennially on edge, worried about losing his or her job; their wages fall without contracts to hold them up; long-term economic planning is impossible. Scapegoats for misery are demanded; some will be found. by any convoluted reasoning necessary. Relief from fear and paranoia is sought; perhaps in the form of a strong man promising deliverance.

The union makes us strong; without the union, workers seek strength elsewhere.

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.

On Voting ‘Yes’ On The CUNY Strike Authorization Vote

Yesterday, like many of my colleagues at the City University of New York I voted ‘Yes’ on our union’s strike authorization vote. (The voting period ends May 11th; at that time, the PSC-CUNY will be able to inform CUNY administration of the extent of faculty and staff support for a strike.) A strike is serious business; it is a high-risk political tactic; in the current political and economic climate, a strike invites serious rhetorical and material blow-back. A strike shuts down services, sometimes essential ones; a strike causes economic damage and hurts livelihoods; a strike inconveniences many. Why strike?

It is an interesting feature of our modern social discourse that a strike has come to be regarded with as much antipathy as it has. Such a development would not have been surprising to anyone familiar with the kind of analysis that theorists like Max Weber or Max Horkheimer gave us of our developing understanding of work: work for the sake of work, work as a deliverance, work as a blessing, the desire to work as evidence of rationality, “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling”–these all would come to signal the refusal to work as a kind of moral failing. As Horkheimer noted in The Eclipse of Reason, “The deification of industrial activity knows no limit.” Or as Weber had noted in The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, “modern labour has an ascetic character.” Unsurprisingly, we find moral abuse directed at those who strike: striking workers are lazy, they are parasites, they are selfish, they are thuggish, and so on.

But workers can, will, and should only work–surprisingly enough–if they are adequately recompensed for their labor. Their relationship with their employers should be underwritten by a respect for this basic postulate of the employment relation. Otherwise, it is no longer enjoys such a status and  merely devolves to some variant of older, exploitative models of hiring and firing (indentured labor, feudal serfs, and so on). The failure of the City University of New York administration to sign a contract with their staff indicates that such basic respect is not forthcoming: the staff of this university have been expected, for six years now, to continue working under the terms of a contract that expired six years ago. In this nation’s most expensive city, such salary and wage conditions amount to a steadily increasing pay cut.

Such a cut in wages sends several signals, none of them respectful to the most important constituencies of the university. First, it tells students that the university does not care how their teachers are compensated for their work; second, it tells students that the university is willing to suffer shortfalls in services that might result from the lack of fair compensation (loss of staff, strikes etc); third, it tells faculty, responsible for instantiating the university’s core mission, that they are not important enough to have their reasonable demands listened to. The final result is a diminishing of the university, a member of a cohort of institutions that now finds itself increasingly under attack from a political and economic sensibility that would destroy as many public goods as possible.

A strike by the faculty and staff at the City University of New York would not just showcase workers laying down their tools; it would also signal to the rest of the polity that attacks on public education will not be tolerated.

Strikes are reviled and abused because interestingly enough, they find their grounding and motivations in firmly and passionately held political convictions that might, as Georges Sorel noted (in Reflections on Violence,) attain the status of myth. In writing of the ‘general strike’ Sorel commented on the common understanding of its supposed irrationality, but as he went on to note, this was in part because of the strong social desire to return to a more quiescent state, one that would not be possible once “the myth of the ‘general strike’ is introduced.” And such reactions were especially understandable: “It is because the theory of myths tends to produce such fine results that so many seek to dispute it.”

A strike is as feared and as despised as it is because very often, a strike–the denial of a worker’s labor, his ultimate weapon, only to be exercised in the direst of circumstances–is effective. The administration of New York City and the City University of New York and its faculty and staff will soon find out–if no contract is forthcoming–how matters will turn out in this domain.

Donald Trump And Organized Labor’s Death Wish

Over at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi makes note of a distinctive and troubling feature of modern American political life, the seeming death wish of American organized labor:

Every four years, some Democrat who’s been a lifelong friend of labor runs for president. And every four years, that Democrat gets thrown over by national labor bosses in favor of some party lifer with his signature on a half-dozen job-exporting free-trade agreements.

It’s called “transactional politics,” and the operating idea is that workers should back the winner, rather than the most union-friendly candidate.

This year, national leaders of several prominent unions went with Hillary Clinton – who, among other things, supported her husband’s efforts to pass NAFTA – over Bernie Sanders….Trump is already positioning himself to take advantage of the political opportunity afforded him by “transactional politics.” He regularly hammers the NAFTA deal in his speeches….

Unions have been abused so much by both parties in the past decades that even mentioning themes union members care about instantly grabs the attention of workers. That’s true even when it comes from Donald Trump….You will find union members scattered at almost all of Trump’s speeches. And there have been rumors of unions nationally considering endorsing Trump….

Indeed. Never mind that the candidates unions would consider endorsing would then want to distance themselves as much as possible from organized labor. (As Taibbi also notes, Trump thinks Michigan autoworkers are paid too much and that in general, “wages are too high.”)

I have written before on this blog about the self-destructive, seemingly self-hating antipathy that American workers have to organized labor. The phenomenon Taibbi points to is another matter altogether. Here, unions themselves are engaged in behavior which is willfully, inexplicably self-destructive.  Perhaps this behavior reveals a particularly virulent strain of Stockholm Syndrome (it is very hard, after all, to leave abusive relationships and seek help); perhaps it’s a manifestation of the thing Freud called a ‘todestrieb.’

Consider for instance, the news that Jeff Johnson, the head of the Washington State Labor Council–affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which has not yet endorsed anyone for president–was allegedly pressured by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to not speak at a Bernie Sanders’ campaign event. The AFSCME, one of the largest public-sector unions in the U.S. and a member of the AFL-CIO, endorsed Clinton for president in October. As the article linked to above notes, the AFSCME is perfectly within its rights to slap down on a state labor federation pending approval from national AFL-CIO. Still, it might be asked, why endorse candidates who send union jobs overseas to non-unionized workplaces?

Desperate political times call for desperate actions. Unions are under assault everywhere; membership is shrinking nation-wide. One might ask though, of all the actions available to organized labor, why would it endorse candidates so damaging to its members’ short-term and long-term interests, both economic and political? Especially when the decline of unionization in the American workplace has so extensively been identified as a primary cause of falling wages and rising economic inequality?