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?

A Tiny Pleasure: Heading Home On Time

Yesterday evening, I took the train to my wife’s place of work at Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center. I was going to drop off my baby daughter at her mother’s office, and then head to the gym to workout. It had been a tiring day as any day of infant daycare invariably is; my wife was going to take over for the rest of the evening. As I arrived at the MetroTech subway station at 5PM, I noticed commuters waiting for the train, waiting to go home; as I walked up the stairs, out into the plaza and into my destination office building, more commuters streamed past me, wearing suits, jackets, formal and semi-formal wear, and a mixture of expressions, some tired, some smiling, others engaged in conversations with co-workers. The workday was done; families and friends awaited; the rest of the day did too.

Somehow, I found this sight absurdly pleasing;  it had been a 9-5 day, and now those who had ‘put in their time’ could put it behind them and move on. Here was visible proof then, that workers could still go home on time, that a life beyond the workday, and not just on the weekends, was possible.

Of course, that same pleasure reminded me that the reason I had had occasion to experience it was that I knew all too well that most workers put in ridiculously long hours at work, that they do not earn overtime or ‘comp’ time for it, that they often do not manage to take advantage of their vacation days, that sometimes falling sick is not an option, and finally, that very often retirements have to be delayed, if not postponed indefinitely.  (This situation is undoubtedly worse in the US than it is elsewhere in the world, though when I hear stories about the Indian corporate world during my trips to India, I’m convinced the US has serious competition there.)

Somehow, bizarrely, too many workers in the US have settled for a situation whereby not only are they working longer hours, they are not compensated for it. Their workplaces are unregulated in the worst possible way: their bosses can command them to come in early, stay late, skip lunches, work on weekends, spread their two weeks annual vacation out over the year so that they become a bunch of long weekends instead, and perhaps to final injury to insult, suggest that they aren’t really sick enough to take the day off. As for ‘personal days’, well, they aren’t.

Workers could change this, of course. They could unionize, bargain collectively as a unit, push back on employer power so that space is made for their needs, their time, their lives. They could ask for paid overtime–in time or money. But most workers in the US have convinced themselves, or have been so persuaded, that organized worker forces flirt with the Antichrist, with all that is good and holy in America, that unions are parasites. So rather than organize themselves and secure for themselves the benefits of a unionized work force, they’d rather stand by and let the remnants of organized labor in this country come under sustained political attack.

And never get home on time.

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.

Misery Needs Company, Contd.

Misery Needs Company, Part Deux prompted a series of useful comments from readers Melon, Dan K., and JR. I’m going to respond here to a central thread therein. As Dan K. asks, ‘Are luxurious union contracts contributing in a significant way to our economic problems’? (By ‘economic problems,’ I presume state budgets like Wisconsin’s are at issue.)

Now, if it is the luxuriousness of those contracts that is a problem, then the correct response presumably would be to renegotiate  those contracts when they expire. But not, surely, to take away collective bargaining rights? Does this follow as well?  Clearly, Scott Walker thought so, for that was his strategy in Wisconsin. However, to go from ‘these contracts are untenable given budgetary constraints’ to ‘you have no right to bargain collectively’ requires a union-busting–rather than mere budget-fixing–agenda.

And the Wisconsin example demonstrates what is wrong even with answering ‘yes’ to that question above. For Wisconsin shows us that the introduction of the financial crisis is not a ‘red herring.’ Consider the following reasons for its budgetary problems:

Falling tax revenue resulting from the recession is the greatest culprit of Wisconsin’s budget woes — between 2008 and 2009, state tax revenues fell over 7%.

Since July 2009, there has been an estimated dip in revenues of $200 million annually; the state saw little growth in tax revenues in 2010.

Unemployment rose more than 4 percentage points between 2007 and 2010, forcing more Wisconsin residents on Medicaid and causing state Medicaid costs to rise.

A series of tax cuts passed since 2003 that cumulatively represent $3.7 billion and, by 2013, make up a $800 million-per-year reduction in tax revenues.

In addition, this year agency budget requests will rise $2.9 billion — nearly two-thirds of which is for Medicaid, with much of that amount associated with replacing one-time federal Medicaid revenues the state received from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Look at those reasons: falling tax revenue because of the recession, tax cuts, rising unemployment, rising healthcare costs. Sound familiar? The Scott Walker solution: Bust the unions! It is the transparency of the union-busting agenda that produced the Wisconsin protests. Those protesting were not simply rejecting a particular contract; they knew that the larger Walker agenda was to get rid of unions. (Melon’s comment acknowledges that budgetary problems are better understood by paying attention to the larger economic picture that unions are embedded in.) So, again, to my interlocutors: if public sector union workers’ contract terms are untenable, then why not  revise them? Or perhaps seek to collect adequate tax revenues by not enacting tax cuts? Why take away collective bargaining?

JR seems to suggest that because  50% of American workers work for the government, there is no need to worry about the ‘profit imperative crushing them’. Does this mean that public sector workers need not–should not–form unions? But the central point is maintaining worker rights in the workplace, in the face of employer power, via representation by a collective entity. It is the imbalance in power between employer and individual employee that is at crucial, and which warrants the formation of workers into collective bargaining units.

Non-unionized labor is cheaper; that is why it will always be more popular with employers. The question is whether in seeking to pay that lower cost, by the device of getting rid of collective bargaining, the employer is actually seeking something far more valuable: the ability to regulate the workplace to his heart’s content.

Misery Needs Company, Part Deux: Scapegoating Unions

Reader JR left an interesting comment yesterday, responding to my post ‘Misery Needs Company: The American Worker’s Hostility Toward Unions.’ Rather than excerpt it here and respond piecemeal, I’m going to just write a few thoughts prompted by it. (Please do read the comment in full.)

There are, I think, two points that are being conflated in the debate over unions and unionizing:  Should workers have the right to unionize? That is, form collective bargaining units? Second, are current union contracts–whether private or public sector–the reason for nationwide budgetary crunches and economic crisis? (Someone could conceivably answer ‘yes’ to both. Alternatively, one could say ‘no’ to the first, and then find the situation described by the second especially problematic.)

To address the first, it is uncontroversial for me that workers organize themselves into collective units. It is the only way they can represent themselves as a united entity to an immensely more powerful unit, their employers. The balance of power is acutely tipped in favor of the employer; workers have to join together if they are to flourish in the workplace. Otherwise, the profit imperative crushes them. The idea that a workplace is a better place when the weaker party, the worker, is left to fend for himself alone against an entity that can regulate him, fire him on arbitrary grounds, control every single minute of his workday, is immensely unappealing to me. The workplace is where the US Constitution does not exist; the employer can crack down on the employee’s privacy, his freedom of speech; the list goes on. If workers do not present a united front, they have little chance of ensuring the elevation of their interests in the priorities of their employers. As it stands, most American workers are overworked, with the worst benefits, vacation packages and family leave benefits in the industrialized first world. Perhaps this has something to do with the shrinking percentage of unions in the private sector. Perhaps.

Unions are not perfect: their leadership has been corrupt at times, they have often defended the indefensible (as in police unions defending corrupt cops). But none of that will ever, ever change my conviction that when one massively strong and rich entity faces a weaker, fragmented entity, the weaker will lose, again and again. The workers’ only hope lies in unionizing. That is the reason for my mystification by the fact that American workers somehow cannot make the connection that the reason for their horrible vacation packages–2 weeks? Are you kidding me?–their ludicrous family leave benefits, and shrinking aspirations for upward mobility might have something to do with the fact that they did not have the means to negotiate collectively for better contracts.

Coming to the second point. Are union contracts to blame for the budgetary crunches nationwide? In a nation where income inequality is at its worst levels ever, when this nation has been fighting two catastrophically expensive disastrous wars, when corporate malfeasance is at an all-time high, when the financial crisis of 2008 has yet to see any of its criminals booked, this seems like a strange charge to lay against unions. It might be that union contracts need revisiting just because given the financial bottom-line, something has to give. But given what we know about CEO paychecks, about the extension of tax-cuts for the super-rich, about the incestuous relationship between Wall Street and Capitol Hill, the idea that unions are to be singled out and demonized strikes me as yet another instance of scapegoating  the weakest political entity available.

JR suggests in his comment too, that my language has been strong and the rhetoric overheated. Well, I suggest that if the exploitation of this nation by its political and corporate class is examined closely, the only reaction one can, and should, feel is anger. Which might then be reflected in the language employed to make political points. I often write the way I do because I do genuinely feel a rage about the imbalance of power that exists, about the financial power that has corrupted this great nation’s government, and turned it into a corporate handmaiden. Bear in mind too, again, the balance of power. Those that have declared wars can actually bring about people’s deaths; those that have made millions jobless can immiserate them and their families; those that speak glibly of family values like Santorum contribute to the continuing marginalization of gay people (a marginalization that can result in their being denied rights, living shadow lives and sometimes being subjected to violence). Protesters can dangle all the donuts they want in front of police; the ones that get to do some head-cracking and arresting are the cops.

I respect JR’s views because I see in them an intuition about unions that many people share; the sad state of unions in this country tells me that I’m in the minority in this one. But I think if the blame for the financial mess is to be assigned, starting with the unions is a mistake.

Misery Needs Company: The American Worker’s Hostility Toward Unions

In the midst of a Facebook discussion about the possible reasons for Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin,  a participant stated,

[T]here is an incredible amount of hostility towards Unions, and a unique hostility towards Public-Sector Unions. If you look at what the Unions were fighting for it’s very hard for a private sector employee to get excited about it. “Oh you want me to help you retire at 50, keep your job despite gross incompetency, 5 weeks vacation, and to top it all off raise my taxes to pay for it?”

My response was,

If I rewrite your “keep your job despite gross incompetency” as “no firing without due process” then the deal sounds like a good one, one that *all* American workers should be trying for. Unfortunately, brainwashed private sector workers, rather than forming unions and getting a good deal like that for themselves would rather drag everyone else down to their miserable, overworked, servile state.

I want to try to expand on this little exchange, because I think it contains a tiny insight about the poor state of unionized labor today.

Organized, unionized labor is on the run in the US. A tiny fraction of American workers are members of unions, and that number looks destined to decline. Part of the reason is the ‘incredible amount of hostility’ referred to above, always visibly on display when a non-unionized worker finds out:

Unions raise wages of unionized workers by roughly 20% and raise compensation, including both wages and benefits, by about 28%’

Unionized workers are more likely than their nonunionized counterparts to receive paid leave, are approximately 18% to 28% more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, and are 23% to 54% more likely to be in employer-provided pension plans.

[They are]  more likely to have a guaranteed benefit in retirement [and] their employers contribute 28% more toward pensions.

Unionized workers receive 26% more vacation time and 14% more total paid leave (vacations and holidays).

The correct response to this from a non-unionized worker should be, ‘Damn, that sounds like a sweet deal; how do I get a piece of the action?’ At which point, he responds favorably the next time a union organizer contacts him, fills out the election card, and welcomes the NLRB to make sure the NLRA is properly implemented in his workplace.

Of course, none of that happens. The average American worker’s response is, ‘How dare people organize themselves into collective bargaining units to resist the almost unlimited powers of employers and ensure a better deal for themselves?’ At which point, he throws his weight behind every anti-union force that he can find, thus conspiring against his own economic interests.

The sad truth is that the American working class has been convinced to look beyond itself, to not think of itself as a working class, but rather as one that is headed elsewhere, to the magical land of the 1%, except that they don’t have tickets, will be refused visas if they apply, and if they ever make it past the border guards, will promptly be deported. It has been taught to disdain its current status in the interests of continual aspiration with no regard whatsoever for all those forces that work–overtime–to make sure their aspirations are foiled.

Misery needs company indeed.