Microthinking on “Corporate Interests”

6 06 2012

It would be difficult to write a parody of neoliberal myopia better than something that popped up over at Matthew Yglesias’ blog at Slate, Whose Interests? Which Corporations? Yglesias has an enviable platform and chooses to use it to think in the smallest way possible. To wit:

Kevin Drum wonders, absent strong labor unions, “where does the backing come from to pass legislation that would weaken corporate interests?”

This kind of thinking always strikes me as oddly indifferent to the practical question of how concrete political issues work. Think back to June of 2011 when the Obama administration was trying to tackle corporate interests by promoting the elimination of a tax subsidiy for corporate jets as a deficit-fighting measure. Guess who didn’t like that idea? Corporate America. But guess which corporations especially didn’t like it? The ones who build corporate jets. And guess who agreed with the owners and managers of firms that make corporate jets about the desirability of subsidies for making corporate jets? The labor union that represents the workers.

The profundity of Yglesias failure to understand basic labor dynamics is perplexing considering he’s such a smart guy (and his constant insistence that anyone who doesn’t think small is ignorant of how “real” politics work is typically abrasive). Is there some belief floating around out there that union members don’t want their employer to be competitive and make lots of money? Is there a single instance of workers at a business unionizing in order to destroy the employer? What exactly does he think he has unearthed here? The shocking fact that employees of plane manufacturers want to have lots of people buying planes, that employees of grocery stores want to make sure their grocery stores don’t close? Is this worthy of a Harvard grad on a preeminent platform? This is worse than passing off a tautology as an insight, because Yglesias genuinely seems to believe there’s a deduction in there somewhere.

Yes, unionized employees share an interest with their employer. I.e., with no employer they are not employees. Thus why in literally every locality in the United States, there are organizations like NECA-IBEW, a joint venture of the National Electrical Contractors Association (i.e., employers) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (i.e., employees); or why in every state where they exist, SEIU lobbies with nursing home and hospital associations to increase and streamline Medicaid reimbursements. A fleeting, cursory familiarity with the history and dynamics of the labor movement would reveal to even the most incurious observer that the fact that employees share so many interests with their employers is precisely why the socialist left were often at odds with trade unions (see for example, “trade union consciousness.”)

It is a tautology that on issues that effect a company’s revenue, employees and employers will largely agree, because they both want the company to thrive.

Yglesias thinks the issue is really a rent-seeking one: sectors of the economy will be pitted against each other, though unions will advocate broadly for left-neoliberal issues:

I think the practical issue here is a very real, but substantially narrower one. Labor unions are a clear and consistent voice for progressive taxation and public services against high-income individuals’ strong interest in paying less taxes. That’s a big deal. But the practical dynamics of counterveiling forces in American politics are much more likely to pit sector against sector than “corporate interests” against labor.

To point out that corporate employers often agree with their employees on issues affecting the company’s business is not raising a counter-point to what Drum is saying. It is raising an inanity. The point is that as unions are liquidated, there will be no countervailing force to corporate interests vis a vis their employees, e.g., the 40,000,000 or so Americans who work for fewer than 2,000 firms, and set standards throughout sectors.

The right to organize, the right to collectively bargain, the right to equity in pay between genders, the right to be free from workplace harassment and discrimination, the right to strike, labor participation in corporate governance, at-will employment, workplace privacy, workplace safety, maternity and paternity leave, the right to repose, workplace speech rights. Whatever “sector” you work in–and in the modern economy, employees move fluidly between sectors–these are the “corporate interests” that most effect your quality of life, economic security, and liberty. The wealthy benefactors who finance think tanks and federal election campaigns have little interest in this stuff, with some limited exceptions for discrimination issues. But the labor movement provides the only countervailing pressure on these incontrovertibly more critical issues.

Yglesias isn’t alone. Nationally, liberals and left-neoliberals tend to view “unions” as static political institutions with some think-tank, issue-advocacy qualities, rather than as dynamic, mass working-class organizations that are in constant state of adversarial situations based on the types of “corporate interests” listed above. With quirky exceptions, all corporate employers have, generally, a shared interest in entrenching their power vis a vis employees. They don’t want labor participation in governance, they love at-will employment, they don’t want legal or contractual interference with their hiring and firing, promoting and demoting, and compensation policies. They are, in other words, pursuing their own interests.

As the Democratic Party and the liberal activist base shrugs, the only organized force interested in and capable of articulating and moving the competing interests–the interests of non-managerial employees, the largest class in the United States–is being liquidated.



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