For all but the smallest or most specialized of employers, a single employee’s refusal to work has a minimal effect. For all but a comparatively small portion of the workforce, an employer’s dismissal of an employee is devastating. These baldly true propositions underlie the basic, original organization of modern American labor policy.
I use the phrase “labor policy” because there isn’t a good term in popular use for what I’m trying to talk about. That belies a phenomenon we’ve noticed particularly over the last handful of years: increasing (visible) fissures on the political left between “neoliberals” or “left-neoliberals” and traditional progressives. That is, when labor or class issues crop up–Occupy, collective bargaining in Wisconsin, the Chicago teachers’ strike, the Hostess strike and bankruptcy, the Wal-Mart job actions–the former tend to be reflexively skeptical, the latter reflexively supportive, of the “labor position.”
The field of issues falls under “labor relations,” which is essentially an area of economic policy. But while health care, housing, taxes, welfare, and trade are regularly and deeply debated in the mainstream left commentariat, labor policy as a comprehensive and discrete policy area is not. Yet labor relations is undoubtedly an important, if not the most important, element of a society’s economic infrastructure.
Relations between employers and employees are a function of government policy. This has been true in the Western tradition stretching back to the Middle Ages. But when evaluating the major parties, Democrats in particular, or individual candidates, “labor policy” is rarely raised as a discrete issue. This, despite the fact that the laws governing labor relations are at least half a century old and in desperate need for reform. Unlike areas like health care, housing, and taxes, there has been little (positive) evolution in this area since the New Deal. What’s even stranger, “labor” is often treated in an oddly myopic way: as embodied by labor unions as institutions of “special interest.” Even then, “unions” are considered in an irrationally reducible way. But “labor” isn’t just unions–it’s all employees, everyone who works for someone else and depends on the income issuing from that relationship for their social survival.
With the luxury of four years of Democratic control of the White House, and a creeping perception that “liberalism” is making a comeback as a national electoral force, the time is perfect for an earnest discussion among the political mainstream about labor policy.
The basic economic program of the left–from left-neoliberals to various stripes of Marxists–seems to be ensuring through affirmative policies or programs the social safety of individuals and families. So things like “guaranteeing health care” and “affordable housing” and “retirement security,” among others, are broad public objectives for the left. There’s every reason to believe that most of these objectives and be achieved through a rational and responsiveness labor policy. More specifically, a labor policy which is designed to balance the bargaining positions between labor and employers.
The premise the architects of the New Deal era labor regime were working from was that labor could best provide for itself through an adversarial (but fair) negotiation process with employers (which I guess is the contemporary synecdoche for capital). This is a basic concept that seems to evade the mainstream political press, and neoliberals and liberals alike.
It’s an important point. When the more traditional left reflexively supports the labor (“employee”) position in adversarial situations it is in support of its bargaining position more than its particularized aims. This is because the system requires an inherently adversarial negotiation, and presumes, per those two premises I offered at the outset, that employers have the naturally greater bargaining power. (This is less so in public employee disputes, but only by a matter of degree.) Conservatives and neoliberals are skeptical of the adversarialness itself; the Hostess strike provides a useful example of that. But that position is to misconstrue how labor relations are designed to operate. They aren’t meant to be collaborative, although collaboration is not foreclosed. The assumption is that labor relations will be defined by the relative bargaining strength of the two sides. “Relative bargaining strength” itself is a concept that makes sense only in the context of an adversarial bargaining situation.
How is public policy pursuing this objective of balancing bargaining power? It isn’t; or at least, it isn’t in a comprehensive way. Labor’s bargaining position has been on a steady decline since the 1960s, with a particularly sharp drop beginning in the late 70s. The increasing frequency, and acuity, of recessions is both a cause and effect of this. Recall that the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was passed in part based on the Keynesian assumption that the drop in demand that accompanies the decline of wages and labor insecurity causes periodic recessions; from Section 1 of the Wagner Act:
The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions within and between industries.
The neoliberal emphasis, policy-wise, has been on “flexibility”; the presumption is that flexibility for employers to adapt their business models to changing market conditions creates more aggregate wealth (and thus indirectly, employment), offsetting the job losses it entails. Collective bargaining agreements are thus anathema because they’re “rigid” and confound flexibility.
Flexibility is also the watchword for employees: the rigidity of collective bargaining agreements, the argument goes, discourages employees from specializing and developing skills because CBAs incentivize longevity (or seniority) with a single firm.
“Flexibility” is a way of expressing a preference for employer domination of employees in bargaining. It isn’t malicious in intent, but its effect is the same. Employer flexibility means vesting with employers as much discretion as possible over working conditions, terms of employment, and employment itself. In such an atmosphere, employees will always, structurally, have less bargaining power their employers. Incorporating the assumptions from the NLRA, historical data, and common sense, this comparative lack of bargaining power will result in worse material conditions fro employees.
What’s ironic is that with labor having a lower structural bargaining power, only labor unrest can reset the balance. If public policy was to balance the starting positions, negotiations would be less fights, and more competitions, like most business negotiations. With an inherent imbalance, as the discrepancy in material well-being becomes acute (i.e., as stuff gets worse), labor will naturally (sometimes spontaneously, sometimes consciously, sometimes both) turn to its only true weapon, non-cooperation and disruption, including boycotts, occupations, and strikes. In the Internet age, it’s not hard to imagine new forms of disruption coming into use. The chaos on the shop floor (and in consumer markets) that has become increasingly visible over the last few years.
There’s no reason to assume these kinds of actions will rebalance bargaining positions. Only that they’ll happen so long as employees find themselves at a constant disadvantage vis a vis their bosses. Of course, it’d be wise to recognize that comprehensive labor relations policy only came into being because of labor unrest–employers wanting to sue for peace after years of roiling and unpredictable disputes with labor, combined with widespread public perception that the employer-friendly system did in fact contribute to system-wide economic failures (like the Great Depression).
The indirect rebalancing of employee “flexibility” is a possible if not very feasible way to correct the imbalance. On the level of the individual employee, it’s certainly true that more or better education, or more specialized skills, will improve that individual employee’s bargaining position. But that certainly can’t be the solution for “labor” as a group, can it? In consumer markets in particular, horizontal growth is the driver of profit, and horizontal growth within a market depends on un- or low-skilled work being done more or less identically by many people. Every individual can’t operate in a unique economic niche in an operation like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, UPS (three of the nation’s largest employers) or even Apple-via-Foxconn (one of the world’s largest). There have to be huge numbers of people doing more or less interchangeable work. Therefore employee “flexibility” is not a systemic solution.
Maybe collective bargaining, at least as its understood now, isn’t the solution either; but it certainly has a good enough track record, and objectively beneficial elements, to recommend it as a departure point in the greater discussion of labor policy. With the power to bargain for a greater share of wealth, in the form of wages, benefits and conditions, and free of state intervention, employees can provide for their own housing, health care (including access to reproductive health services), retirement security; through “rigidity” of terms of discipline and termination, they can contract for guarantees of equal treatment despite race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, political beliefs, or immigration status. Through agreements on terms of hiring and conditions of employment, they can contract for privacy guarantees.
A sensible labor policy in other words can address the major economic objectives of the left. It’s time it was raised to a rightful area of prominence in the national political and policy discourse.