The Error of an Era: The End of Elections

8 06 2012

The failure of Tom Barrett to beat Scott Walker in Tuesday’s recall election was probably about a lot of things. For social historians of this era, though, it will be this: a miscalculation of epic proportions, an error that defines the post-Citizens United era.

The public rage after Governor Walker instituted his de facto recission of public workers’ collective bargaining rights was palpable and widespread. It was by no means universal, but it brought together lots of people who felt targeted, misled, and who saw the legislation as an existential threat to their economic security and well-being. Wisconsin’s public sector after all is storied–Wisconsin passed the country’s first public worker collective bargaining law–and public sector workers in that state came from all partisan stripes and economic classes.

The direct action that resulted, occupation of the capitol building, was a reasonable response. The decision to turn all of that activist energy into an election campaign was fatally misguided.

I argued, on the heels of the Citizens United decision, that the left could finally admit that elections are not a feasible method of obtaining particularly economic goals, and that it should begin exploring alternative, direct action methods; particularly, occupations, work stoppages, and boycotts:

With the electoral process eliminated as a viable strategy, resources can finally be diverted to organizing at the community and workplace level. All this decision does is remind us that a small number of corporations–by no means corporations generally–have accumulated much too much power and wealth.

On the single issue of collective bargaining rights, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites were united on an activist level. Millions more agreed in spirit, if not enough to take any sort of direct action. The conditions were ripe for some kind of direct action that would have forced the government’s hand–a work stoppage, boycotts of public services, occupations of facilities. The millions of dollars and the thousands of hours of activist energy spent on an election campaign, if diverted to direct action, could not only have ground the machinery of the state to a halt, but would also have created a well-organized, on-the-ground organization of activists who have worked together, fought together, and developed invaluable social relationships. The attendant electoral advantage would have expressed itself naturally in November and again in subsequent elections.

Elections are no longer a fruitful means for progressive change. Citizens United cemented in fact something that was already more or less true: the wealthy, both corporations and individuals, have an outsize influence on elections that is nearly impossible to overcome. President Obama’s 2008 election campaign, soaked as it was in Wall Street cash, was not an exception to this fact but an expression of it. Public intellectuals and activists who advocate for elections as a way to achieve any fundamental reform are wrong in every instance. Increasingly, their only arguments will be negative ones–“The other side is worse”–and, with each passing election, we’ll see that even where elections are won, the power of the ultra-wealthy will be such that public relations campaigns and lobbying smother legislative initiatives in the crib.

Corporate power has purchased the electoral process. Pouring any more money and energy into it is not worthwhile at all. It’s over. Volunteering for or giving money to an election campaign is a waste of that time and money in every instance. Debate and discussion about the variable merits of candidates, the positioning of candidates on issues, fundraising, relative strength in different states and among different demographics, is not a serious use of anybody’s time or intellect.

For the foreseeable future, in other words, electioneering and election work–fundraising, door-knocking, blogging, running for office, whatever it is–is in no way progressive or left wing, in each and every instance. To the contrary; it’s essentially the political equivalent of playing the lottery, a habitual distraction predicated on infinitesimally small chances of achieving anything, and in that way it diverts resources from real change and is inherently conservative, biased towards the status quo.

Wealth, or capital, engages in direct action all the time: capital flight and strike threats are the basis for almost every piece of nasty legislation, and every corporate welfare or tax giveback, that state, local, and the federal government have passed for years. All the talk about “increasing confidence” for “job creators,” is a different way of saying appeasing striking capital. It’s the direct action that makes the change. The left for some reason has become hypnotized by chimera of electoral change, and we see the result: even when the left wins an election, they can achieve little, rebalance power not at all, and income inequality and debt peonage grows and grows.

A Long Time Comin’: Chicago Teachers Strike Authorization Vote Begins Today

6 06 2012

cross-posted from Gapers Block

Beginning today, over 20,000 Chicago teachers will vote on whether or not to authorize their bargaining committee to call for a strike should negotiations with the Board of Education over new contract terms fail. For authorization, 75% of non-retiree union members would need to approve. This high threshold is the result of legislation passed last year. As state public employees, teachers’ collective bargaining rights and terms are governed by state, rather than federal, law.

The legislation in question, known as SB7, was passed after intense and stealth lobbying efforts by Stand for Children, a well-funded non-profit that operates at the state level to encourage entrepreneurial changes to public education that incrementally privatize school systems. Stand for Children co-founder Jonah Edelman famously bragged at a conference that they used access to important and influential political figures like Rahm Emanuel and Michael Madigan, and insiders like Jo Anderson to tighten restrictions on the Chicago Teachers Union. Part of the strategy was to take away one of the union’s more potent tools, the strike threat. Unable to take away the right to a work stoppage, Stand settled for a 75% approval threshold.

Now, it is looking like Stand’s strategy might backfire, if teachers ultimately vote to authorize a strike. After all, the question teachers will vote on is whether to authorize a strike, not whether to go on strike. Arguably, winning an authorization vote by 50%+1 would not be a real show of strength. A significant portion of teachers would have expressed their opposition to a strike, and maintaining the strike, once called, would be exceedingly difficult. The organizational capacity teachers build by being forced to get over 75% means a resilient strike, should things come to that, and a battle-tempered organization prepared to push hard during negotiations.

Besides the mechanics of it, there are the underlying social conditions that are bringing this to a head.
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Labor’s Need for Surpluses

24 08 2011

Beer and neoliberalism:

But I do hear a lot more from people who think of themselves as being “to my left,” who seem to me to spend a lot more time talking about the desirability of being more supportive of labor unions than they do talking about what concrete steps they want to take to achieve this mission. In a highly competitive market, there’s not much surplus for unions to get a share of.

It really, really annoys this man that anybody consider themselves “to [his] left.” He is determined to prove that anybody who does so is irrational or unserious.

This has to be one of the most profoundly frustrating things I’ve ever read on this topic that wasn’t in a comments section of Crain’s. Presumably Yglesias knows how labor markets and collective bargaining work, and he realizes that surpluses have precisely nothing to do with either the process of unionization or the right entailed by collective bargaining.

Ignoring for a moment the tone deafness of making his point about surpluses by using the socially necessary and universally identifiable world of craft beers, Yglesias says that cartelization of an industry (in this case, the beer market) makes unions stronger because they’re in a position to demand more of the rents. Yes, sometimes. So? Does that mean you can’t have competitive firms with heavily unionized workforces? For example, Southwest Airlines, or any of scores of other examples? Alternately, when single firms enjoy massive marketshare, does that make them somehow more amenable to unionization in the first place? I’ll pick an example out of the blue–Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is immensely profitable not thanks to any cartelization but in part because it is able to keep wages and benefits shockingly low while its competitors, particularly in the grocery markets, cannot–because they are unionized.

The argument being made here is that if unions go around unionizing small, barely profitable firms, they aren’t going to get much cash. Or that unions need cartels to grow. Or something. This misunderstands two key things: first, collective bargaining isn’t about skimming cream, it’s about a more even bargaining position for wage earners at firms, particularly large firms; second, it is getting to the point of collective bargaining–where the issues of profitability and “surplus” kick in–that is the hard part. When we talk about the need to grow unionization, we mean we need to make it easier to organize in the first place. The question of the competitiveness of unionized firms relates directly to the difficulty of unionization.

The problem labor has in competitive market places is not the lack of this “surplus,” it is the fact that firms whose union-busting is more efficient are able to force prices downward to a point that drowns their union competitors. Wal-Mart provides a perfect example of this, but you can look at any market. This was the entire concept behind SEIU’s infamous Justice for Janitors campaigns of the 1990s–going after the largest employers in a market simultaneously to prevent a situation where unionized firms were starved out of the market by union-busting firms. The lack of enforcement of collective bargaining rights on par with property rights puts union firms at short-term competitive disadvantages. But Yglesias starts his kvetch at the bargaining table, not the boss fight–in other words, after the hardest part is over. So when we–we loony, unserious, left-wing supporters of collective bargaining rights–talk about “concrete steps” that are “workable” what we mean is that we need to enforce worker rights as property rights precisely so that union-busting does not provide such a short-term advantage to firms. The reason SEIU went in and organized the largest employers in metropolitan janitorial markets all at once was to preclude the emergence of this comparative advantage for better union busters.

The right to unionize is not protected in this country–not by legislatures, not by administrative bodies, and not by the courts. That needs to change. How? Well, one start would be for people who claim they are progressives to stop talking about unionization as an abstract market strategy and realize that it is a fundamental human right. But more importantly, when unionization is easy, employers will no longer have such a strong pressure to bust unions, and the comparative advantage of staying union-free disappears. There are any number of big picture, fundamental reforms that progressive leadership could pursue–amending or abolishing the doctrine of at-will employment state-by-state, exactly as the right wing did with right-to-work; comprehensive reform of the Wagner Act; labor participation in corporate governance; funding for enforcement.

Here’s a start though: Democrats and their progressive enablers at think tanks could stop shrugging off every betrayal of workers’ rights–whether Striker Replacement, Employee Free Choice, or the creation of “free trade agreements” with nations that tolerate violence against union organizers.

I understand his point that unions can drive up costs (though this is a function of corporate governance as well), and that this puts union firms at a comparative disadvantage. But this takes as a given the difficulty of unionizing in the first place. The idea that unions need cartels to thrive, and with cartels we’d have no Rogue Ale, is simply not factual.

In Praise of Conflict

15 06 2011


Don’t reach across the aisle. Don’t partner with management. Don’t release a joint statement. Fight it out. That isn’t just an unfortunate way to make progress, in fact is the only way. Adversarial processes can be painful, stressful, and even destructive; but they are the only actual way to make change. It isn’t that one side is wholly wrong, that one side is wholly right. But there are conflicting, even mutually exclusive, goals between classes in society. Since individuals and their institutions will act in self-interest to impede the others’ goals, only actual conflict can achieve their goals.

Conflict is an actual engagement between parties in opposition. Two parties making opposing statements on a street corner aren’t in conflict in the way that two people making arguments in court are in conflict, because there is not going to be material change in position that results. Similarly, the individual act of voting, particularly in large-scale elections, is not an act of conflict because for the vast majority of voters the material change is de minimis. The degree of disagreement is a factor, too; the closer together the two sides, the less conflict involved.

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