I often hear defenders of "Right to Work" (RTW) laws say that unions are collusive and extortive in a way that is simply unfair to employers. Neither workers nor management should be forced to negotiate through unions, and RTW laws simply level the playing field by ensuring that employees can always negotiate directly with management. The point of labor unions, to the mind of RTW supporters, is to exploit the Wagner Act that forces all parties to negotiate in good faith, and to thereby move wages and benefits up in a way a free market in labor would never allow. The aforementioned article on RTW even compares unions with Mafia protection rackets in this regard.
To describe this line of reasoning as selective would be a gross understatement. After all, let's assume that labor unions are as evil as the RTW lobby says they are. Even granting that for the sake of argument, labor is not the only interest engaging in collective bargaining. What about the individuals involved in the employing corporation? Aren't these businesses effectively "capital unions" exploiting incorporation laws to achieve a better bargaining position relative to labor? Isn't the reason why investors pool their resources and form businesses to get better deals in the market through economies of scale? Isn't that why they try to get investors rather than simply borrowing all the money for their start-up costs--to spread the risk and the reward?
So unions of labor are only one side of this story; to emphasize collusion on the workers' side is to leave another form of collusion totally unaddressed. Corporations are capital unions, organizations whose members work together to negotiate wages and benefits (and other costs, of course) downwards to get the best return for themselves. Why is one form of collusion wrong and the other not?
Scott Walker won his recall election, and labor has suffered a genuine defeat. Maybe the words of Big Bill Haywood can give us some perspective on the place of elections in the struggle and where we might go from here:
The Industrial Workers of the World is an economic organization without affiliation with any political party or any non-political sect. I as an Industrialist say that industrial unionism is the broadest possible political interpretation of the working-class political power, because by organizing the workers industrially you at once enfranchise the women in the shops, you at once give the black men who are disfranchised politically a voice in the operation of the industries; and the same would extend to every worker. That to my mind is the kind of political action that the working class wants. You must not be content to come to the ballot box on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, the ballot box erected by the capitalist class, guarded by capitalist henchmen, and deposit your ballot to be counted by black-handed thugs, and say, "That is political action." You must protect your ballot with an organization that will enforce the mandates of your class. I want political action that counts. I want a working class that can hold an election every day if they want to. (my emphasis)
I support the public sector unions opposing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's agenda. While I'm neither a fan of government nor the civil service, it's clear that the so-called lavish benefits and salaries public sector unions defend against Republican encroachment represent not entrenched privilege but merely the last vestiges of a minimally fair employment deal. The last forty years have seen this deal eviscerated in the private sector, and it is only in comparison to the current paltry influence of contemporary labor that public sector unions seem pampered. One need not single out individual teachers to critique public schooling, for instance - in any case, the idea that a school teacher is grifting me provokes involuntary laughter.
As a Wobbly, however, the ideology of class struggle informs my activism on labor. Solidarity is never unconditional, as my friend Chris Lempa pointed out to me in a letter. True common purpose in the struggle against bosses must be framed in terms of legitimate class theory in order not to degenerate into the business-as-usual, reformist, junior-partner-in-the-ruling-class unionism that has prevailed since the Wagner Act. And so while I support public sector unions in this conflict, I find it difficult to place them in the traditional model of class struggle.
In the private sector the class dynamics are clear: workers and bosses can be easily seen as in zero-sum competition. One gains at the expense of the other, the prize is effective control over the means of production, and the players line up along the party whose control they favor. Customers and suppliers represent the third parties who, while not powerless in the equation, tend to deal with the organization as a whole on a voluntary basis. The adversarial relationship is more centered inside the organization, and market pressures from the third parties are accepted as a given. Much of the decline in labor power has arisen from capital's superior marketing of the narrative that union gains come at consumer losses.
Scaling Up Without Growing
Where the Entrepreneur, the Consortium, and the Union Meet
I had a great time visiting my good friend Jim in Charlotte this past weekend while the wives were selling crafts at the Country Living show in Atlanta. Many hijinks ensued, but one of the most rewarding was our discussion of different approaches to co-working, as well as expansions on the concept that could redefine how we work. We come at the conversation from two different angles, and I want to give Jim the opportunity to explain his vision, so I won't go into too much detail about his particular suggestions.
It suffices to say that Jim has been co-working at a local space for some time now. Where he sees opportunity is in an organization that could take care of the administration - invoicing, taxes, space provisioning - leaving freelancers, small proprietors, and other independent developers free to pursue their business. The organization could be run on the mutual model, where all the "clients" are owners.
I'm intrigued by this idea, but I want to skin a slightly different cat. My experience of co-working has been quite different due to Richmond's lack of a dedicated space for it. Our group has had to be more ad hoc, using Twitter and Google Groups to spontaneously organize meetings at local coffee shops on an irregular basis. Everything I've read on starting a co-working venue stresses the need to build the community first, rather than getting the location and expecting people to come to it.