Class Struggle in Civil Service: Viewing Public Sector Unions Through the Lens of Class Theory

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.

This analysis falls apart when applied to the public sector. The government has no equivalent market pressures to which it is compelled to respond. As a monopoly producer, government has every incentive to pacify its workforce by delivering higher wages and benefits. The taxpaying consumer of these services is without recourse. Politicians cannot be seen as perfect analogs of the boss class, nor can civil service management be viewed in the same sense as private sector management. Indeed, to invoke the oft-cited preamble to the IWW constitution, does the public sector working class and the public sector employing class really have nothing in common?

As a former public school teacher, my wife offered me an example of organizational dynamics in the public sector that might better explain the class disposition of the various players. Who is the favored class within the public schooling institution? Surely not teachers - they are serially overworked and underpaid, but even more importantly from a radical labor perspective, they enjoy little control over the workplace. In fact, the history indicates that teachers have been viewed by the establishment as nearly as much in need of control and discipline as the students they teach. Curricula are designed not merely to guide student learning but, to the greatest extent possible, make classrooms teacher-proof. The fear has always been that a genuine relationship between teachers and students would be harmful to the institution as a whole, and so a factory model guided the development of modern pedagogy.

So, who is exploiting teachers? Who is denying them control of work conditions? Who is playing them off against the end consumers (students and parents) to limit their power and influence?

It would easy to say: the public, through their designated politicians, from the Governor down to the School Board. However, the public has very coarse control over the schools (or any government function) through political means. The public is not the "boss class" in any meaningful way, least of all because they desire maximum effort from teachers at a minimum wage. They are imprisoned customers given a modicum of choice but no exit, and as they work for a living just like teachers they are more likely to see their interests aligned than opposed.

What about the politicians? Surely they have outsized control, at least as the managers. They seek to maximize their own control over the institution and position themselves for personal political advantage in the larger establishment. While market pressures may not factor in directly, they still have to deal with budget pressures, balancing interests among the entire government. The relative competition may not originate in the market so much as among the interest groups of the state: those seeking to grow one department's budget at another's expense, or those who favor capital over government power and fight taxes.

But even if politicians are the boss class, that is still insufficient to explain organizational dynamics within the school. Where is the class managing affairs on a daily basis on the boss's behalf? Who implements the control over workers? Who sees their interests as more aligned with the bosses than with the workers? The answer is obvious when you think about it.

The school administration is the management class of public schooling. They are the class with fat salaries, minimal work to do, and an interest in running the school as a factory. They prefer stability to true empowerment and education. They hold both teachers and students in check. Their class actually grows pretty steadily, soaking up funds from those who actually teach, while implementing stupid policies like zero tolerance to subsume more and more of the classroom under their direct management.

I've focused on public schooling, but I imagine this model could apply to just about any civil service field. You have the people who do the work - in a zoning office, for instance, it's the clerks and surveyors and those who actually effect the end product. Then you have the city administration and the Mayor / Board of Supervisors / etc., who use the institution as a means to a political career focused on directing others and taking credit for it. They don't care about zoning per-se; their interest is in stabilizing the organization so they can grow the parasite administrative class and pursue their agenda of personal aggrandizement and its ideological trappings (set aside your feelings about zoning laws in general for a moment).

As a Wobbly and a mutualist, then, I'd like to see radical labor take a stand that does not simply provide unconditional solidarity to public workers, but pushes them to take increasingly radical stances on issues of workplace control. What do we want: state-recognized and -enforced collective bargaining rights, or a movement so powerful it can operate without the state's permission? Are we fighting for a bit higher wage and benefits for public workers, or an end to the wage system? Do we want civil servants to be treated with slightly more respect by their overlords, or do we instead demand worker control of these capital-serving institutions?

After all, we've established that public sector unions are the last vestiges of something approach a fair deal between labor and capital. Perhaps we should remind capital why they sought to give us that deal to begin with, thus securing a better position for labor in all sectors. To accomplish this, Wobblies and all radical unionists must reassert the primacy of the class struggle and creatively compose the narrative that frames the public and private sector worker grievances in class terms. Only a rebirth of class consciousness will push the center of the labor movement leftwards and secure our interests. It's not enough to defeat Governor Walker or even to respond to these periodic crises in labor relations with solidarity: we have to resurrect the class struggle.

Written on Tuesday, March 15, 2011 | Tags: unions, labor, wisconsin