Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Should Organized Labor Return to its May Day Roots?

Heart of the Beast Theater celebrates May Day in Minneapolis Photo Credit: Minnesota Public Radio
In honor of May Day, here's a great quote by Rad Geek (via Roderick Longcritically evaluating the current incarnation of the holiday:
"May Day is a celebration of the original conception of the labor movement, as expressed by anarchist organizers such as Albert Parsons, Lucy Parsons, Benjamin Tucker, and others: a movement for workers to come into their own, by banding together, supporting one another, and taking direct action in the form of boycotts, work stoppages, general strikes, and the creation of workers' spaces such as local co-operatives and union hiring halls. The spirit was best expressed by John Brill's famous exhortation to "Dump the bosses off you back"--by which he did not mean to go to a government mediator and get them to make the boss sit down with you and work out a slightly more beneficial arrangement. "Dump the bosses off you back!" meant: organize and create local institutions that let you bypass the bosses. Negotiate with them if it'll do some good; ignore them if it won't. The signal achievements of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th century were achievements in this spirit: the campaigns that won the 8 hour day and the weekend off in many workplaces, for example, emerged from a unilateral work stoppage by rank-and-file workers, declared by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, and organized especially by the explicitly anarchist International Working People's Association, after legislative efforts by the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor failed. The stagnant, or even backsliding, state of organized labor over the past half century is the direct result of government colonization and the ascendancy of government-subsidized unions.
This is a pretty harsh public choice story about the recent history of the labor movement: gains in legitimacy and state support have backfired by opening up new opportunities for special interests (i.e. capitalists) to seize control over the levers of power, constraining labor's freedom to demonstrate and fight. Although this seems undeniably true, it's probably not the whole story concerning labor's decline (technology & globalization mattered, for example), and it almost certainly undervalues the social benefits of widespread access to safe, stable channels for airing labor disputes. Increasing organized labor's capacity for radical action would almost certainly see a concurrent response from businesses in the form of more capricious firing and workforce intimidation.


  1. It would be interesting to compare inflation adjusted wages and benefits and lifestyle of the average pre-union-movement factory worker in the 19th century with the present day non-union burger flipper (who probably has an iphone, clean clothes, and an automobile with air-conditioning).

  2. Willie B.:

    Germany is an interesting counterpoint to your argument that government intervention degrades the power of organized labor. To my (limited) knowledge, they have a much more formalized and collaborative labor-corporate-public sector governance structure, with mandatory union seats on corporate boards and the like. I can see how this might not be equally applicable to all countries (i.e. those without massive high-value manufacturing export sectors) and how it might have other downsides (fostering a culture of insularity that might increase the like chances of a Volkswagen-type scandal), but it still seems to show that government involvement does not necessarily weaken union influence, and can even strengthen it.