Labor Day Weekend Open Thread: The Four Labor Movements

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Roughly speaking — and my descriptions below reflect my experiences in Orange County, and I hear that things are better (and some worse) elsewhere — this U.S. has four types of labor movements, with most unions focusing primarily on one or two of them.  Each union belonging to one of these movements claim will that it attempts to advance the welfare (including wealth) of its workers.  Often this is convincing.  Sometimes it comes at a reasonable expense to the rest of society.  Sometimes that expense is not reasonable.  It’s critical to know the differences among them.

1.  The “Better Rights” Labor Movement

Woodcut by Ricardo Levins Morales, visit to buy the poster.  This is exactly what we should celebrate on Labor Day, as Labor did contribute greatly to these successes.  This is what pro-labor posts generally do celebrate on Labor Day.  But some hide behind to justify promoting more selfish interests.  This poster is used here to depict the emotional pull of Labor Day pitches, in the context of criticism. 

Workers — all workers — deserve safety, dignity, and fair compensation.  To the extent that Labor led or participated in the drives for these movements — and of course they were also led by liberals, feminists, civil rights activists, socialists, communists and others outside of the labor movement — they do indeed deserve our thanks.  To the extent that conservative and untrammeled capitalist interests threaten these rights to a decent life, they deserve our solidarity.

Note, though, that I’m talking here about “rights.”  Workers have a right to a fair floor-level of wages that is sufficient to provide them with food, shelter (which includes utilities), medical care, education, safety, retirement security, and (I would argue) some arguable margin beyond that to provide some “luxuries” beyond that.  They can of course argue for more than that — but there, they’re arguing as a guild interest for recognition of what they consider their worth, rather than as a pure “right.”

To the extent that unions promote these interests, they are (almost) unequivocally good.  I saw “almost” because I don’t consider some of what unions assert as “rights” — such as police associations demanding the absence of accountability and transparency — to be actual “rights” at all.  And even when rights exist, a union may decide to fight for them selectively — failing to support grievances for those outside of those closest to its (usually white and male) leadership.  But every type of large organization I’m familiar with — universities, businesses, religious congregants — has such problems, and that unions do as well doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve strong support.  They just don’t deserve completely uncritical support.

2.  The “Better Compensation” Labor Movement

This is similar to the “rights” labor movement except that it goes beyond a demanding a decent floor of total compensation to demanding a little more, a lot more, or as much as they can possibly get.  Obviously, demanding “a little more” is usually reasonable, “a lot more” might be reasonable, and “as much as possible” is usually unreasonable, especially as the power of Labor to shut down workplaces (and other deemed to help offending workplaces) is far more dramatic than other efforts such as boycotts or critical news coverage.  And, I hope just as obviously, the greater the “surplus value” — sorry to get Marxist on you; that just means the amount of wealth workers create beyond the amount of their compensation — in a workplace, the more reasonable a union’s “guild interests” become.

It’s hard to argue that, under a capitalist system, unions shouldn’t have the right to demand the highest possible compensation — even if means that they take a greater share from the collective wealth and welfare of a society, called the “commonweal.”  (After all, capitalist owners and managers do the same thing.)  Sometimes unions will get it; more often they won’t.  There is no right answer to the question of how much a given worker should be paid.  But there are plenty of wrong ones: “as much as they could possibly get, given the coercive ability to stop work” and “as little as whoever is paying would prefer to pay” are two of them.  Ideally, this would be handled in fair negotiations between unions and legislators, or unions and private bosses and their investors.  (Stop laughing.)

Of course — hey, I said stop laughing; I have heard of lobbyists! — this isn’t likely.  And where it is likely, it’s likely to take even a bigger chunk out of the commonweal.  A couple of examples:

2A — Health Insurance

Unions, which tend to have excellent and lavish health care plans, have opposed national single-payer health insurance on the grounds that they want to be able to have the best health insurance out there.  Why?  It’s not because they want people to die; it’s because they charge members dues, and one inducement to get people to join unions and pay dues is that it offers them a benefit that other people can’t get.  And it also leads their workers to put up with whatever internal discrimination, harassment, etc. — not necessarily on racial or gender grounds, but on the groups of who’s closest to the people in charge of the union — that they face.  If filing a grievance against a union might cost your kids badly needed health care, you may decide to put up with it.  Do unions have internal elections that are supposed to let people elect better leadership?  Yes, it’s supposed to work that way.

Because the Republican Party is steadfastly opposed to single-payer, but the larger Democratic Party is not, the role of unions in preventing single-payer by leaning on Democratic Legislators is enormous.  Democrats are afraid of Capital, to some extent, but it’s unions who will either defend or defeat them in primaries.  So literally the whole country suffers to preserve their hold on members.

2B — Pensions and Benefits

Unions are not the only ones why benefit from jacking up their members pensions and benefits.  They just tend to be relatively good at it, especially in the public employee context.  While requiring “full funding” of pensions and other benefits to the rest of people’s lives, as conservatives often call for, may be unnecessarily extreme — it’s what’s killing our postal system, for example — it is clear that trading provision of higher benefits to unions (mostly later) for political support (delivered now) may ultimately lead to municipal bankruptcies — and the canceling or great diminution of public safety and other public sector pensions et al. (This is one of the arguments motivating Anaheim’s recall against it’s Mayor Harry Sidhu — coming soon to a location near you (if you live in Anaheim)! — who along with former Mayor Curt Pringle would be among the best situated to buy, broker, or otherwise benefit from the sale of the city’s assets in bankruptcy.

That said, for the most part unions (especially in the private sector) in this category do valuable work as they push for their members to receive a larger slice of the pie, and so long as they’re not selling the public interest down the river they’re deserving of support.  Speaking of which….

3. Industry-Captive Movements

In Japan, unions have historically been set up and operated by their employers.  In China, what passes for unions are set up by the Communist Party.  The deficiencies should be obvious.  What may be less clear is that the U.S. has its own version of “captive unions” — I call them “Industry-Captive” — although these captives are willing, willing to help companies sell the public interest down the river.

This has been most clear in the examples of the United Auto Workers — which has at times worked to bring the Democratic Party along to their owners’ views on subsidies to the auto industry and the elimination of environmental regulations such as CAFE (fuel economy) standards — and the Communication Workers of America, which has been a strong voice against “Net Neutrality,” a law that keeps this blog, Voice of OC, and other alternatives to major communications companies going.

The Teamsters, which represent groups including truckers, are not as tightly tied to employers, but have similar interests when it comes to regulations including CAFE standards, but also (notoriously) to weight limitations on trucks and working condition standards on how much sleep drivers require.  Note that, unlike most working condition standards, both of these benefit others — people who breathe air and don’t want to get hit by trucks — more than the workers themselves.

(As an aside, the solution to most of our social problems with trucks could be solved by having more people driving smaller trucks.  Smaller trucks would not break up the roadways (and strain the bridges, when driven their illegally) as much ; they could more easily meet CAFE standards, they would offer more flexibility in deliveries, and they would create more unionized workers.)

Regarding educational unions: my teaching career ended too early for me to join either a union of either graduate students or faculty.  Some might argue with me, but I don’t consider educational  to be “captive” — they argue for more money for teachers and associated workers because they believe in it, which is why they have these careers — and they would better be classified in groups 1 or 2.  But I know that the point is arguable.)

Police, fire, and public health unions do deal with individual employers — the states, counties, or cities in which they operate — but they don’t have the sort of relationships with their “industry” that other unions do.  This derives primarily from their political power: a police or fire endorsement is among the things that candidates most desire.  As police use their power largely to maintain their qualified immunity and other impediments to accountability and transparency, I see them as more in group 2 than this group — but I know that this point is also arguable.

CAFE standards — without which global warming would be even worse that what we saw this weekend — and Net Neutrality (without which criticism unacceptable to major media corporations would be throttled) are obvious benefits to the public at large.  Opposing these sorts of efforts gets called “anti-union” by people cynically hiding behind to skirts of the good that unions do to justify the sometimes bad.  It’s not “anti-union.”  To the extent that it eliminates one reason that people hate unions, it’s even pro-union.

4. Project-Funded Movements

Project-funded unions — the best example of which is the Building Trades family — don’t have a sole employer in mind.  What they want is to drum up work for their members.  They either drum up business or they don’t get paid.  their members don’t get an employer pension — although they may participate in multi-employer pension programs under organizations like this, which, like health insurance, helps to tie them to their union.  They get paid up front, so they don’t have to worry about municipal bankruptcies.

To channel Bernie Sanders for a moment, I am going to say something shocking and controversial: how many buildings we build should be a function of the legitimate (not jacked-up) demand for those buildings, and not of the needs of those who supply products and labor to build them.

And now I will channel Barack Obama” I am not against all projects; I am against dumb projects.  Projects that require public subsidies for primarily private purposes are presumptively dumb — especially when they could had had at least a public ownership stake.  The Building Trades don’t give a damn; they just want to be fed.  What’s amazing about the Trades is not just that they have much of the Democratic Party wrapped around their finger; it’s that they make no cost-benefit analysis for the value of jobs.  They wanted to keep San Onofre — the detriments of which should now be unquestionable — open because it preserved some jobs.  They wanted to build the streetcar and high speed rail — when it was clear that the former wouldn’t pencil out and that the latter wouldn’t even fit into the boondoggle of an ARTIC station — because jobs.  They wanted the toll lane on the 405, because jawwbs.  They want to build the ruinous environmentally and economically destructive Poseidon facility — enough so to terrorize poor Vince Sarmiento into losing endorsements for Santa Ana Mayor rather than crossing them — because jawwwwwwbs.  Most of those jobs are temporary, but that’s fine with them.  The permanent ones are minimal.  I’ve never penciled it out, but I suspect that it would be cheaper to pay them not to build them — and perhaps send them out to work on tasks needed by poor and middle-class residents and non-profit corporations until a real project organically appears — and not build wasteful and unnecessary projects.

(Why do they have such power over the OC Labor Federation, you may wonder?  The answer is bizarre but true.  The Labor fed has had a lot of in-person meetings, especially over internal elections and external endorsements.  In other unions, people work during the hours of the meetings; it’s hard to get them to show up.  In the trades — someone is always available: semi-retired but still a member, on disability leave, not currently on a project, in a project that is waiting for some other trade to finish work before they can start.  They win the votes.)

To the extent that projects-funded unions are still involved in some of the good activities described up at the top, I support them.  (That they run apprentice programs to teach people trades is good — presuming that they’re run well — but that good doesn’t outweigh the bad.)

Doug Mangione of IBEW (electrical workers) is one of the most persuasive speakers I’ve seen in OC.  I came to the Labor Fed for endorsements twice, as I recall, and each time I heard him give the same speech (which I’ve also seen him give elsewhere) about how the political model that he liked was the one used by FDR during he New Deal, in which he handed out money to people for make-work jobs (my term, not his) to boost the economy.  The first time I may have stayed quiet; the second time, when I was running for DA against Tony Rackauckas, I believe that I said that it seemed self-serving to me.  (An understatement.)

But, I said, I think we have some common ground.  For one thing, I was 100% for labor protections (including fending off OC’s aggressive union-busting and unionization-election fighting firms) and would prioritize them, as Rackauckas would not.  (I don’t recall getting any sort of response to that.)  Second, I was all for increased public spending on repairing infrastructure — leaking underground pipes, damaged roads and bridges and dams — that we desperately needed.

That got a response.  Someone else — I think it may have been Building Trades honcho Jim Adams, before Ernesto Medrano took over — barked out something like:  “And what the hell are the carpenters supposed to do?  They need something where they can work on floors!”

And that, I’d argue, is an example of why so many people hold unions in low regard, despite all of the contributions listed in that lovely woodcut poster, mostly made 100 or 75 or 50 years ago.  Current unions, at least the ones in this category, aren’t doing the likes of that.  They’re largely just using they clout to clobber politicians into getting the goods that they want.

I don’t see that as anti-Labor.  For the people who will be hurt by a bankrupted Anaheim — especially one where a judge might force it to sell off its utility, damaging the city’s residents — it’s protecting their pensions, which is pro-Labor.  And anytime you get your way by buying off politicians like Sidhu and Murray — and others whom we’ll discuss as Election coverage begins — you shouldn’t claim that people should like and respect you for what your brave and wonderful forebears in the labor union did.  Unless you live up to their examples, trotting them out to justify your ripping off the public only tarnishes their reputation and your own honor.

This is your belated Holiday Weekend Open Thread.  Be good, even if not Best.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 (in violation of Roberts Rules) when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Expelled from DPOC in October 2018 (in violation of Roberts Rules) for having endorsed Spitzer over Rackauckas -- which needed to be done. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level, nor do they now. One of his daughters co-owns a business offering campaign treasurer services to Democratic candidates and the odd independent. He is very proud of her. He doesn't directly profit from her work and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he truly hated.) He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)