I think I’m going to try and take a personal vow that if I continue this blog, Fridays will have as little to do with modern politics as possible. CatA once had a comment that made me stop and think: she didn’t think my blog would be as much about politics as it wound up being. Good point. Neither did I.
And I will fail in this Friday post, but I promise another, right after to this, that is as non-political as I can get.
So I’ll start by writing about my complex (generally negative, but by no means entirely) views on unions, based on the activities of people ranging from Libyan-backed Arthur Scargill to the Western Federation of Mineworkers, ranging through likely terrorist acts such as the assassination of Governor Steunenberg, and the horrific Italian Hall disaster.
(Conventional wisdom is that Frank Steunenberg was assassinated courtesy of a union conspiracy, and that the Italian Hall disaster was orchestrated by management-backed thugs. If so, both would classify in my view as acts of terrorism).
In terms of politics? Gov. Steunenberg was a Democrat, sympathetic to the interests of labor, but adamant that the rule of law had to prevail. At least on that last, my kind of guy.
How does this color my view on unions?
Well, they can be insanely thuggish. Vicious. Terroristic.
And guess what?
They germinated in some pretty dark times.
To continue with the example of miners, company towns often controlled the entire local economy. Miners had no option but to shop at the company store. No option but to pay company rates for drill bits that they used up in the course of work. (yep, that’s right, treated in every negative way as both a contractor and an employee).
This was tough, hard work, and it generated tough, hard men.
Technological advancements started sweeping in, in the late 19th century. Embraced by companies to lower costs (and, yes, make the work easier), they resulted in lower-skilled miners being able to do the same job, put downward pressure on labor costs, and broke up mining teams. Instead of three, then two men on a team, one man could run a drill alone. This decreased safety (with no one else present in the event of an accident), but vastly increased productivity and efficiency.
So the unions and mineworkers were bad evil thugs?
Well, not exactly.
What were those words I used? “Insanely thuggish. Vicious. Terroristic”.
Yeah, that about described a lot of management.
Company guards had, under certain circumstances, liberty to kill workers.
To kill workers.
And they did.
Oh it was rare, but it happened.
It’s just me, but that seems like really bad labor relations.
And see above, for the travails (in every sense) of being a miner. I’ve not even attempted to describe the challenge, difficulty, and terror of the job itself; not least dying years prematurely from inhalation of toxic particles… because I can’t.
Like most of you, I’ve had an easy life. My toughest times have been in the mountains in NWFP and the like, and while bullets flew a couple of times, no one was shooting at me, that’s for sure! I’d say the summers I worked on a farm were tougher in many respects, though less scary.
Mining? I can’t imagine.
Mining in a company town, knowing you can be shot for dissenting or forming a union?
Look, I’m an ardent capitalist. Capitalism has been one of the greatest forces for overall social good in human history. We can debate that, sure. But keep in mind Communism managed to ratchet up something like 150m+ murdered, (counting Mao) and Fascism on the crude order of 27m murdered. Not very good records. The information and societal benefits provided by free-market pricing is staggering, of enormous benefit any way you slice it.
(Of course, an unkind person could ascribe 50m murders to Colonialism, arguably a capitalist construct. I’d say more mercantile and imperial, but he or she would have a point. For more information, see the works of R.J. Rummel)
But pure, robber baron capitalism is a bad thing. Sad but true. In that sense, I am a progressive conservative. (WTF is that?).
(Consider simply for example this. Evil-Bob runs a factory that discharges lots of waste into the local watershed. There are no laws against doing so, and a general environmental ignorance and apathy, so the free-market ascribes an arbitrarily low cost to his production. On the other hand, consider this: Saintly-Bob runs a clean, efficient nuclear power facility. Because of the activity of crazy environmentalists, the free-market drives up all his costs, massively. In neither case is the free market “correct” in a moral sense; it simply reflects the costs society collectively deems appropriate in a fashion that no bureaucrat could achieve. The fact that society is wrong in both cases is irrelevant).
Well, put me roughly in Theodore Roosevelt’s camp. Or Winston Churchill’s (who crossed, famously, from the Liberals to the Conservatives in the early 20th Century).
There is a role for government. Some regulation is good. Food. Drugs. Labor rights. We have a responsibility and a duty of care to one another that cannot be discharged simply through the free market or family relationships. Pace Baroness Thatcher, society does exist.
Do the crazed socialists take it way too far? You bet. Whoops I thought this wasn’t going to be political… oh well.
Back to unions. Unions can be a force for good. Or at least a force against what is not-so-good.
The New Deal was an abominable piece of socialism that probably helped save America from massive unrest. Hard to say for sure, and, yes, a perfect visionary capitalist President could have probably done better… but doing so against the voices of mobs would have been a challenge.
But here’s my fundamental observation on unions, and I’d be very interested in my friend Sam’s reaction.
I think, far from being “progressive” — assuming we can agree on some common-sense definition of the word — unions are fundamentally a reactionary force. They were founded as such, and they remain such.
Reactionary in being anti-technological advancement, reactionary in reacting to pressures and forces from management, and reactionary in a social sense — look at the initial anti-Chinese and anti-Black stances of unions.
Unions are courted by self-styled progressives, precisely because they are powerful. Not because they are progressive in any meaningful sense. And I’m starting to think that today’s progressives are anything but.