Unions, some thoughts

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”.

Thanks.

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.

-wolfe

3 Responses to “Unions, some thoughts”

  1. Sam Adams says:

    Dang, I’m really slow at writing. This exactly why I never considered writing a blog. Sorry for the delay, but here it is.

    Quoth wolfe: “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.”

    wolfe, I can’t say I disagree with much you wrote, especially your summation. I found it honest and even-handed and a good analysis of the subject. I especially agree with you on modern “progressives”, who I think betray the very people they claim to advocate and are exactly the reason I dislike it when people call me a liberal.

    One of the things I find interesting about this issue is that there is no black and white — it’s so complex, I doubt there will ever be any satisfactory resolution.

    And I still believe unionization is necessary and is a right of labor, but one that has been squandered. There are many reasons this is, but the fact remains that unions today tend to do more harm than good, especially the ones that exert influence on public policy and finance. I think I can say it’s not a generalization that their priorities are strictly self-interested and usually to the detriment of the public. (Mind you, I live in California and I’m speaking of the most prominent unions here.)

    Probably the two worst things that happened to many unions were their takeover by organized crime and their alignment with Communism in the 1920s. The damage cause by the first is obvious, but the damage caused to unions by Communism is much more subtle.

    Unions have always been on the side of labor, and ostensibly so have the Communists. (I say ostensibly because I don’t trust those damn Commies – who knows what they’re up to!) The stated goal of Communism has always been the abolition of personal property, the establishment of the socialist state, and the nationalization of business and resources, which I guess in some never-land results in an egalitarian society, fair and equitable redistribution of wealth, and a worker’s paradise where no one wants and no one is oppressed. (Whoops, sarcasm. Sorry — I’ll rein it in.)

    (Well, one more comment on that. I tend to be socialist, but not a “crazed socialist”. I think some natural resources need to be shared and when appropriate nationalized, and I the need for a better and more equitable redistribution of wealth is certainly in order. Is this socialism or better government regulation? I don’t know.)

    Advocating for the rights of labor, for the worker, for the common man, and for minorities, especially black workers, who were defended mightily by the Communist Party, was exactly what was needed in labor relations post WWI, but it seems by aligning with the Communists, unions appeared to antagonize business when it wasn’t necessary and perhaps did more harm than good.

    And it is true: unions have been anti-technology, although sometimes there are reasons for it. However, this could often be tempered by good faith negotiation on the part of management, which rarely occurs — hence the adversarial entrenchment that often does little for either side.

    A good example of this is the Oakland dock workers strike in 2003. One of the issues of the strike was modernization, which would have increased throughput considerably, but at the expense of union jobs. One of the demands the dock workers union wanted was control over the new jobs that would be created with the introduction of new machinery and systems to compensate for the loss of current jobs.

    (Anyone interested can look up the debacle the ensued, especially when anti-war protesters aligned themselves with the dockworkers in sympathy. The police made an unprovoked assault on both the strikers and the protesters, even though both groups were peacefully assembled and did nothing in any way to antagonize the police. The people were shot with rubber bullets, wooden dowels, bean bags, and pepper spray, and many were arrested after they were assaulted for defending themselves and objecting to the brutality. This happened while former California governor Jerry Brown was mayor of Oakland. Many in Oakland have never forgotten his lack of condemnation of this attack and the fact he did little to censure the assailants.)

    Says wolfe: “look at the initial anti-Chinese and anti-Black stances of unions.”

    It would surprise many people today to know how racist California (where I come from) was in the 19th century. Benjamin Wilson, the second mayor of Los Angeles, was from Tennessee and during the Civil War sided squarely with the Confederacy but preferred no slaves in Southern California. Having considerable influence at the time, this was achievable. After the war, there was a sufficient labor pool which made the importation of black labor unnecessary and still unwelcome – especially by the labor unions.

    California labor unions in the middle and late 1800s responded to the competition they perceived from Chinese immigrants who were willing to work harder and for less pay than white laborers – which was actually quite true. The Chinese would most likely have cooperated with the labor unions, and they all would have been stronger for it, but California law was entrenched with anti-Chinese racism, and because none of them were citizens and were not allowed under any circumstances to become citizens, and had no legal rights, even to bear witness in court, any cooperation was impossible. The unions were a powerful force that colluded with large businesses, law enforcement, local merchants, and local anti-Chinese sentiment, helped bring about the forced deportation of thousands of Chinese, often violently.

    And on the matter of violence: what you said about violence on the part of the owners is all exactly correct. In fact it’s rather understated, but I think you made your point and didn’t want to drag it out. But for those not aware of violence committed by management on their labor force, do a quick search on these:

    – Matewan
    – The Haymarket affair
    – The Carnegie steel strike
    – The Wheatland Hop riot
    – The Pullman strike riot
    – The St. Louis Strikebreaker Riot
    – The Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934
    – The Coeur d’Alene miner’s strike

    As wolfe correctly points out, management committed abuses that by their own actions cause the formation of unions. Have union leaders used their power and influence responsibly and on behalf of their members? Well, obviously not.

    So let me rant for a bit on the failure of so-called progressives.

    I spent an evening recently trying to get a handle on the definitions of “left” and “right”, “liberal” and “conservative” and came up empty handed. The terms have at best subjective meaning and seem to have a function merely defining one’s own group as being not the opposing group. (wolfe, if you ever want to write about this, I will dissuade you. I think it’s a semantic well you can fall into and never come out.)
    And these days, I think “progressive” is a similarly nebulous term used mainly to divide “us” against “them”.

    A lot of people voted for Obama because they perceived him as “progressive”, although his actions for the last six months have shown his administration to be a continuation of the previous one. He is neither a liberal nor a progressive, not in any sense most people even casually define the terms.

    (Oops, too much politics. Sorry … let’s leave that alone for now.)

    The so-called progressive movement has let down real progressives by various groups’ leaders collusion with the status quo for the advancement of their own interests and not those of the people they claim to represent. This includes groups representing political interests, labor interests, and civil rights.

    A particular example is the Pacifica Foundation. I have seen its message of free speech representing the left diluted since I started listening in 1982. The local Pacifica station in Los Angeles is having a semi-annual fund raiser and I have no intention of giving them money. There are some programs I like and approve of, but for the most part, they give the drive-time and prime time slots to people who don’t represent my interests as a real progressive and put more progressive people in graveyard slots.

    Of course, Pacifica has had its problems for years. I was living in Berkeley during the KPFA station shutdown. Anyone not familiar with it should look it up. It was really a black and white issue: The station managers were absolutely wrong, and people (the ones who give them money and pay for the broadcasting) were absolutely right. So much for “the voice of the people”.

    One thing that really irritates me about the progressive left: If one disagrees with them on an issue, such as gun control (I’m against it), support of the current Democratic president (I’m not and never was), or critical of unions (as I am), one finds oneself excluded from the dialog. Not what I call free speech. Progressives? Bah. Hypocritical bastards.

    Cripes, this has really run long, and I haven’t said even half of what I wanted to say. Great topic. Really resonated with me.

  2. wolfe says:

    Great response Sam. Very glad it resonated with you. Let me make a few comments. Hopefully a few. (Good timing that you made it today and I made it back to the blog tonight. I’ve been doing a lot of physio during the week and especially on the weekends when I don’t have to ‘work’ and it’s been wiping me out, not just physically but mentally. But tonight I’m sitting down, cane to one side — I’m off crutches woo hoo! — and relaxing.).

    I remain an entrepreneur and an ardent capitalist. I serve on a number of advisory boards, though I am terminating my activities with small public tech firms in the US, because I think our regulatory system is a disaster for innovation, and something designed to protect bureaucrats and big business. (more on that if you wish).

    So yeah, I think socialists are generally wrong, though I do have various ideas about “fairness” that stem from my Christian views. A number of those ideas might be quite “socialist”. So be it.

    Let me address some specific comments now:

    “I think some natural resources need to be shared and when appropriate nationalized”
    Shared see below, nationalized almost never. Check out the disaster of Canada’s National Energy Plan or the British experience in Nationalizing critical industries and resources. Disasters.

    My view is that for “sharing” we let capitalism — appropriately constrained and regulated (there’s the rub) — roll and tax appropriately giving fiscal transfers on some quasi-logical basis. (“appropriate” taxation is also a bit tricky…).

    Free market capitalism is efficient in a way the commies can only dream of. (See for example this classic essay from Milton Friedman in video form:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6vjrzUplWU )

    better and more equitable redistribution of wealth is certainly in order

    There are two lacunae in your thinking here, Sam. First, you do seem to think that more equitable = better. I’m not convinced that’s so. For example, a poor but honest third-world country will have a very equitable standard of living. A kleptocratic first-world nation will have a far less equitable standard of living, but overall better for all concerned, even the poorest of the poor. An semi-honest more-or-less-capitalistic first-world nation (arguably say Canada) will still have a considerable variance in standard of living, but even the poorest Canadian is better off than the all but the very richest examples of the first two nations.

    The second hole stems from this:

    Is this socialism or better government regulation? I don’t know.)

    Why is it that we always talk about “more” and “better” regulation?

    I don’t deny that regulation is needed, but some of it (e.g. Sarbannes Oxley) is manifestly destructive, and serves only to create barriers to competition and cement the access of big business to powerful capital markets.

    Surely no good socialist would approve of that, and yet the left seems content to deploy a whole raft of regulations that are extraordinarily destructive of small businesses, yet pose no material barriers to the largest of corporations.

    I say let’s sweep aside most regulations. Let the Congress spend two years searching every regulation and terminating every regulation that can’t garner at least 70% support. Let’s also, to the greatest degree possible where voluntary actions are required, make regulatory compliance in the case of SOME laws voluntary. e.g., “This company has chosen not to comply with Congressional 1987 Act on reporting standards. While our statements are audited, there is no audit of compliance with the Federal Disabilities Act or…” etc.

    I’m most vehemently opposed to regulation (as you might now have garnered) that is unnecessary and destructive. I think it’s worse than taxation, since regulation tends to destroy smaller businesses more effectively, and (!!) help create monopolies or at least duopolies more effectively.

    Unnecessary regulation destroys wealth fast. Taxation diminishes wealth and moves it.

    Unions have always been on the side of labor, and ostensibly so have the Communists. (I say ostensibly because I don’t trust those damn Commies – who knows what they’re up to!) The stated goal of Communism has always been the abolition of personal property, the establishment of the socialist state, and the nationalization of business and resources, which I guess in some never-land results in an egalitarian society, fair and equitable redistribution of wealth, and a worker’s paradise where no one wants and no one is oppressed.

    Well put. Note the origins of Lech Walesa and his role in the downfall of the Iron Curtain. (trade unionist). Communism is (putting my professorial cap on) a lovely pipe-dream. Much like Anarcho-Capitalism. The problem is neither work well with human beings; in fact Communism is a horrific disaster. When I was 20 I thought we should therefore try anarcho-capitalism, now I suspect that would be almost as bad as Communism.

    And I still believe unionization is necessary and is a right of labor,

    I concur. (I know, I know, sorry to my 20-year-old-self, but I do. To hard core conservatives reading this, carefully studying the 1870-1930’s period in US society convinced me of this. You could start with Conrad Black’s book on FDR).

    but one that has been squandered.

    What an interesting view. I suggest it’s the view of an idealist, and I admire you all the more for it.

    There are many reasons this is, but the fact remains that unions today tend to do more harm than good,

    Are unions in a conspiracy with Wall Street? (KIDDING).

    [re:Oakland dockworker’s strike]The police made an unprovoked assault on both the strikers and the protesters

    I’m hesitant to accept this, going to try and read up on it more. I don’t know enough to say you are wrong. And you could be right. Just noting a point of possible disagreement.

    Your commentary on the dark bonds relating to anti-Chinese sentiment between [California] unions, [most] businesses, the local populace, government, et al is quite correct.

    Now this makes my head hurt…

    It was really a black and white issue: The station managers were absolutely wrong, and people (the ones who give them money and pay for the broadcasting) were absolutely right. So much for “the voice of the people”.

    My leg is in pain and I’m about to go all House if I don’t take some stiff painkillers or go to bed… so I’ll keep it short.

    I’m a capitalist on this. I get scared when I hear someone appealing to “the voice of the people”. The managers aren’t right, the “people” aren’t right. The shareholders of the radio station determine what’s broadcast. Don’t like it? Buy a radio station, or better yet rent time. Too broke? Broadcast on the internet. If your message is that right, that compelling, then it’ll get out. Fantastic. Thank you Al Gore for your great invention.

    He [Obama] is neither a liberal nor a progressive

    I define him as far left. Sadly. I believed much of what he said. I was wrong.

    one finds oneself excluded from the dialog. Not what I call free speech

    Here we definitely see eye-to-eye. Freedom of speech and freedom of thought are paramount, and movements should have a big tent. The conservative push to federalize all sorts of things and pump out constitutional amendments against them is contemptible. (e.g. Flag burning and gay marriage.).

    (I’m against both, but bans on them have no part in our Constitution.)

    I spent an evening recently trying to get a handle on the definitions of “left” and “right”, “liberal” and “conservative” and … (wolfe, if you ever want to write about this, I will dissuade you. I think it’s a semantic well you can fall into and never come out.)

    I’m going to give it a whirl. I’ll approach it as an engineer would.

    -wolfe

  3. wolfe says:

    Oh meant to write about this above, didn’t, so I’ll give it even more prominence. Your summary is — by necessity — cursory. But I’m impressed by the honesty of your choices. Allow me to comment.

    on the matter of violence: what you said about violence on the part of the owners is all exactly correct. In fact it’s rather understated, but I think you made your point and didn’t want to drag it out

    Well put. Yes, I’m probably a little biased, (you are kind enough not to suggest this) and also I note the general belief in society today that “business bad” but “unions ok”, so play to that a bit. I think you’d agree though my bias does not materially impact my presentation of the facts.

    Interestingly, you choose to note a series of incidents in which (ion many cases, generally) the Army or National Guard or local militia intervened on behalf of the owners, with some exceptions as noted below.

    – Matewan
    – The Haymarket affair
    – The Carnegie steel strike
    – The Wheatland Hop riot
    – The Pullman strike riot
    – The St. Louis Strikebreaker Riot
    – The Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934
    – The Coeur d’Alene miner’s strike

    Matewan was not such an example (of gov’t troops intervening). And I don’t interpret Matewan the same way (I think) you do. I tend to the (conventional?) view that the union instigated (deadly) violence, though I agree the affair is muddy. Moreover it is my perception that management broke the law in their evictions.

    Wheatland Hop, ditto. When you shoot the DA, and a young child, I’m not sure your hands are clean. I agree it’s a mess. And government troops did intervene then almost immediately). And local police had — NB – my commentary on who intervenes shouldn’t be taken as disparaging your (Sam’s) examples. I simply focus on events that had state and national interventions.

    St. Louis Strikebreaker — you’re a clever, and very honest man. Yeah, I view that as a deeply racist union attack on blacks who’d been locked out
    of unionized jobs. And what a disaster it was. How vicious, though largely union-backed I’d argue, though government troops (under Wilson, who was happily screening KKK films like “Birth of a Nation”) allegedly cheerfully joined in killing blacks for a bit.

    Carnegie, Coeur d’Alene (repeatedly), Pullman, yes, these appear to be abuses of power on the part of management.

    Minneapolis ’34, I admit I had never heard of. I looked into it. My tentative view is that police (acting on behalf of management) initiated deadly violence — though one could argue they had no other tools. Be that as it may, it was decidedly distinct from Wheatland Hop where at least one worked fired on the police and DA.

    A very appropriate (and challenging) choice for you to make.

    As you would no doubt note, it strengthened all sorts of bad actors — communists, trotskyites etc.

    And this comes to the heart of my (conservative?) argument in favor of FDR:

    There were a lot of crazy people out there in the 1930’s. America came nearer dictatorship of the left (or possibly right) than I think we knew. If we accept this premise then we must accept the premise that FDR saved us from that. (Granted, most on the right won’t accept this premise; I find it disturbingly persuasive, despite my utter contempt for the constitutionality of much of what FDR did, and the tendency of his administration to be riddled with [genuine] communists.

    So much for no politics.

    If I have incorrectly interpreted any of the events above, please let me know. I admit I am no expert on American labour history. My specialization is in an entirely different area.

    I’ve simply provided my sincere (and slightly biased) judgement.

    Best,
    -wolfe

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