Chapter Nine — The Open-Source Labor Board
[This is the fourteenth installment in my serialization of my book-in-progress, tentatively titled Desktop Regulatory State] , taken from Chapter Nine. Because I have split some chapters into multiple new ones since the previously posted excerpts, there is a loss of continuity in numbering. The current Table of Contents with active links can be found here.]
For some eighty years, since the New Deal labor accord, the protection of worker rights has centered on the use of large, hierarchical institutions (bureaucratic unions run by the labor establishment, labor boards, OSHA, etc.) to regulate other large, hierarchical institutions (corporations) and limit their power.
The problem, as in all the other examples of “countervailing power” examined in this book, was that the relationship between institutions was at least as much collusive as it was countervailing. Indeed the origins of the New Deal labor pact, in the Wagner Act, lie in corporate management’s need for stable control of the production process.
The domesticated industrial unions of the CIO, under Wagner, to a large extent continued the same functions performed by company unions under the American Plan. Corporate management enlisted the labor bureaucracy as a junior member of the ruling class, in order to provide social stability in the workplace.
The New Deal business coalition centered on large, capital-intensive, mass-production industry. For such industries, labor costs were a comparatively modest part of total unit costs. And given the long planning horizons of the “technostructure” (as described by John Kenneth Galbraith) and the vulnerability to output disruptions in industries where idle capacity was an enormous source of cost, it was in the interest of such companies to trade productivity-based wage increases, a grievance process and seniority-based job security in return for an end to wildcat strikes, slowdowns, walkouts and sitdowns. The Wagner regime was no doubt undertaken in response to pressure from such labor action, and required concessions from management they’d have preferred to do without in an ideal world. And labor definitely got something in return. But the single most important function of the New Deal labor accord, from the standpoint of American capitalism, was to enlist the union leadership into enforcing contracts against wildcat strikes and other disruptions by its own rank-and-file. The central principle of the labor pact was “let management manage.”
Or as Erik Forman put it, such “progressive” legislation was intended to prevent
obstructions to the free flow of commerce” by removing class struggle from the shop floors and streets and confining it to offices and courtrooms. Under the government-run procedure, the bare-knuckled confrontations that had previously forced bosses to negotiate would be replaced by workplace-based elections for union recognition supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Union organizing was to become a “gentleman’s game.”
As I said, the advantages of job security and middle class wages for workers were real. Management did have to trade something for stability and a free hand. But that’s beside the point, because corporate America has decided these past thirty years or so that the New Deal labor accord no longer suits its needs. Union-busting is the order of the day, private sector union membership has shrunk to record lows, and unionized industries are extorting harsh concessions from surviving unions lest they close the remaining plants and shift production overseas.
The mid-20th century labor accord, under both the American New Deal and Western European social democracy, was also based on what Guy Standing calls “labourism.” Unlike earlier socialist and anarchist models that looked forward to increasing leisure and autonomy and a shrinkage of both the cash nexus and the wage system, social democracy and industrial unionism presupposed universal full-time employment at wage labor as the norm. It aimed at “full employment” with good wages, benefits and job security, with the understanding that management would be allowed to manage and labor would stay out of matters regarded as “management prerogatives” in return for these things. The “full employment” agenda meant
all men in full-time jobs. Besides being sexist, this neglected all forms of work that were not labour (including reproductive work in the home, caring for others, work in the community, and other self-chosen activities). It also erased a vision of freedom from labour that had figured powerfully in radical thinking in previous ages.
But since the mid-20th century, and especially in the past two decades, the conventional full-time wage employment model has become increasingly irrelevant. The size of the full time wage labor force has steadily shrunk as a portion of the total economy; both the permanently unemployed and the precariat (the underemployed, part-time workers, temporary workers, and guest workers) have grown as a share of the economy. For these workers the old model of a workplace-based social safety net does not exist, and it has been radically scaled back even for remaining full-time workers. Further, the precariat for the most part does not identify with the workplace or wage employment as their parents and grandparents, and often have value systems more in common with earlier socialists who who saw their economic identity in terms of social or guild relations outside the workplace.
Put bluntly, the proletariat’s representatives demand decent labour, lots of it; the precariat wishes to escape from labour, materially and psychologically, because its labour is instrumental, not self-defining. Many in the precariat do not even aspire to secure labour. They saw their parents trapped in long-term jobs, too frightened to leave, partly because they would have lost modest enterprise benefits that depended on ‘years of service’. But in any event, those jobs are no longer on offer to the precariat. Twentieth-century spheres of labour protection—labour law, labour regulations, collective bargaining, labourist social security—were constructed around the image of the firm, fixed workplaces, and fixed working days and work-weeks that apply only to a minority in today’s tertiary online society. While proletarian consciousness is linked to long-term security in a firm, mine, factory or office, the precariat’s consciousness is linked to a search for security outside the workplace.
The precariat is not a ‘proto-proletariat’, that is, becoming like the proletariat. But the centralization of unstable labour to global capitalism is also why it is not an underclass, as some would have it. According to Marx, the proletariat wanted to abolish itself. The same could be said of the precariat. But the proletariat wanted thereby to universalize stable labour. And whereas it had a material interest in economic growth and the fiction of full employment, the precariat has an interest in recapturing a progressive vision of ‘freedom of labour’, so establishing a meaningful right to work.
All this suggests we need a new model for labor relations.