Union empowers workers to fight back and change society


from the New Unionist, November 2002

Union empowers workers to fight back and change society

The law of supply and demand: When demand is high relative to supply, the price of the commodity rises. When supply is high relative to demand, the price falls.

It works for any kind of commodity, anything that's bought and sold in an unregulated `free market. Cars, homes, computers, works of art, stocks, bonds, hogs and toothbrushes.

And you.

More specifically, your labor power: your energy, your skills, your intelligence, all of which can be used to produce the cars, homes, computers and all the other goods and services we consume. The greater the supply of your skills in the labor market relative to the demand for them, the lower the price -- the lower your wage or salary will be.

When consumers go shopping one big consideration about where they shop and what they buy is price. You want to pay as little as possible for what you're looking for.

Employers are consumers too. They want to pay as little as possible for the raw materials, energy, machines and other `means of production' they must buy to produce their product.

But they also have to buy a certain amount of labor to produce their product. And they naturally want to pay as little as possible for that commodity as well.

Employers understand the law of supply and demand. The way to lower the price of labor is to increase its supply. Their major means of doing that today is `globalization.'

Modern communication and transportation technologies make it possible for American companies to set up operations anywhere in the world. This increases the supply of labor they can choose from because now it's not just American workers who constitute the available labor pool. Hundreds of millions of workers in Asia, South America, Europe and Africa are now part of a global workforce employers can consider when they go shopping for labor.

U.S. companies not only can leave this country to hire foreign workers, they can hire foreign workers who come here to live and work. Either way, the effect is to increase the supply of labor and so lower its price.

The law of supply and demand isn't like a natural law that works on its own, like the law of gravity for instance. Supply and demand is a social law that requires the action of people to make it operate.

Competition is the action that makes the law of supply and demand work. When the supply of a commodity exceeds demand, the sellers compete against each other to make the sale by cutting their price. Sowhen the supply of labor exceeds demand, workers compete for jobs by offering themselves at a lower wage.

Though competition is praised in our society because it supposedly brings out the best in us, as far as the labor market is concerned competition is destructive of workers' living and working conditions.

But competition is also destructive to business. To compete for sales companies must cut prices, which lowers their profit margin. If the price cutting continues profits are wiped out altogether, and some companies are forced out of business.

With now fewer sellers in the market competitive pressures ease. Prices and profits can rise for the remaining companies, which also take over the market share of the failed companies. All is calm until the next downward phase of the business cycle and a renewed wave of price cutting and business failures concentrates ownership into still fewer yet larger firms.

So what we have is a rising number of workers competing for jobs in a global labor market while the number of companies buying labor decreases. Also, the continual advances in technology allow those corporate giants to produce the same amount with less total labor. In the supply/demand equation, this means advantage to the buyers.

Unionism isn't a new idea by any means. It goes back to the earliest years of the industrial revolution.

As the first large factories and mills were being started in the 19th century their owners increased the labor supply by bringing in women and children to work. The results were devastating for the working class -- inhuman hours and conditions of work at starvation wages.

The capitalists defended their action as the proper thing to do because it was in accordance with the eternal law of supply and demand. To try to tinker with these natural economic forces was not only futile but immoral as well. And their well-paid apologists in the courageous free press, the truth-seeking halls of academe and the holy precincts of the churches all nodded their wise assent.

The propaganda barrage coming from all the `experts' on economics and morality did work to confuse and dampen the rebellion of the workers.

But all the propaganda in the world couldn't change the real conditions of their lives, which were growing worse all the time. The point came where their knowledge of their own condition overcame the false knowl- edge they were being taught, and they rebelled against the forces that oppressed them.

Workers gained the insight that they were powerless as individuals against the power of the employers. If one worker refused to work under oppressive conditions, there were many others so desperate for work that they would.

Their only hope therefore was to confront the em- ployers not as individuals needing employment, but as a collective body controlling the labor that the employers needed. By organizing to withhold their labor from the market they could alter the supply/demand relationship in their favor, and thereby force the employers to increase the price.

Of course, it wasn't quite that easy.

First, the workers couldn't withhold their labor indefinitely because they needed to sell it in order to live. If the employer could hold out longer than they could, they would be forced to give in.

Second, while the capitalists demanded that the government keep out of the economy and let the free market work unhindered for the benefit of all, when faced with an organized challenge from labor in the economic sphere they demanded government come in to `restore order.' And, having already been sufficiently bribed by the captains of industry, the judges and politicians responded with court injunctions, police and troops to crush strikes.

These obstacles caused those first unions that did survive to grow cautious. They concentrated on holding onto the gains they did make without risking them in new confrontations with the bosses.

The cautious approach worked best in the organization of skilled workers. As long as employers needed certain specialized skills that only some workers possessed, the unions had some leverage. And by deliberately limiting the number of workers learning the skills and keeping union membership restricted, they could continue to limit the supply of skilled labor and prop up its price.

These craft unions were thus `unions' for themselves only. For the working class as a whole they provoked division, not unity. Their strategy of craft exclusion meant policies of discrimination, especially against blacks and women. The great mass of unskilled workers in basic industry and the service industries were left to fend for themselves.

As the craft unions reflected the selfish look-out-for-number-one-and-screw-everyone-else spirit of capitalism, it was natural that they became capitalistic institutions themselves.

Their leaders became high-paid professional executives aping the corporate executives they bargained with, and protected their privileged positions through dictatorial control over their organizations. Their members were intimidated and kept in line by the threat of expulsion from the union, which would mean expulsion from their means of livelihood.

This was the sad state of the so-called labor movement in the United States when the country, and the world, entered the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The 1920s was the first `me' decade. The economy boomed, and the stock market went through the roof. Everyone, including the mechanic, the farmer, the bellhop and the shoe- shine boy, could get rich in the stock market.

Or so the story went.

Of course, most workers did not take part in the stock market frenzy. But the mood of the time was look out for yourself, buy things for yourself (on easy credit terms), enjoy yourself and don't think about all the social problems still bubbling beneath the glittering surface. In that individualistic social atmosphere, unionism languished.

It wasn't only the stock market bubble that burst in the 1930s. People's illusions also burst as unemployment, unlivable wages, brutal exploitation, malnutrition, homelessness and despair became realities for the majority of Americans.

Free of their illusions about the `freedom' of competitive individualism, American workers faced the crisis in their collective lives with a renewed spirit of solidarity and recognition of the need for collective action. Getting ahead no longer meant climbing over the backs of your fellows, but cooperating together for the mutual benefit of all.

Workers throughout the country wanted and demanded unions. When the backward-looking old craft unions of the AFL were unable and unwilling to respond, a new movement arose to organize the industrial workforce -- the CIO.

Though the capitalists fought unionization tooth and nail, often with murderous actions against the workers, the collapse of capitalism had so discredited and weakened them that in the end they were forced to give in and recognize the new unions.

The CIO brought unprecedented wages and benefits to workers. Economic organization also gave the workers political muscle, and the capitalists were forced to pay taxes to support social programs such as Social Security and unemployment insurance.

None of these gains -- many of which today are taken for granted -- could have been won without the power of unionism. Still, much more that could have been achieved was not.

The spirit of solidarity and cooperation that animated the working class, consolidated as a social power in unionism, had the potential of changing the economic and social system itself. Cooperation could have replaced competition as the ruling principle of economic and social life.

Capitalism's production for profit, in which labor is degraded to a commodity bought and sold like slaves on the auction block, could have been replaced by production for use. By becoming the rightful owners of the nation's industries workers would work for themselves, democratically controlling production and the use of their labor, owning directly the product of their labor.

But instead of this farsighted approach the leadership of the CIO chose to restrain the power of the workers in favor of cooperation and a new partnership with the employers. This was seemingly the safest way to maintain the gains already made and insure the future security of their organizations, rather than to risk them in further conflict with the economic and political forces of capitalism.

The partnership of the old craft unions with their employers consisted of securing employment and better wages for their own members in exchange for allowing -- even assisting -- the companies' unrestrained exploitation of the unorganized workers.

The partnership of the CIO unions with their employers would consist of giving the companies free rein in exploiting workers in third world countries, in exchange for living wages and benefits for workers back home. The unions also helped these now multinational corporations and the U.S. government fight the Cold War by working with the CIA to subvert `communist dominated' -- which meant any militant -- unions in those countries.

Just as the capitalist philosophy of advancing yourself at the expense of others had corrupted the craft unions, it corrupted and overturned the initial spirit of solidarity of the CIO.

The same kind of entrenched bureaucracy installed itself in the CIO and, seeing their basic philosophical identity, merged it with the AFL. Rather than the enemy of capitalism the unions became its most enthusiastic defender, and for their leaders profitable capitalist business enterprises themselves.

While the bureaucrats imagined they were safeguarding their organizations by becoming part of the system, they forgot that any partnership in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism is always a partnership of convenience. As soon as conditions permitted the corporations would free themselves from the constraints of unionism by stabbing their precious union partners in the back.

Those conditions came about through the continued development of technology.

New technologies eliminated more and more the need for specialized skills in industry. No longer dependent on these skilled workers employers could tell the craft unions to take a hike, or at least dictate terms favorable to capital if the unions stayed.

New technologies also made it feasible for U.S. manufacturing companies to flee the U.S. and join the multinational mining and agribusiness companies operating overseas. This gave employers the leverage to bring the industrial unions into line and convert them from the partners to the patsies of big business.

As the unions had previously granted ownership and control of the technology to business, they were responsible for handing business the weapon it used to reduce them to insignificance.

In the 1980s a rank-and-file rebellion erupted against the corporations' labor crushing industrial tactics, and against the sellouts being pushed down workers' throats by the union bosses. Militant strikes broke out in key industries, and it looked as that old fighting spirit of solidarity was back again.

But the rot had gone too deep in the American labor movement. Its own parochial self-centeredness and internal corruption had alienated the very workers it needed to be organizing if only to preserve itself.

The solidarity failed to spread to the vast ranks of unorganized workers, or even throughout the union memberships. The struck companies easily recruited scabs to break the strikes. When the government acted with court injunctions and National Guard troops in support of the companies, no public outcry was forthcoming.

The strikes were defeated, and the union movement left prostrate.

In the 1990s new AFL-CIO president John Sweeney promised changes.

But despite his militant posturing Sweeney's whole approach was to persuade employers to make the unions their partners once again. `Good' employers would see the wisdom of John's advice on their own. Only `bad' employers would have to be convinced by noisy protests by Sweeney's coalition of union members, environmentalists, antiglobalists and `friends-of-labor' Democrats.

The response of employers both `good' and `bad' has predictably been, `Who needs you?' So, despite some marginal organizing successes, union membership overall continues to decline.

The corporate scandals of the past year have dramatically turned public sentiment against the very corporations that were throughout the go-go `90s being looked upon as job-creating benefactors. The radical new mood creates radical new opportunities to challenge corporate power.

But don't expect any challenge to the system from the AFL-CIO. Sweeney's response to the scandals was a speech at a Wall Street protest demonstration where he said tough action must be taken in order to -- restore the people's trust in our employers!

Given the pathetic state of the labor movement today, results of a recent poll are striking. Half of those workers surveyed said they'd want to join a union at their workplace if they could, the highest percentage in decades.

When conditions begin to worsen workers turn instinctively to the idea of union. This is true even if the idea has been relentlessly attacked and dismissed by the corporate propagandists. It is true to resist the exploitation of capital, and then to overturn and end it altogether.

But we can't do it unless we have the knowledge and understanding needed to reach the goal. We must learn the mistakes of the past labor movement in order to avoid repeating them in the future labor movement.

First and foremost is the lesson that solidarity must be applied universally. As soon as any one group of workers thinks it can and should advance at the expense of other workers, it is agreeing to its own ultimate demise without knowing it.

In today's global economy `solidarity' means global solidarity. `Labor' is not just one of many interest groups in a supposedly `pluralistic' society. Labor means all those who sell their labor to an employer in order to live. Labor is a class -- the working class. And the labor movement is the class movement of all workers, everywhere, all the time.

While the labor movement in the course of its development will win many concessions large and small from capital, these improvements can't be seen as ends in themselves. As long as the economic system that keeps labor in the status of a commodity remains entrenched, all such improvements are transitory and will be lost once supply and demand conditions in the labor market turn unfavorable.

Labor must set its sights on the ultimate goal, its liberation from wage slavery.

And the genuine union movement must educate its members to the need of reaching this goal if they are to achieve the economic security and well-being they seek.