Monday, October 29, 2007

Our Daily Bread

My pal Saj over on Fleetbuzz has a piece this day written by a guest commentator that I thought it worth responding to.

Here it is.

I’ve chosen to respond in detail to the previous day’s commentary because I may be one of the few people who inhabit this little corner of the universe who actually was a member of an aerospace labor union and worked in an airplane factory. Today, I make my living with my mouth, but my union card is under the glass with my law license to remind me where I came from.

One thing I've always wondered about is why people always seem to be in favor of every kind of combination for industrialists but are hell on wheels when it comes down to labor's right to organize and bargain collectively for the mutual benefit of the members.

The received wisdom of the age is that capital is permitted to beat the snot out of working folks, pick their pockets and discard them like a used diaper tossed out the window of a Chrysler Cordoba screaming down the interstate, but G-d help them if they are so impertinent as to believe that what’s good for the company is equally good for the membership.

That’s heresy, to be expunged with hot pokers, forced recantations, and burnings at the stake. Equally, to believe that NAFTA and WTO-style ‘free trade’ may not be fair to a lot of people who aren’t capitalists is the very legerdemain to be expunged with fire and sword. The real puzzler of the age is how this new revealed religion of unregulated cash was swallowed by a gullible populace that should know better. I mean, it wasn’t all that long ago in this country that the slaves up in the big house thought they were a whole lot better than the field hands when in truth, they were all the same when Massa lost big at the card table or in the markets or backed the wrong horse on Sunday. They were disposable diapers in the grand scheme of things.

It wasn’t always this way. Time was when a lot of folks accepted the idea that labor was coequal with capital and the combination of the two in an equal relationship was as American as apple pie. In other places, lest we forget, organized labor was at the forefront of sweeping political change in places like the Gdansk Shipyard and the Pullman shops that benefited everyone, not least of all those who now think it unfashionable to admit that the willingness of working stiffs in labor unions to risk their lives had anything to do with their present ability to benefit from the increase of their own labor.

Although I understand the ascendancy of capital in our day, what I don’t get is why people think it is the natural order of things ordained by G-d, rather than what it is, which is an exercise in raw power.

I suspect that it is because folks may not have much experience as a person who, like the Mexicans down at the corner in the morning looking for pickup work, has to ‘work for food’ like Adam who was cursed by Yahweh thusly:

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground;for out of it you have been taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.

Look at it this way. All that organized labor has is the ability to withhold its work.

When one looks backward in time a fellow named Adam Smith came up with the notion that labor added value to what were otherwise assets of no value. A man plants a garden on the commons or grazes cattle, and he therefore owns the crop he tends or the increase from the critters he cares for. A man fixes a toaster and gets paid for his knowledge and his labor.

If we look back to the 1890s in the US we see some parallels to our day. Labor had no right to organize and few friends in the government or at the courts. Senator John Sherman, speaking in Congress in the debates that resulted in the antitrust bill that bears his name said that the only fundamental right that a man has is to labor for his own sustenance. If you deprive him of that, you take away all other rights.

In a similar vein, Norman Borlaug, the Nobel prize winning agronomist has said, if you seek peace, work for justice, but while you work for justice, plant the fields and raise more food because without food there will be no peace.

Similarly, treatment of the people who labor as a fungible and ultimately disposable resource is a dangerous and ultimately suicidal construct that will ultimately bring chaos.

I’m reminded of a story. A farmer had a draft horse that did his plowing and harrowing faithfully in season and without. However, the horse mostly stayed in the barn during the winter and had to be fed. The farmer figured that the solution to his problem lay in training the horse to work without eating. It worked pretty well. Just about the time that the horse was starting to get used to the idea he unaccountably died.

So, let’s have done with talk of ‘today’s global economy’, ‘sharecropper models’ and ill defined threats of how much worse things can get if we don’t A, B or C. The fact is, nobody really knows what’s going to happen if we do, and suggesting that capital is going to feel any obligation to guarantee anything to a workforce that puts down the only tool it has-the ability to withhold labor on a large scale-is to take it as a revealed article of the new religion that the tiger will change his stripes or the leopard her spots.


At 2:55 PM, Blogger Aurora said...

Did you miss my point? The old confrontational model ain't working anymore. Or at least not in the aerospace industry (or airline, or auto, or textiles, etc.) I, too, worked in union shops in my early days. Sadly, those industries in my home--glass, steel, auto--have gone to foreign shores and the workers received the economic equivalent of the death penalty.

I took pains to stipulate that in exchange for the long term contract, the unions at Boeing would get job security. I agree that the strike is the only weapon of consequence for labor.

Boeing's total unionized labor is nowhere near what it was when you worked in the industry. The next downturn in the business cycle will see more "down-sizing" and the next new aircraft project will see more "out sourcing" unless something gives.

Why not give a long term contract a try? The risk will be shared by both sides.

At 3:25 PM, Blogger Robert Luedeman, attorney at law said...

I didn't miss your point at all. What you're arguing is a good idea, but the takehome for management will be as it has always been that labor has been defeated and ought to tuck its tail between its legs and shut the fuck up.
Management will not work with labor because they're constitutionally unable to do so.


Post a Comment

<< Home