Organized Labor in America

I mentioned this before, but we’re hosting a League Roundtable on the questions facing organized labor in America.

The series was kicked off by Kevin Carson, who wrote about Taft-Hartley and other ways the government has legally restricted the ability of workers to organize.

That was followed up by Mark Thompson, who argued that market anarchy favors labor over management.

Erik Vanderhoff wrote about his own experience in a union.

And today Freddie deBoer laments the lack of pro-labor libertarians and argues that libertarians should be in favor of labor rights, and that a strong labor movement could in fact make government less necessary.

More to come.

56 replies
  1. 1
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    Thanks, Kain.

  2. 2

    Hmmm. Is the LoOG going full-on liberal?

  3. 3

    Because I’m afraid of teh edit button:

    inb4 Kain=slavery=fetus!

  4. 4
    Yutsano says:

    @arguingwithsignposts: Dammit. Are you TRYING to bring her out from under her rock? Jeez I never had you pegged for a masochist.

  5. 5

    @Yutsano: SWMNBN has been awful quiet lately, hasn’t she? I hope Cole pulled out the ban hammer. But I suspect there was an epic WoW campaign going on.

  6. 6
    Yutsano says:

    @arguingwithsignposts: She does tend to go in fits and starts. I suppose I should just enjoy the silence for now.

    Off to work for at least one more week. After that things get entertaining.

  7. 7
    jwb says:

    @arguingwithsignposts: You do know that you can still edit by opening edit in a new window or tab, right?

  8. 8
    Loneoak says:

    DeBoer’s piece is great.

  9. 9
    Poopyman says:

    Well, before the inevitable appearance of SWMNBN…

    Don’t have much time at the moment, so I picked one of the linkies ED put up top and read. EV makes a very good point, which he sums up in one paragraph:

    The thing that pundits like Andrew Sullivan, Megan McArdle and David Brooks don’t seem to grasp is that public sector unions shield public servants from political pressures. We have to interact with politically connected, powerful, influential people every day, from the building inspector who decides if a new development is up to code to auditors and so forth. We are answerable to our managers, who are not members of the bargaining unit, and they to their directors, who are also not members of the union and are either political appointees or serve at the pleasure of political appointees. Managers in public service walk a very fine line between the enormous pressures they get from legislators and executives above and from their service constituencies below. Unionization allows workers to perform their duties to the taxpayer without fear for their livelihood. It is a powerful shield from the vicissitudes of political life.

    As a private employee I have a manager above me who would (ostensibly) tell someone wishing to damage my career/reputation to GFY. I’ve seen in my work on local commissions that govt employees aren’t so lucky. More needs to be said about this, IMO.

  10. 10
    Pooh says:

    That deBoer piece is really good, and I’m not sure there’s a word of it with which I disagree, though I think he might (intentionally) be selling “art of the possible) types like Yglesias a bit short.

  11. 11
    Mark S. says:

    Freddie deBoer hits it:

    Libertarianism’s central problem, as an edifice, is its inability to speak frankly and critically about the reality of power imbalances. This is particularly manifested in an almost juvenile naivete about corporate power. Libertarian institutions, visibly and most importantly the Cato Institute and the Reason Institute, have been captured by well-moneyed interests. Individuals can and do operate within those institutions with independence and integrity, but on the whole, they are subject to influences both subtle and obvious from those who fund them.

    Not being able to see power imbalances is what makes most of libertarianism worthless and whorish.

  12. 12
    Xecky Gilchrist says:

    This is the first time I’d seen the terms “pro-labor” and “Libertarian” in the same time zone.

  13. 13
    David Fud says:

    Glad to see the liber-al-tarian argument being made. Maybe we are seeing a new beginning to non-glib libertarians who can actually apply their beliefs with utility instead of talking about how the government kills angels that dance on a head of a pin.

  14. 14
    Davis X. Machina says:

    I second the recommendation to read EV’s thread — the comments, however…. another story.

    His basic point is simple, and unionized teachers thank God for it every day. I can flunk a student who’s an All-State varsity starter, or the child of a board member, or a relative of the owner of the district’s biggest employer, if I have to — and I’ve had to — without deciding which railroad bridge I and the family get to sleep under as a result.

    Protection from arbitrary dismissal isn’t a trivial benefit. It makes the job do-able.

    If the non-union principal feels compelled to go and change my grade, he has that power, with all its advantages and disadvantages.

  15. 15
    jwb says:

    @Poopyman: This is a great point and one of the principal arguments for tenure as well: if teaching evolution is hard now, imagine what it would be like if teachers could be easily fired for teaching evolution. Getting rid of great teachers who teach things radical right wingers don’t want taught rather than getting rid of incompetent teachers is the real reason there is an attack on tenure. We all know that incompetence is very prevalent where there is no tenure or union protection, so I’m just not persuaded that the ratio of incompetence would change significantly in the teaching profession if tenure or union protection disappeared. The intimidation of teachers would, however, increase exponentially.

  16. 16
    Davis X. Machina says:

    @Xecky Gilchrist: Anarcho-syndicalism — and leftier than that you can’t get — is a species of libertarianism, after all.

    The Right didn’t, doesn’t, doesn’t get to own libertarianism unless it’s by default — or sheer volume.

  17. 17
    Poopyman says:

    @jwb: Absolutely, so when I heard about this on the radio this AM, I went “WTF?”

  18. 18
    Judas Escargot says:

    @Davis X. Machina:

    Anarcho-syndicalism—and leftier than that you can’t get—is a species of libertarianism, after all.

    Wait… I thought Chomsky for too left for BJ?

    (I kid, I kid).

  19. 19
    Xecky Gilchrist says:

    @Davis X. Machina: The Right didn’t, doesn’t, doesn’t get to own libertarianism unless it’s by default—or sheer volume.

    The volume thing must be what has me confused. Though I did use the capital “L”, if that helps.

  20. 20
    E.D. Kain says:

    Thanks for reading, everyone. I appreciate all the feedback.

  21. 21
    Dork says:

    If I wanted to experience organized labor, I’d visit a well-run maternity ward.

  22. 22
    wengler says:

    There are pro-labor libertarians, just none among the Propertarian Party of the US.

  23. 23
    cyntax says:

    The deBoer piece is quite good. Thought this was a particularly succinct observation about institutional libertarianism (Cato Institute and such):

    The problem is that top-down, hierarchical power structures are precisely the worst setup for an ethic of individual liberty.

  24. 24
    jpmeyer says:

    I mean shit, even Henry Hazlitt endorses labor unions in Economics in One Lesson.

  25. 25
    jwb says:

    @Poopyman: I didn’t actually see that as any sort of attack on tenure. It really addresses the procedures for dismissal, ensures that the teacher is given an opportunity to address any complaint before being fired, and ensures dismissal is based on documented incompetence rather than on other matters. The whole procedure would be somewhat more streamlined than it is now, but it would also be rationalized. As always, the devil is in the details, but it seems like rational reform to address some real issues, even if I don’t think it would actually end up changing much.

  26. 26

    Looks like the Wall Street Journal went to the McMegan School of Economics. CJR found numerous errors in its page-one story on the Wisconsin union fight — all of which skew the story against the unions.

  27. 27
    Sly says:

    If you’re looking for good books on labor history, Labor in America by Melvyn Dubofsky and Foster Rhea Dulles is still pretty much the gold standard of the field, and I think its still the most widely used survey for college courses.

    There are, of course, loads of monographs on specific incidents or locations that can provide incite into larger issues. I probably enjoyed the following four the most:

    Killing for Coal by Thomas Andrews
    Death in the Haymarket by James Green
    Roots of Steel by Deborah Rudacille
    Bread and Roses by Bruce Watson

  28. 28
    Joel says:

    I liked Freddie’s post, even if his writing style is a little verbose for my tastes.

  29. 29
    Stillwater says:

    @arguingwithsignposts: Hmmm. Is the LoOG going full-on liberal?

    It’s getting there, FP posts on labor issues anyway. There are still plenty of commenters who reflexively go glib, but lots of them at least agree that the middle class is shrinking by almost any real, non-glib, measure.

    Check it out yourself.

  30. 30
    Stillwater says:

    @cyntax: Yeah, I agree. Freddie’s been writing some pretty good stuff lately (I don’t know if this is a change or not).

  31. 31
    me says:

    @Xecky Gilchrist: Intellectually honest libertarians shouldn’t have a problem with people getting together and forming a union. They might have an issue with (government supported) required union membership.

  32. 32

    @arguingwithsignposts: Some of us have been making these arguments for a long time:

    So where are some of the areas where libertarianism has been corrupted by its affiliation with the political Right? One area is in what tends to be our reflexive opposition to labor unions; there is a false assumption that labor unions exist virtually entirely because of government intervention and that they are therefore inherently coercive. This assumption does not, however, line up with the facts, which show private sector labor union membership at its lowest level since 1900, and at half of its level from 1935, when the first major pro-union legislation (the NLRA) was passed (and before the massive economic interventionism of FDR). Yes, private sector union membership was at almost 40% by the time Congress realized that the NLRA was too restrictive and passed the Taft-Hartley Act. But the Taft-Hartley Act was itself a government intervention, and the resulting decline in private sector union membership to 1900 levels strongly suggests that Taft Hartley is even more restrictive of unions than a complete absence of federal labor laws.

    For what it’s worth, I regret the language that “Congress realized that the NLRA was too restrictive.” My view on the original Wagner Act/NLRA has evolved, and whatever philosophical objections I still have to it at this point are fairly mild beyond the fact that I view any regulatory structure governing labor-management relations as being capable of providing only temporary(albeit potentially significant) gains to labor.

    The point here is just that I, for one, have been publicly advocating a much more pro-union libertarianism for years.

  33. 33
    Tonal Crow says:

    @wengler: Republicans are not propertarians. They are “I’ve got mine and you can go fuck yourself”itarians. Thus, for example, they have no problem with banks “foreclosing” on people who’re up-to-date on their mortgages, or who don’t even have mortgages. They’re fine with arbitrarily seizing someone’s property, as long as they’re the seizer and the not the seizee.

  34. 34
    me says:

    @Mark S.: Expect Balko to get apoplectic about that.

  35. 35
    Bulworth says:

    @Sly: Thanks for the list:

    I bought Death In The Haymarket some time ago but only turned to it a few weeks ago–but before the latest debate over unions in Wisconsin. I’m not quite finished, but it’s been interesting to read it while the current debate in Wisconsin develops.

    Labor in America looks worth having.

  36. 36
    Poopyman says:

    @jwb: OK. Didn’t get that sense from the radio spot, and the way the winds are blowing these days maybe I’m a bit twitchy.

    Speaking of the winds, somewhere beyond our router a tree branch must be whacking a data line, because internet service is going up and down constantly.

  37. 37
    Stillwater says:

    One thing I’ll say here about Freddie’s proposal to support unions as a counterweight to corporate power is that he mistakenly calls this a ‘libertarian’ position, when it is, in fact, a liberal position. As these guys argue more deeply, their libertarian instincts get undermined by the realization that private power – rather than government power – has always been the source of economic discord in America. They keep getting closer to the views of a liberal, even tho they can’t shed their self-identification as libertarians.

  38. 38
    Davis X. Machina says:

    @jpmeyer: The Roman Catholic Church, a notorious progressive hotbed in the 19th century, went all in for labor not long thereafter.

    Forward into the past! Reaction is not just for reactionaries.

  39. 39
    jwb says:

    @Poopyman: Well, the press I’ve read did make it sound like a major concession. But I think that’s because they press wants us to believe that the primary function of tenure is to protect the incompetent. These reforms do seem like they would make it marginally easier to get fire someone who is tenured. But the reforms would also put a clear process in place to ensure that the tenured teacher is being fired for continued documented incompetence rather than something else.

  40. 40
    E.D. Kain says:

    @Mark Thompson: yes but didn’t you also have to turn in your libertarian decoder ring?

  41. 41
    Origuy says:


    if teaching evolution is hard now, imagine what it would be like if teachers could be easily fired for teaching evolution.

    To much of the Right, this is a feature.

  42. 42
    El Cid says:

    Whether “market anarchy” favors labor or owners is an empirical question.

    It is an empirical question now, and it was so in the past. A definition of “favor” is also used, so depending on what sort of shifting level of success on one particular portion of an issue is classified as being in one group’s “favor”, the analysis will be quite different.

    If labor is “favored” at one time — i.e., it gets a larger share of profits than at another time — it doesn’t mean that labor is “favored”, but that it has greater power to influence certain decisions more in its direction.

    It was in the late 1960s and early 1970s that the business community began to organize to roll back labor and wage gains.

    The launching of the Business Roundtable signified the largest coordinated group acting on behalf of the wealthiest members of the corporate community.

    They worked by lobbying, supporting think tanks, campaign financing, in short, the entire range of influence they could exert.

    The notion that labor can be organized and act with a focus while market anarchy prevents the corporate community from doing so is false.

    Corporations are both competitors and allies; and when it comes to common goals such as defeating the power of labor unions and the income and wealth power of middle and working classes, they come together and act with power and success.

  43. 43
    E.D. Kain says:

    @Stillwater: Freddie is a leftist, and no libertarian by any remote sense of he word.

  44. 44
    Erik Vanderhoff says:

    @Davis X. Machina: Exactly!

  45. 45
    Mark S. says:


    /evil chortle

  46. 46
    Sly says:

    If you liked Death in the Haymarket, you’ll probably like Bread and Roses. It has the same kind of narrative structure, but its principle focus is on migrant workers.

    Roots of Steel is different, in that it doesn’t focus on one specific event but looks at the history of a particular company town in Maryland over the course of a century.

    Killing for Coal was just published recently, but I’ve found no other book that more thoroughly examines the Colorado Coal Strike of 1914 and, specifically, the Ludlow Massacre. But it’s geared more toward other historians and not so much the public audience, so if someone is really interested in the subject (the Colorado Coal Strike remains the deadliest strike in American history), Scott Martelle’s Blood Passion is a lot more accessible.

  47. 47
    Stillwater says:

    @E.D. Kain: Ahh, that would explain his tortured stretching of supporting unions as way of ensmallening government into a ‘libertarian’ justification for unions. The main argument he makes is straight ahead liberal.

  48. 48
    Stillwater says:

    That above comment is tortured english. Sorry. No edit allowed.

  49. 49
    Ash Can says:

    @arguingwithsignposts: My own guess is that someone was caught goofing around in class once too often and had her computer privileges suspended.

  50. 50
    jwb says:

    @Stillwater: Open edit in new window, then you can edit!

  51. 51
    Davis X. Machina says:

    @Sly:Try and find the 1999 Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, a strange and wonderful book by Marguerite Young.

    Magical realism meets biography meets labor history.

    Sui generis isn’t even close to an adequate description.

  52. 52
    oliver's Neck says:

    E.D., I wanted to read all of that stuff but got nauseatingly distracted by your co-blogger trotting out the old, “The middle-class must be fine because capitalism produces ever newer and cheaper commodities! Sure, your grandparents may have had a pension, put three kids through college, and owned (outright) their own house on a single blue-collar salary – while you have six-figure undergrad college debt, a worthless 401k, no job security, and a drop in real wages since the mid-70’s – but hey you have ipods and HDTVs so STFU!”

    My hope (for him) is that Jason is just an over-privileged idiot who has never had to think about things really deeply or critically.

  53. 53
    Stillwater says:

    @E.D. Kain: Got to thank you for making that explicit. I just read about a half-dozen posts at his blog. Very good stuff. Got it book-marked.

    ETA: Thanks for the tip jwb.

  54. 54
    Violet says:

    E.D, just wanted to thank you for doing this and for bringing it to our attention. Good stuff.

  55. 55
    khead says:

    So I am supposed to applaud deBoer for realizing something my grandfather pointed out to me 30 years ago?

    All a person needs is a relative who can tell them about the pistols pulled on them by the mine thugs sometime last century.

    Good luck with that among today’s glibertarians.

  56. 56
    khead says:

    Yeesh. Sorry about the horrible grammar – but y’all get the point.

    If the choice is Uncle Sam or mining thugs, the miners would take Uncle Sam. Back then they would anyway….

    We wasn’t much real big on grammar in southern WV when I was growin up.

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