On Unions

Boltanski and Chiapello (B&C hereafter) devote a whole chapter to the decline of labor unions.  Contrary to what I believed, labor unions are, in fact, very weak in France and have been getting weaker steadily since the 1960s.  Their weakness is measured in the steep decline of the number of strike days imposed on capitalist enterprises each year and in rapidly declining membership.

Of course, strikes have become almost non-existent in the US.  France, at least, has a tradition of “general strikes,” i.e. of people taking to the street to protest various government policies.  The French demonstrations have some bite because, unlike American demonstrations, they do not take place on weekends and thus actually—and sometimes seriously—disrupt business as usual.  At the very least, I’d say, you have to have a significant number of workers not showing up for work for a demonstration to have any leverage on either the economic or political powers that be.

In short, only actions that impact the bottom line will garner a response.  Witness the power of a firm like Marriott when it weighs in against discriminatory legislation against gays.  Making such legislation carry an economic cost—as happened in both Arizona and North Carolina—has been just about the only effective strategy against right-wing legislation over the past ten years.

B&C’s question is why the transition to neoliberalism occurred without very much being mounted in the way of resistance.  “Changes in the world of work during this period continued to prompt complaints or indignation.  But the institutions traditionally responsible for transforming complaint—a way of expressing discontent that remains attached to people in their particularity—into a general condemnation and public protest were widely discredited and/or paralysed at the time” (273).

The particular institution that had been dismantled was the union.  I want to dwell for a moment on the general point—and it is my disagreement with Occupy and Hardt/Negri.  Getting people out onto the street via Twitter cannot substitute for having the institutions that will translate that expressed discontent into power that can be brought to bear against the opposing powers that are exploiting people.

It is, of course, an old story in the US, one that dates back to the 1950s (but not to the 1930s): the quiescence of the workers.  Why do they let themselves be mistreated?  It is certainly not that they don’t see the mistreatment.  It is because they don’t see an alternative, a truly effective way to force a change in the conditions of work.

In the 1950s were pretty bad, the 2000s are much worse.  Now there are no strikes at all, and just about no collective bargaining.  Each worker is on his or her own, negotiating for herself in terms of salary, and subject to workplace rules that are simply imposed from above and against which she waives all rights of appeal upon signing the work contract.  In the state employment system in which I oversaw a staff of seven, it was the worst of both worlds for my staff members.  They were constrained by the salary ranges within a job “band” (hence a collectively designated wage), but got none of the benefits of being part of a collective because all of the details of working conditions, as well as the established salaries for each band, were not a product of or subject to collective bargaining.  It was take it or leave it.

B&C give a meticulous account of the multiple causes of deunionization.  The economic causes—subcontracting, the movement to part-time or short-term contracts, rising unemployment,  smaller, integrated (i.e. mixing levels of workers) work teams that had the effect of isolating workers from one another, individualized performance reviews and bonuses that differentiate among workers doing the same jobs—are many and powerful.  Some of them were deliberately adopted to weaken the strength of unions.  Others were driven more by the new management ideas about how to increase productivity.  Others still (like rising unemployment and the downward pressure on wages) could be linked to macro-economic factors beyond any firm’s or even any state’s (simple or obvious) control.

But they also insist on the affective dimension.  Here’s what I take to be the most plausible case to be made along those lines; I am inspired here by B&C but not following them exactly.  My account is more my way of making sense of the transformation.  And here academia seems pretty much in line with the rest of the economic world.  The key is the fairly rigid distinction between permanent employees and those who are non-permanent.  On the one hand, the insiders (those with tenure in the academy, or the essential workers who are central to a firm’s “core mission”) are given a ladder to climb—one that makes it imperative to manage one’s career, to enhance (at every turn) one’s “human capital.”  In the business world, this becomes in B&C’s terms, the “projective” model.  One attaches oneself to successive projects—and networks out from them to the next project.  The workers who show an ability to bring projects to successful completion become highly prized—and efforts are made to “retain” them.  The winners in this contest are those who develop—and show off—rare and valuable skills.

The losers, on the other hand, are those who do something that lots of other people can also do.  They are easily replaceable (given high rates of unemployment) and, thus, need not be retained on long-term contracts.  The firm gains much needed “flexibility” by having workers it can easily let go when economic conditions demand, while it can also save money by outsourcing non-core functions to subcontractors, who (inevitably) pay workers less and offer little to nothing in the way of benefits.  (Of course, the benefits debacle is fairly unique to the US.  Health benefits are not tied to employment elsewhere.)

How does this connect to the decline of unions?  Pretty straightforwardly.  The winners have nothing that the want or could get from a union.  Their leverage against an employer is entirely individual.  They can threaten to take their skills elsewhere—the infamous “outside offer” of academia.  They are their own best advocates—and they are negotiating with the employer for something for themselves, not for any collective, not for colleagues and fellow workers.

Once shorn of these highly prized workers, the winners that the enterprise sees as vital to its success, the union loses much power.  And when the firm outsources to subcontractors (who are, invariably, nonunion shops), the union even loses the workers who would find a union crucial to their interests.  For the lower level workers still left in the firm, their loyalty to the union is undermined by the union’s impotence.  The union has done—and seems incapable of doing—anything for them; it cannot prevent outsourcing and it hasn’t the strength to either win significant wage increases or improved working conditions in negotiations in which management seems to hold all the trump cards.  Instead, the union (where it still exists) negotiates a set of “concessions” that make working conditions and wages worse in order to protect the existence of what jobs still remain.  And going on strike is off the table because the union isn’t strong enough to make a strike actually effective.

No wonder, then, that any affective connection to the union is lost.  All the union has ever done is to agree to “concessions” and it is taking my money while proving spectacularly ineffective in promoting or protecting my interests.

Thus, the decline of unions is easy to understand.  But that decline has had disastrous consequences.  It has left workers utterly naked in the face of neoliberalism.  The obvious question, then, is what institution can provide that crucial transition (that B&C identify) from randomized complaints/discontent to effective transformation of the causes of those complaints?

Frankly, I don’t see any alternative to the state as that institution.  So that’s where I will go in subsequent posts.

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