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The Levers of Power

Your Humble Blogger as been following the Other Party and their shenanigans at some distance lately, only desultorily picking up the details on their assaults on collective bargaining, health insurance and education, so my impression is quite likely wrong. I do want to pass along that impression, so y’all can sharpen it or correct it, or otherwise give your impressions, so as to improve my perception of the universe.

Here’s the thing: you know the observation that Thomas Frank made, back in Kansas, that many working-class conservatives consider their cultural conditions to be essentially political, but their economic ones to be just business? If the Super Bowl engineers an offensive halftime show, that’s a political matter that you want your political representatives and pundits to weigh in on, but if the factory closes, well, watcha gonna do? In this way, Mr. Frank argued, the Other Party had managed to get people to vote against their current economic interests, in favor of upward distribution of wealth. Not everybody agreed with him, but I think the basic point, about what people thought about politics, was probably valid—and certainly interesting.

And if it’s true, of course, it’s bad for my Party. Not because my Party is on the wrong side of a cultural divide; if the Other Party wants my Party to be the Party of the Pill, we will win a lot of votes. No, it’s because Our Party sees factory-closings, workplace conditions and wages as essentially political matters, and if people don’t, it will be difficult to govern from that perspective after we win elections on the cultural stuff.

More specifically: an employee and an employer negotiate their relationship. In many cases, possibly most cases, the negotiation is Hobson’s Choice: you can have the job under my conditions, or you can walk. The employee accepts this much wage, this much vacation, this kind of health insurance, this much contribution to this kind of pension, these hours, these working conditions, this kind of clothing, this kind of behavior on the job, this amount of work, etc, etc, etc, or finds employment elsewhere. Now, in many jobs those things are in fact negotiations, either on hiring or later—you can ask for a raise, for instance, or for more overtime, or for an assistant. Often, I am told, those things are far more negotiable than the employee realizes. But for a lot of people, most of it isn’t negotiable, other than the choice to walk away. The leverage isn’t in balance at all; the Best Outside Alternative (to use negotiation jargon) for the employer is to pick up another application off the stack, while the Best Outside Alternative for the employee is to sell the house and move back in with the parents. Obviously, this isn’t true for all employee/employer relationships, but it is true for a lot of them. And the employees who are otherwise privileged are likelier to have more leverage; the people who are have less savings, education and connection have less leverage here, too. Inequality, breeding inequality.

Now, one of the things that employees can do in these negotiations is seek for more leverage outside the basic employer/employee relationship. Collective bargaining is one. A publicity campaign is one way, particularly for unsafe working conditions. And government regulation is one.

I get the sense, from the comments that I see, that many people who call themselves Conservative, find it completely illegitimate for worker to seek to improve their working conditions in these ways. They seem to think that the employment contract is in some way only legitimate if it is individual. It’s wrong, in their view, for employees of Church-affiliated universities to ask the government to regulate provisions of their insurance; the employer has its conscience and the employee can seek work elsewhere if she doesn’t like it. It’s wrong for unions of public employees to work to elect people sympathetic to their concerns, they say. It’s wrong for various do-gooder organizations to run campaigns against Apple or GE or Wal-Mart.

I completely disagree with this, of course. I think it’s great when we elect people who are willing to get involved in the workplace. I think it’s fantastic that the administration is laying down the proverbial on the Pill being a part of health care. But then, I think that the factory-closings are a fundamental political issue. I don’t want the government in my bedroom or my synagogue, but I sure as hell want them in my workplace. Not everyone will agree with us on that. Mitt Romney, for instance, and his management consultancy buddies, want to increase the leverage for management by taking away leverage for workers, and heck, hiring management consultants is one of the levers that management rightly uses. But it surprises me, always, when people don’t see this as a political battle, to be fought in large part by electing as many people as possible who agree with whichever side of the issue you are on.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Joe Worker hears all about the government getting involved in his workplace. He hears about it constantly from his employer, who makes the case that government involvement is making everything more expensive and harder for his employer. The employer tells Joe Worker that everything that sucks for Joe Worker is the government's fault. Don't like the working conditions, or the pay deductions, or the health care plan? It's all the government's fault. Don't like your hours being cut? It's the government's fault. Don't like the factory closing down? It's the government's fault.

Joe Worker believes the drumbeat of negative information about government involvement in his workplace. Why wouldn't he? His friend's employers tell them the same thing. And God knows there are things that suck about his workplace, and they're not his fault, and why blame his employer (who at least gives him a paycheck)? So sure, blame the government.

Check out the bulletin board in a factory breakroom or a trucking terminal or a Home Depot breakroom. The government's all over it, and not in a good way.

That's why Joe Worker doesn't want the government involved in his workplace.

(A way to fight against that would be through constant messaging from some other source that Joe Worker hears from all the time, such as a union. But the unions don't fight that battle anywhere near as much as the employers do, even if Joe Worker belongs to a union.)

> I get the sense, from the comments that I see, that many people who call themselves Conservative, find it completely illegitimate for worker to seek to improve their working conditions in these ways.

I don't call myself Conservative, but I do call myself libertarian, and I find it totally legitimate for workers to seek to improve their working conditions, in many ways; but not by the use of government force. Unions are a fine idea -- workers should totally band together and bargain collectively. But they shouldn't have special rights that non-union workers don't have, just like employers shouldn't have special rights that non-employer people don't have. Vote for sympathetic people, run PR campaigns, etc -- go for it. Make it illegal to hire non-union workers -- not ok. Make it legal to fire people, unless they belong to unions -- not ok. (Make it illegal to fire people if they have a contract -- no problem.)

Also, your notion that employers have stacks of applications to pick through, while employees have only one possible employer, is only true if jobs are more scarce than labor -- which seems to be the case right now, but certainly isn't always true. Sure, it's more true at the high end than the low end of the job market, but I feel like in the large middle of the job market, it's not particularly uncommon for someone to apply for multiple jobs, and get more than one offer.

irilyth—More to say about the big issue, of course, but when you say it's not OK to make it illegal to hire non-union workers—is it OK, from your libertarian perspective, for a union to negotiate a contract with an employer that commits the employer to hiring only union employees? Is it OK for the state to declare that class of contracts invalid?


> is it OK, from your libertarian perspective, for a union to negotiate a contract with an employer that commits the employer to hiring only union employees

Sure, and the state should then enforce that contract. And likewise, it's fine for an employer to say that they have a policy of hiring no union employees; although this gets close to an uncomfortable line of saying that it's ok for an employer to say that they have a policy of hiring no black employees, which in a hardcore libertarian world might be legal, but which I certainly don't want to say I'm ok with. (Whether I'm ok with the "no union employees" policy might be more circumstantial: If the relevant union has a history of bad behavior, e.g. threatening employees who don't want to join, etc, I'm more ok with it, than if the union has a reputation as a fair dealer and the employer is clearly refusing to deal with them in order to screw them over. I'm not really ok with "no black employees" under any circumstances, whether it's legal or not.)

I hate poking the libertarian perspective, but what is the principled difference between a collection of people agreeing to abide by a set of rules and then enforcing those rules on newcomers (i.e., a union contract), and a collection of people agreeing to abide by a set of rules and then enforcing those rules on newcomers (i.e., a set of labor laws)? What is it about the negotiations of creating legislation that makes those contracts (which we call laws) inherently illegitimate while other contracts are inherently legitimate?

> I hate poking the libertarian perspective, but what is the principled difference between [* contracts and government *]

The main difference is that if a prospective newcomer doesn't like the terms of an union contract, they can decide not to join the union. (Or if they don't like the terms of an employer's contract, they can decide not to take that job.) Usually without disrupting their whole life, although there are probably exceptions, e.g. if you've committed your life to going into a field where all the workers are in unions and all the employers only hire union members, you're kind of stuck. (Then again, maybe you knew that when you decided to commit your life to that field?)

It's usually much harder to walk away from the "contract" with the government, and much less accurate to describe your obligation to obey the law as "voluntary". To pick an easy example, if I think that I'd like to be allowed to smoke pot on my own deck, I don't have any options whatsoever... Whereas if my union asks that I not smoke pot, or my employer does, I can at least ask for an exception. They may not grant it, but the government isn't even *allowed* to grant an exception -- one of the hallmarks of laws is that they're supposed to apply identically to everyone, and it would be grossly unfair for the government to allow some people to break the law, but not others. (Conversely, a law that doesn't (can't) apply identically to everyone is a likely sign of a bad law.)

If you don't like the terms of the [business contract / government contract], you can choose to leave, or you can try to change the terms.

The exceptions case doesn't ring true in either direction -- unions cannot survive with exceptions, union-based employers cannot allow exceptions, many non-union employers are advised by their lawyers not to make exceptions to limit their liability, and governments make exceptions all the time in practice and are perfectly capable of making exceptions in theory as long as the exceptions are made fairly (medical marijuana for people undergoing chemo, not medical marijuana for people named irilyth).

The disrupting your whole life distinction has not been true for many people I know, who have in fact been forced to disrupt their whole life to find or keep a job. And that's among people with skill sets and good educations, who live in larger metropolitan areas. You work in a field in high demand with thousands of potential employers, and you live in an area with dozens or hundreds such employers. Many people do, but many others don't.

But even if we all lived in that comparatively privileged situation, your distinctions mostly seem to reduce to a matter of scale as if governments are always bigger than employers. Your employer has more employees than my city (not village or town) has residents. Walmart employs over 2 million people, more than many states have residents.

The thing (or at least a thing) is, it's not about size, it's about power. Walmart may have two million employees, but in fact they can't force you (or 309 million other people) to take a job there. The only thing they can force anyone to do is abide by the terms of a voluntary employment contract, and the only thing they can do if you don't abide by those terms is fire you. Even your city government can make your life absolutely miserable if you don't play by their rules -- even if you don't actually break any rules, but just piss them off.

"The only thing they can do ... is fire you."

In other words, the only thing your employer can do is take away your work (intimately tied to sense of purpose, sense of self-worth, social life, and ability to find future work), your income, and your access to health care.

It would follow that then such a person would find more work, from your (irilyth's) opinion that it's the employee who is choosing between possible employers, rather than the employers who are choosing between possible employees, other than of course during recessions. I just don't buy it.

I would need to look up studies, but my impression is that in "the large middle" of the job market, it's much more usual for a person to accept the first offer, and to have to wait for that first offer for some time even when unemployment is closer to 5%. I'm talking about nurses, teachers, stock clerks, retail sales, waiters, custodians, service reps, truck drivers, cashiers, secretaries and construction workers. I'll try to do some research, but does anyone here have any evidence for my view or for irilyth's?


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