Shikha Dalmia: Half-Right on “Right to Work”

Shikha Dalmia, writing in Reason (“Are Right to Work Laws the New Slavery?” April 26), dismisses most union objections to “right to work” laws. But she concedes that on one issue — the requirement that unions provide representation for scabs who don’t pay dues — unions are “on more solid ground.”

But, she continues, unions themselves are partly to blame. “They are required to represent all workers in exchange for monopoly rights over collective bargaining in the workplace. That is the Faustian bargain they made in the Wagner Act.”

The problem is, she makes this sound primarily like a perk for the unions. She neglects to mention its value to employers, or more generally the way Wagner reflects the interests of employers.

As Center for a Stateless Society Board Member Charles Johnson said in an April 29 interview with The Daily Bell, “in the early 20th century, governments made a concerted effort to capture and domesticate the labor movement.” And they did this in the interest of maintaining stable management control of production in the workplace. As Johnson points out, one of the conditions of recognition as a government-approved union is giving up the right to standard pre-Wagner practices like wildcat strikes, unannounced one-day walkouts, and secondary sympathy and boycott strikes.

The typical strike, in the heyday of AFL-CIO unionism after WWII, occurred in a single firm when a contract expired. It was resolved when labor and management agreed on the terms of a new contract. But before Wagner, the typical model of a strike was for workers in a particular firm to be backed by sympathy strikes of workers all up and down the supply and distribution chains: Workers providing unfinished goods to striking plants, selling their goods at retail, and hauling their cargo.

Before Wagner, unions typically coordinated these strikes like general staffs plan military campaigns. When teamsters or longshoremen entered the fray by refusing to haul scab cargo, they frequently transformed such labor disputes into regional general strikes.

At a time when only 6% of private sector workers are unionized, and conventional strikes amount to mass resignations, the pre-Wagner model would probably be much more effective than the officially approved model. The central function of union leadership under Wagner, is not bargaining on behalf of the worker, but preventing wildcat strikes by enforcing contracts on the rank-and-file.

You might be surprised to know some of the biggest objections to sick-outs, and to union workers’ participation in events like the May Day General Strike, come from establishment union leaders. You’d never guess from mainstream liberal history that the old reactionary “company unions” actually had — as radical labor historians point out — a lot in common with industrial unions as they function under Wagner.

The main function of company unions under the American Plan was not to keep wages down. They frequently brought productivity-based wage increases and provided a grievance process. Their main function was to provide a single bargaining agent that the employer could come to a long-term agreement with — unlike the confusing assortment of unions representing all the skilled trades in a factory.

Industrial unions under Wagner, just like company unions under the American Plan, secured undisputed management control of the production process and predictability in the workplace for the duration of a contract. As a matter of fact “progressive” General Electric chief Gerard Swope, one of the main corporate backers of the New Deal, had attempted to get William Greene of the AFL to organize house unions within GE for just that purpose. When his dealings with Greene fell through, he became an early supporter of industrial unionism.

It makes sense when you think of it. Industrial unionism was very much in the interest of the corporations at the heart of FDR’s coalition: Large-scale, capital-intensive, export-oriented industry. For these industries, labor was a relatively modest component of the total cost package. But because of long planning horizons, on the other hand, stability and predictability were indispensable. So providing decent wages with productivity increases, seniority, and a grievance process in return for enlisting union leadership in suppressing wildcat striikes and on-the-job action was a pretty good deal.

Wagner amounted, by way of analogy, to telling the irregulars at Lexington and Concord to come out from behind their rocks, put on bright red uniforms, and march in parade-ground formation.

Labor regulations are commonly treated on the libertarian Right as violating the interests of business. But in labor law, as in most branches of policy, the state functions as executive committee of a ruling class in which giant corporations and employers take pride of place. As Adam Smith said over two hundred years ago, when the state undertakes to regulate relations between workmen and masters, it usually has the masters for its counselors.

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