A Reminder on Unionism

A Reminder on Unionism, for the Economically and Historically Illiterate 

Recently, former Libertarian Party presidential contender Vermin Supreme posted in support of the Pepsico strike on Facebook.

It got the sort of response I expected, given the prevailing culture in the Libertarian Party. Some right-winger commented in the replies:   

Being able to strike IS a freedom. But so is the right to fire strikers and hire replacements, which is restricted by the force of law in the form of the NLRA. Without government force restraining the latter right strikes and unions would not succeed.

This is a right-libertarian talking point I’m quite familiar with, having seen it dogmatically repeated countless times by talking heads like Tom DiLorenzo at Mises.org, FEE, etc., who have next to zero knowledge of actual labor history.

The model of labor action centered on the conventional, declared strike is itself largely a creature of the NLRA, and the main reason it was passed was because the bosses needed it. Yes, the NLRA protected the right to strike. But it did so because management needed a labor regime that domesticated the union leadership, with that leadership limiting itself to negotiations over wages, benefits, and hours, and otherwise recognizing management’s right to manage. And above all, it needed to enlist the union leadership in enforcing the terms of contracts against their own rank and file and restraining wildcat strikes.

As for the threat of firing and replacing everybody, that reminds me a lot of the constant threats from right-libertarians that management will replace fast food workers with robots if the minimum wage is raised: It’s the kind of thing that’s talked about a lot in columns at libertarian websites, but doesn’t happen much in the real world. That’s because there’s a huge, natural economic rent entailed in the tacit knowledge and social capital of the labor force that takes years to build up. That’s why scrap rates, defective products and recalls go through the roof when scab workers take over production. 

As I argued a long time ago, in response to DiLorenzo’s argument: 

First of all, when the strike was chosen as a weapon, it relied more on the threat of imposing costs on the employer than on the forcible exclusion of scabs. You wouldn’t think it so hard for the Misoids to understand that the replacement of a major portion of the workforce, especially when the supply of replacement workers is limited by moral sympathy with the strike, might entail considerable transaction costs and disruption of production. The idiosyncratic knowledge of the existing workforce, the time and cost of bringing replacement workers to an equivalent level of productivity, and the damage short-term disruption of production may do to customer relations, together constitute a rent that invests the threat of walking out with a considerable deterrent value. And the cost and disruption is greatly intensified when the strike is backed by sympathy strikes at other stages of production. Wagner and Taft-Hartley greatly reduced the effectiveness of strikes at individual plants by transforming them into declared wars fought by Queensbury rules, and likewise reduced their effectiveness by prohibiting the coordination of actions across multiple plants or industries. Taft-Hartley’s cooling off periods, in addition, gave employers time to prepare ahead of time for such disruptions and greatly reduced the informational rents embodied in the training of the existing workforce. Were not such restrictions in place, today’s “just-in-time” economy would likely be far more vulnerable to such disruption than that of the 1930s.

More importantly, though, unionism was historically less about strikes or excluding non-union workers from the workplace than about what workers did inside the workplace to strengthen their bargaining power against the boss.

The Wagner Act, along with the rest of the corporate liberal legal regime, had as its central goal the redirection of labor resistance away from the successful asymmetric warfare model, toward a formalized, bureaucratic system centered on labor contracts enforced by the state and the union hierarchies.

If you want to go back to the time when the state didn’t protect the right to strike, but unions also didn’t limit themselves to strikes, have at it. You’ll be throwing away all the NLRA’s protections for bosses along with the ones for labor. You can get some idea of what options were available then here. So yeah, please don’t throw me in that briar patch.

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