The Capitalist Argument for Socialist Art, Science, & Information
"When all our brothers turn to lords, whose side are you on?"
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Tackling labor, let’s do this. I’ve mostly avoided the issue here, mainly because I read too many excellent writers who understand the stakes so much better than I do (I’m mostly talking about Hamilton Nolan, but I must admit my professional publication, Passionfruit, does some damn good creator labor journalism too).
I am also, for better or worse, someone who has mostly spent the last 15 years working alongside or within the management class, where it is considered taboo to even say the “u” word, lest any nearby workers get inspired to try it.
From a purely MBA-informed perspective, the problem with organized labor is it fundamentally restricts how the management class operates. The fear is that it can limit potential broad avenues of cost management (firing people), it could stifle innovation (using technology to fire people), and it may ultimately make it harder to sell the business one day (because no buyer with that kind of money wants to deal with people they can’t easily fire, either).
I’m sorry, but this is stupid logic by people who claim to be in the business of understanding their customer to extract maximum value from them. It betrays a painfully simplistic way of understanding the strategic relationship between the person who makes the thing, the person who owns the thing being made, and the person who buys the thing.
Now, some caveats. I grew up in a split household, that is, my mother was active in the teacher’s union in my town (though oddly our district is called the “Seaford UFSD - Union Free School District”, a name that actually predates the labor movement and refers to unified groups of elementary schools feeding a common high school managed by an elected board of education). My dad worked on Wall Street for most of his career, and in later years sat on that same board of education the teacher’s union in my town often found themselves at odds with.
So I like to think I grew up understanding both sides, getting a kind of front row, intimate seat at the labor negotiating table from a young age. It seemed complicated, in fact in some ways even more complicated than your standard company’s union.
With a teacher’s union, there’s a direct negotiation with the localized, face-to-names general public. See, the teachers are the workers, the board of education is the management, and the local voters living within the school district are the ones who elect the board. So unlike a private company where the board is whomever you want, or a public company where the board is whomever you want plus a bunch of random rich shareholders, a board of education is just some folks in your town who the other folks in your town are backing.
This argument always boiled down to taxes and who was paying them. In Seaford, there were more older people sitting on family homes than young families moving in, so a large percentage of the voting public didn’t have kids in the schools anymore. Their property taxes—which fed the school’s budget—were already high just by being an hour train to NYC, and every requested increase to the school budget was met with vast amounts of hostility. They simply couldn’t afford to pay more and keep their homes, and that’s a valid, shitty reality for them.
On the other hand, lots of our teachers (including my mother) lived in our town too. Their wages were also paying property taxes, and their children were using the school’s services. Despite being in one of the richest counties in America, Seaford was always more of a working class, cops and firefighters, electricians and commuters type town. Lots of our parents were in some kind of union (cops and firefighters have some of the unquestionably strongest unions in the country, but so do electricians, paramedics, construction workers, rail workers, nurses, and teachers). Lots of our parents had pensions coming their way, got great benefits that covered the whole family, and knew the exact age they could stop working for good (collecting their pension and continuing to receive free healthcare via Medicare). The taxes paid for that.
It was a good system, seemingly! I had friends dads retire when they were 50 because they had spent the previous 25 years in the NYPD, they’d take their guaranteed retirement payments and use them to open small businesses around town. That kind of “you give us the best years of your life, we’ll pay you out for the rest of it” agreement is hard to come by these days, but that’s because unions once fought like hell to get those protections put in place. They said "yes, taxes will be high, but it’s money we give back to you when you need it.” I don’t know why more taxes aren’t framed that way.
Before the unions, if a cop got hurt on the job, he’d have to rely on the kindness of the Police Benevolence Association to support him. Teachers worked until they died, because it was painted more like sainthood than labor…a calling, not a career. Before unions, a dead coal miner meant their kids going into the same mines that just killed their father so they could keep surviving. People and children worked in sweatshop conditions that led to Triangle Shirtwaist-scale disasters just feet from the NYU campus. That was just normal industrial urban living until the unions came along and were like…my dudes, no.
So anyway, there was a very tangible need for unions at one point, things were UNHINGED. Those unions fought for 40 hour work weeks, minimum wages, benefits and unemployment, all the stuff we just naturally take for granted now. The technology that industrialization offered meant you could run machines 24/7, but it wasn’t until people stood up for themselves did the ownership class realize that they couldn’t run their people the same way they ran their machines.
Things got better, so much so that by the middle of the 20th century, you had the makings of a thriving middle class with halfway decent economic mobility. Sure, there was a ton of sexism and racism and warmongering and toxic chemicals and plenty of other terrible shit going on then, but broadly, working conditions improved immensely for the vast number of people in the US (yes, we also started exporting our sweatshops to Central America and Asia around this time but like, let’s stay focused).
When things got better for workers towards the later half of the 20th century, the unions had less to fight for. They got bloated, some were corrupted by criminal organizations and used to enrich any number of illegal rackets. Others would find themselves striking over slight wage increases, a kind of “everything looks like a nail” approach to negotiation.
This swing of the pendulum led to a backlash against unions, and since the 1980’s we’ve been living in the echo of a failed Reaganomics executive policy to uniformly and unflinchingly antagonize your workforce. Wharton was handing out pamphlets as early as 1982 instructing the future leaders of America to treat strikes like opportunities to bust up their pesky unions and replace them with nonunion workers.
The truth is, neither side is perfectly innocent here, though you can’t blame the actions of the workers for the conditions initially dictated by the owners. Unions are both important and pesky. Workers are essential and replaceable.
But my point isn’t actually about whether or not unions should or shouldn’t exist, they obviously should. My point is that unions now are weaker than they’ve ever been, at a time when government services and relative tax rates are at an all time low. This is creating an immense amount of strain on the middle and lower classes, the kind of strain that leads to memes like this:
It’s an untenable situation, and generally when things become untenable, there’s only one institution with enough power and money to fix it. Hello, Washington!
Government is bad at so many things, I can appreciate that. But it’s pretty damn good at galaxy scale public works initiatives when it wants to be, it’s kind of the original function of government and probably why people mostly choose to live under any government than no government at all.
What we need here is what most of Europe has: A renewed social contract with our state and federal governments setting a new quality of life standard for people who work in fields that benefit the public good. See, the unions helped drive a demand for corporate social security, that drove a demand for federal social security, and the acceptance of federalized social security helped propel the unions and every working class citizen forward.
If done with enough fervor and financial backing (lol, dream on I know), you could nationalize and socialize a number of industries all at once…science and healthcare could be freed from the grip of insurance giants, artists and actors and other creative professionals can stop playing gig roulette, journalists can stop taking PR jobs. State universities should be uniformly free to anyone who wants to go, like high schools. The trick would be injecting enormous amounts of grant money into those sectors, and only awarding it to groups that met certain ethical and employment standards for those public-good fields.
Sidebar: Did you know that compulsory high school education in this country only started in the 1920s, and it was used as a way to “Americanize” immigrants? Like literally, the racists WANTED to pay to send aliens to public schools, picture that for a second. I digress.
The problem labor faces is that the government and the corporations are as well conspired as the mob once was with the teamsters in their heyday. There are good prosecutors and candidates who are waiting in the wings to fight the good fight for the workers, but only recently has that become a reasonable position to run on, and most voters aren’t clued in enough to “how it all works” to really understand which bogeyman they’re supposed to be angry at. They pick a color based on what the shouty TV lady says, and the wheels of capitalism continue to level entire communities of people.
When the election gets closer next year, I’ll try to point out some folks on both sides of the aisle who are worth paying attention to on this front. It’s shockingly bipartisan when you get down to the ground level, there are some racist kooks you might need to hold your nose for, but hey, if they got us universal K-12 education and bans on federal funding for Catholic Schools, maybe there’s some space to work with the lunatics. Kidding, sorta.
There’s much more to this of course, I’m glazing over the fact that this all becomes more dire as AI makes more and more jobs automated. Or the fact that our climate cannot continue to shoulder the current level of environmental cost wrought by our economic behavior, so at the very least we should be spending imperial boatloads on funding an actual green new deal (we are starting to do this, but in the same way that I am “starting” to eat less red meat…it’s mostly just been talk so far with some grand gestures sprinkled in).
People, it seems, are not worth what they were once worth to corporations. We’ve seen this before, and we’ve spent the last year being reminded what a strong union is capable of securing when those scales tip; especially when the government and public is supporting them (congrats, Detroit & Hollywood).
So if you’re one of my friends or readers who was raised to believe all unions are always uniformly bad, this is incorrect. There’s a time and a place, and now seems to be the time, and large, scummy corporations driven purely by profit seem to be the place. Given the current state of unions though and our elected representatives’ desire to keep their corporate funding secure, we need to put more people in government who understand the value of a strong, economically sound labor force.
It might sound crazy and improbable, but this country is littered with crazy and improbable acts of public will. The Hoover Dam opened up the deserts of the Pacific Southwest to settlement in the 1930s, women didn’t really start going to college until the 1960s, drunk driving was mostly chill until the 1980s, you used to be able to smoke in restaurants until the early 2000s.
The Brits spend around £6 billion on the BBC annually. Would you like to guess what PBS and NPR operating budgets are? Around $300 million each. About half of that comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcast (which is mostly funded by US taxpayers to the tune of about half a billion). Still not a lot considering how much smaller the Kingdom and Commonwealth is to the US.
And the point is not to create a state media mouthpiece, the point is to create a journalistic outfit that is so good and well respected and well paying, all other outlets need to rise to that standard or lose out talent to an organization funded by the American people.
Imagine if a SUNY school could pay more than NYU and was as valuable as an NYU degree…you’d have fewer kids looking to enroll at NYU, and tuitions would likely drop, once again creating a fair market for educational value. Or a public corporation whose job was to update our energy grid to be smarter and greener coming to compete with the ConEds of the world…you’d have greener energy, more jobs, and a more resilient power grid for increased demand.
Organized labor was always most powerful at the voting box, and the reality is you don’t need to part of a union to vote like you are. Solidarity from the owner’s box, baby…you can’t beat ‘em, you can’t join ‘em, but you can vote with ‘em.
Now I’m gonna go watch the Jets embarrass themselves, because there’s no greater capitalist enterprise than American gladiators. More on that later.