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Jill has been blogging for Feministe since 2005.
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38 Responses

  1. Sailorman
    Sailorman April 3, 2009 at 12:46 pm |

    Unions, in other words, are a convenient bogeyman, yet they do and have done more to improve the living standards of American workers than anything else.

    Do you have cites for this?

    Certainly, unions have improved the conditions for union workers, but you seem to be claiming that unions are primarily responsible for improving the conditions of non-union workers. If that’s what you are saying, can you support it? The claim seems plausible, but is a bit major to take on faith.

  2. RD
    RD April 3, 2009 at 1:03 pm |

    Good post, thnks!

  3. RD
    RD April 3, 2009 at 1:06 pm |

    Tho I am not to fond of this, let’s help low wage workers cuz it’ll help rich people too! attitude. Gross.

  4. susan feiner
    susan feiner April 3, 2009 at 1:14 pm |

    First, Kudos in a major way to Sarah Jaffe for writing such an important and timely piece.

    In response to Sailorman, there is a lot of evidence to support the claim that unionization improves wages and working conditions across the board. How and why? To understand this effect you need to think of wage setting as a social, institutional process. When your neighbor’s wages go up, or working conditions improve, you are likely to know about it. As the information spreads, other workers are encouraged to push for higher wages, better conditions.

    This is why bosses are so against unions, the wage effects tend to be widely dispersed. If you look at the work by the Political Economy Research Group (PERI.org) at UMass, on living wages, you’ll find the term, “credible threat.” This refers to the stagnation of wages/decline of working conditions. When firms can convince a broad cross section of workers that they are likely to pick up and move shop unless there are significant concessions, then this “credible threat” leads to a general decline in worker’s bargaining power.

    Also, hourly wages are much more uniform than are other types of compensation. So an increase in the wages of a substantial sub-group will, by laws of mathematics, raise the average.

  5. Natalia
    Natalia April 3, 2009 at 2:20 pm |

    Am exhausted right now, so will just say great job, Sarah! (for the time being)

  6. FreshPeaches
    FreshPeaches April 3, 2009 at 2:36 pm |

    The card check provision is really problematic. It eliminates the secret ballot, creating all manner of issues with coercion. I work for a union, and we support opening up collective bargaining and binding arbitration for all (obviously) but the elimination of the secret ballot is a serious problem.

  7. Tom Foolery
    Tom Foolery April 3, 2009 at 2:47 pm |

    The card check provision is really problematic. It eliminates the secret ballot, creating all manner of issues with coercion. I work for a union, and we support opening up collective bargaining and binding arbitration for all (obviously) but the elimination of the secret ballot is a serious problem.

    It’s only a serious problem if you believe some people would rationally prefer not to be unionized, which is a tough idea to sell to many, many progressives.

  8. ipens
    ipens April 3, 2009 at 3:07 pm |

    Also, and I’m basing this on my ‘strictly Rachel Maddow educated’ knowledge on this, but it doesn’t eliminate the secret ballot. It gives employees the choice to either use the secret ballot option or to do the card option. So, that ‘eliminates the secret ballot’ argument is kind of a non-starter, isn’t it?

  9. Tom Foolery
    Tom Foolery April 3, 2009 at 3:26 pm |

    So, that ‘eliminates the secret ballot’ argument is kind of a non-starter, isn’t it?

    No, it starts just fine. Card check allows a union to organize if 50% of employees sign a public authorization card. So, in the case that one of those cards is going around, there are two types of workers — those who have signed, and those who haven’t, and both are publicly identifiable. Unions can still organize through a secret ballot, but why would they, when they can use the option that allows them to bring pressure to bear?

  10. Sarah J
    Sarah J April 3, 2009 at 3:27 pm |

    Ipens is correct. The bill doesn’t eliminate the secret ballot option; it allows THE WORKERS to decide how they will choose to organize. The full text of the bill is here.

    The relevant portion reads:

    `(6) Notwithstanding any other provision of this section, whenever a petition shall have been filed by an employee or group of employees or any individual or labor organization acting in their behalf alleging that a majority of employees in a unit appropriate for the purposes of collective bargaining wish to be represented by an individual or labor organization for such purposes, the Board shall investigate the petition. If the Board finds that a majority of the employees in a unit appropriate for bargaining has signed valid authorizations designating the individual or labor organization specified in the petition as their bargaining representative and that no other individual or labor organization is currently certified or recognized as the exclusive representative of any of the employees in the unit, the Board shall not direct an election but shall certify the individual or labor organization as the representative described in subsection (a).

  11. Sarah J
    Sarah J April 3, 2009 at 3:29 pm |

    @Tom Foolery

    And when it’s publicly available, it allows the bosses to bring pressure to bear as well. And considering that the boss is the one who controls your pay, hours, and whether or not you have a job at all, that’s a far scarier idea than the bogeyman of a union rep trying to strongarm you.

  12. MikeF
    MikeF April 3, 2009 at 3:34 pm |

    ipens, as I understand it, the EFCA doesn’t explicitly eliminate the secret ballot, but would probably effectively do away with it. Currently, the unionization process starts when at least 30% of employees sign a card and the union presents that to the employer. At that point, the employer sets up a secret ballot election. Under EFCA, employees would choose between secret ballot and a card check majority… but only after the union presents the original at-least-30% result to the employer. The thing is, the union doesn’t have to present that to the employer as soon as 30% sign – it can wait until over 50% have signed, and at that point there’s a card check majority and the union is in. So the secret ballot option can be bypassed entirely.

    At least, I think that’s how things are going down – I’m certainly not an expert. Anyone have thoughts on that compromise offer that a bunch of businesses came up with?

  13. Tom Foolery
    Tom Foolery April 3, 2009 at 4:01 pm |

    And considering that the boss is the one who controls your pay, hours, and whether or not you have a job at all, that’s a far scarier idea than the bogeyman of a union rep trying to strongarm you.

    No doubt, employers strongarm employees, but it’s naive to pretend that union leaders don’t at all. So why not have a secret ballot to protect employees from intimidation from both sides?

  14. Erik
    Erik April 3, 2009 at 5:50 pm |

    What I find interesting here is that even at a progressive feminist side, the comments revolve not around Sarah’s main point–the intersection between feminism and unions, but around the merits of unions and union-supported resolution in the first place. Is there another issue where so many progressives have internalized Republican talking points?

  15. Erik
    Erik April 3, 2009 at 5:51 pm |

    Union-supported legislation, that is.

  16. victoria
    victoria April 3, 2009 at 7:02 pm |

    @ Sailorman:

    40 hour work week/8 hour day
    Elimination of child labor
    Worker safety regulations
    Minimum wage
    Lunch and other breaks
    Overtime pay

    Just a few of the now taken for granted workplace benefits brought to you by anarchists and labor unions. Google “Haymarket” or “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory” or read some Howard Zinn for starters on U.S. labor rights history.

  17. jacquir583
    jacquir583 April 3, 2009 at 8:02 pm |

    Another point about unions not already raised here; unions are more likely to have supports bargained specifically for women such as anti-harassment language and women’s advocates in the workplace. Women and other marginalized groups are more likely to have a voice in the collective bargaining process and have special needs recognized.

  18. annalouise
    annalouise April 3, 2009 at 8:09 pm |

    I guess I just have a hard time embracing the ideas the kind of people that won’t sign a card but will take all the benefits deserve the protections of a secret ballot.

  19. Dan in Denver
    Dan in Denver April 3, 2009 at 8:25 pm |

    If our political rights depend on what we deserve, then we are going to have one scary political system.

  20. southsidepolitics
    southsidepolitics April 3, 2009 at 10:35 pm |

    One comparative advantage of card check is that it is actually more representative of worker sentiment than the “secret” ballot process. Under card check, a majority (and normally a super-majority of 60%) of ALL employees within a potential bargaining unit have to sign cards. Under the ballot system, it is only a simple majority of the workers who show up to actually vote. Since employer pressure is a big issue in pretty much EVERY union campaign, and employers can see who goes into the voting booth, what often happens is that workers are afraid and don’t vote at all, and the balloting system only represents what 20-30% of the workforce actually thinks.

    That said, as a former union staffer, I’m not sure that card check is everything that its proponents make it out to be. First, one of the biggest problems in union organizing campaigns is that employers file multiple challenges to who is eligible to vote, the outcome of the vote, etc, and organizing campaigns can literally take years (think Bush v. Gore times 100!). In the meantime, workers are harassed and fired, especially pro-union worker leaders. Unless there is some kind of “60-day” provision to prevent employer bloodletting (Canada does this), I don’t see card check as that big of an improvement.

    The other problem is that card check does nothing to improve what I see as organized labor’s lack of attention to ORGANIZING. Yes it’s hard with crappy laws, but many unions do a bad job of working with with the members they currently have, much less reaching out to new ones. Our workforce, especially in the low-wage service sector, is multi-cultural and multi-lingual, and this is too often NOT reflected in the organizing staff or in the leadership.

    This is not to belittle the accomplishments of organized labor over the years. And there are lots of dedicated, politically and socially aware people working in today’s labor movement. But labor’s problems are deeper than the ballot system, and I’m not sure if this is the issue that unions should be spending their dwindling political capital on.

  21. victoria
    victoria April 3, 2009 at 11:30 pm |

    southsidepolitics, you raise a lot of good points, especially re: organizing. It’s become such a sad cliche that organizers tend to be middle class white kids fresh out of college with lots of idealism but little to no experience working an actual blue collar job. Then they’re dropped into a workplace campaign with little mentoring, work impossibly long hours, and usually burn out in a couple of years. It’s a terrible model.

  22. Sailorman
    Sailorman April 4, 2009 at 10:10 am |

    Thank you, susan. I will look at that site.

  23. La Lubu
    La Lubu April 4, 2009 at 10:33 am |

    Thank you Sarah, for posting this.

    southsidepolitics brings up very good points. I’d also like to add that during a union election, previous employees from the past two years are also eligible to vote. This presents a challenge to organizers, as the employers know who those people are (and usually how to contact them), while the organizers (and even current employeess) usually don’t.

    Like Erik, I’m also disgusted by, as he said, the level to which “so many progressives have internalized Republican talking points.” I think one of the reasons for that is the split between the Old Left and the New Left in the 60s (obviously, i’m talking about the U.S. here; international readers please just continue boggling your minds at the thought one can be both “progressive” and anti-union). The U.S. suffers greatly from historical amnesia, and labor history is something a person in the U.S. has to have a passion for on hir own—it sure the hell isn’t taught in any general history curriculum.

    The Palmer Raids had a profound effect on the course of labor and left organizing here; the same techniques of destruction of progressive movements that most folks realize were used against 60s groups (infiltration, agent provocateurs, character attacks, assassination, etc.) were developed and employed years before—hell, by the time the 60s rolled around, those pricks were old pros at it, literally. I recommend the documentary “An Injury to One”; which I mentioned in this old post.

    Anyway, that kinda stuff pretty much set the trend for the Old Left distrusting the New Left (along with each other), led to the break between proponents of socialism and proponents of business unionism (which already had pre-existing fractures of nativist vs. immigrant, as well as fractures as to the role of women (whether white, immigrant—because at that time, not all European immigrants were recognized as “white”, African American, or other women of color) and men of color (especially African American men). Add to that the pre-existing taint of classism, as the New Left tended to have more formal education and were more comfortable organizing on/around campus than jobsites…..and the ingredients for the toxic stew of folks-who-oughta-be-on-the-same-side not trusting, not understanding, and certainly not communicating with one another.

    I suppose now it’s time to mention the role of the mass media in perpetuating stereotypes of who “union leaders” are, and the supposed power of union leaders. I recommend a great book by Dr. William J. Puette (himself a union member), “Through Jaundiced Eyes: How the Media View Organized Labor.” I wrote a post on that too, but really—-check out the book. Then start noticing examples of those media messages, and how that informs folks’ view of labor.

    Because I see that, right here, on this thread. That folks overestimate the power that unions, and especially union organizers have. That the default assumption of who a union leader is—male, large, gruff-looking, hands like canned hams, chomping on a cigar—is the image some folks seem to be flashing on. That even progressives haven’t examined their prejudices on who union members are, how unions function, and more importantly, why unions exist.

    Contrary to popular media imagery, people don’t join or continue to belong to a union because some big-ass thugs with shoulders so wide they have to go through door frames sideways strong-arm us into doing so. We are union members because it’s in our best interests. Because it gives us power and a voice that we would not have on our own.

    Look. This is a feminist blog, no? And if there’s one thing feminism oughta be about, it’s power relationships. Just because a worker is an individual human being, and hir employer is an individual human being, does not mean that they stand on an equal power footing. (isn’t this painfully obvious?) Especially when one considers that employers are seldom “individual human beings”, but instead partnerships, corporations, conglomerates, with the full weight of civil and military authority on their side.

    Unions were formed as a response to industrial capitalism. Workers organized together as a response to their employers’ power. (again, isn’t this painfully obvious?)

    What is a union? A union is nothing more than a group of people who have come together in order to exercise a power that wouldn’t exist for any of them individually. That’s a hard concept for many U.S. folks, many of whom were raised to believe that individualism is a higher order of human endeavour than cooperation—in a kinda quasi-Social Darwinist way (and that comes with a heaping helping of white women/people of color/poor people/etc. being “lower orders” of humans because of our tendency to band together out of necessity—neat how that psychological warfare works, huh? The “feminization” of people who exercise power in a way different from the rich white male status quo could easily be it’s own thread…)

    Anyone who thinks there is a “union boss” (or cadre of “bosses”), with size 54-coat/size-2 hat thugs to keep the order while the boss hands out dictates from on high……has never been to a union meeting. OMFG! The very idea cracks my ass up!

    Unions are like representative government. Perfect? No. But one hundred thousand times better than the alternative. The analogy is apt—-unions are representative government on a smaller scale.

    Sarah is absolutely right when she says that being a union member provides greater benefits to a woman in the workplace than anything else, including higher education. And it’s all about power. Individuals can’t exercise power against a more powerful individual, and certainly not against an institution. Forming an institution (i.e., a union) gives that chance to stand your ground.

    And yes, unions provide benefits to even nonunion members, as victoria noted above. I’d like to add to that list that unions were instrumental in gaining workers compensation, unemployment insurance, recent legislation such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Act, as well as older legislation such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 for all workers. Neither NIOSH nor OSHA would exist without the labor movement, and organized labor is the entity that pushed for recognition and legislation regarding repetitive stress injury/disability and injury/illness/disability/death relating to long-term exposure to hazardous substances.

    It should probably also go without saying that employers and organized employer/industry groups were strongly opposed to all of the above.

  24. supersoygrrrl
    supersoygrrrl April 4, 2009 at 3:31 pm |

    HEY BUSTIE!

    fancy seeing you here! you are just allova the internet, aren’t ya?!

  25. corwin
    corwin April 5, 2009 at 9:02 pm |

    La LA
    Since I’ve worked in a steel mill (UAW local #1-no longer in business) I feel able to say a few things. First ,I don’t know if unions are ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND TIMES better than the alternative.Still,I’ve never heard anyone in a shop argue against secrecy when your vote is cast. And that’s what you’re selling.
    Where I worked,it cost 2 hours/month.Still,we made quite a bit more than the non union shops. It was a good deal for me;college guy passing through. But they are all gone now.

  26. Ex-Republican
    Ex-Republican April 6, 2009 at 10:36 am |

    The main problem is that unions prevent wages from clearing at a real market equilibrium. I still don’t understand how arbitrarily enforcing wages above market clearing rates is in the best long term interests of all workers. It is actually more likely to increase unemployment, as employers could hire more workers at the actual market rate, but instead hire less at the arbitrarily higher wage.

  27. La Lubu
    La Lubu April 6, 2009 at 1:15 pm |

    Gee, corwin, how did I know you were a “college guy just passing through?” Perhaps because “college guys” like yourself seem to have a pressing need to demonstrate contempt and disrespect towards women who disagree with you, and especially if those women are mere working class women like myself (“La LA”). I notice you don’t use that degree of contempt with everyone on Feministe, just those you think are lower than you on the social scale. But don’t worry, I’ve never been one to “mind my betters”, as they used to say.

    Ex-Republican, can you give an example of what you’re talking about when you claim that unions raise wages higher than the market rate? “Prevailing wage”, which is usually (not always) synonymous with the union wage, is market rate.

    Also, are you suggesting that if a contractor has a job that requires say, eight electricians, that if the wage were lowered that contractor would then hire more people than it took to do the job? I’m having a hard time following that. I certainly haven’t seen any of it in action. The reason you wont see “ditch-digger” listed as an occupation on the recent census reports is because contractors figured out a long time ago that hiring one operator with a backhoe moves more earth than a couple of pickup trucks of people with shovels. That holds true even if the total wage package for the operator with $45/hr. (including insurance, pension, and JATC contribution—that’s the contractor’s part of the co-pay for having an apprenticeship program) and the potential ditch-diggers earn $3/hr.

    While you’re at it, you can explain why a race to the bottom in wages is good for the economy, since workers who earn less money obviously have more disposable income (y’know, as the U.S. economy is 70% based on consumer spending). I’m having a hard time following that one, too.

  28. Ex-Republican
    Ex-Republican April 6, 2009 at 3:26 pm |

    La Lubu:

    A couple of points:

    1. I’ve been counsel to more common wage determination committees than I care to count. It is actually quite rare that the prevailing wage is equal to the union wages presented to a committee. In fact, the prevailing wage is a political calculation based on wage numbers presented by both Industry and Labor. These committees are given broad discretion under most state statutes and I am often amazed how arbitrary the committee’s decision is. However, as we know, prevailing wage only applies to certain subsets of contracts. If, as you claim, prevailing wages are really market wages, why would a union even be necessary? The market would naturally set the wages at those levels as it hits its equilibrium.

    2. I am not referring to a race to the bottom. Market wages are an equilibrium condition, not a race to the bottom. That is just polemic on your part. I am just wondering why monopolistic labor practices are somehow “good”. In a severe recession, with decreased demand, it seems exceptionally strange to advocate increasing labor costs. To borrow from Bastiat, why don’t we just require hatchets to be 3 times more dull. We could then increase employment in tree cutting by 3 times.

    3. Regarding the employment issue, do you think that raising the cost of labor, increases or decreases its demand (all things being equal)? I am simply stating the obvious, increases in labor cost, result in decreases in labor demanded (all things being equal). Are you trying to tell me that there is no elasticity of demand for labor costs?

  29. April feminist blogging round-up #1 « Zero at the Bone

    […] in the US, but moving onto the economy, Sarah Jaffe guest posted Unions, Women and Fair Labor Practices: Why the Employee Free Choice Act is a Feminist Issue at […]

  30. La Lubu
    La Lubu April 7, 2009 at 7:13 am |

    Ex-Republican, you still haven’t answered my question. You suggested that employers would hire more people if wages were lower. I am asking for a concrete examples of employers hiring more people that it takes to do a job, just because the out-of-pocket cost to the employer is the same. Why wouldn’t the employer just pocket the profit by only hiring the number of people it requires to do a job?

    If you are referring to manufactuing jobs, I’m still not clear—why would an employer hire more people than could effectively operate the equipment, or why would an employer purchase more equipment and ramp up production if it were unclear that more people would be purchasing the product? For example, autoworkers. If autoworkers took home twelve dollars an hour (thus, according to your line of thought, more autoworkers being hired—something I doubt), does this mean more people are going to buy vehicles, since more people (again, something I doubt) are employed?

    Or…..does reduced purchasing power mean…..less purchasing?

    You speak of the “market” as if it is a neutral agent. As if all people are equal under “the market”, with equal political power, equal access to the military power that backs up that political power—-it’s as if you are arguing for workers to have a type of religious faith in “the market”, as if markets aren’t manipulated by those in power. You seem to be against unions, but I have yet to see you speak against corporations or employer organizations or other group efforts to use power to keep workers subordinate (surely you don’t believe that workers willingly accept wages below the cost of living for the hell of it, right?).

    Come to think of it, wages aren’t really the area of greatest conflict in contract negotiations. Health insurance and pensions are, along with workplace safety. The historical example points to employers not giving a damn about worker safety, and the laws we have on the books that provide for worker protections can all be traced to the efforts of organized labor, not organized employers. (Employers are organized. Make no mistake about that.)

    Prove to me, with concrete examples, that my claim of “race to the bottom” is polemic. Show me that in the absence of unions, wages don’t fall to a level below self-sufficiency.

    While you’re at it, since this is a feminist blog, show me that in the absence of unions, employers pay women the same as men. People of color the same as whites.

    I’ve been counsel to more common wage determination committees than I care to count.

    In which states?

    why would a union even be necessary?

    Wages are but one facet of working conditions. Unions will always be necessary as long as there is still a difference between employer power and employee power. In the absence of unions, employers abuse power. You might as well ask why we have representative government, as kings, queens, emperors and dictators can all be trusted to act benevolently, as it’s in their best (dare I say, “market”?) interests.

  31. Tom Foolery
    Tom Foolery April 7, 2009 at 8:42 am |

    I am asking for a concrete examples of employers hiring more people that it takes to do a job, just because the out-of-pocket cost to the employer is the same. Why wouldn’t the employer just pocket the profit by only hiring the number of people it requires to do a job?

    I’m not sure if Ex-Republican is coming back to defend his premises, but this is a non-starter. In most cases, there’s no “number of workers required to do a job,” and in the cases where there is a discrete number of workers beyond which adding another worker would add zero value, it’s very rare that companies actually employ that many workers.

    By way of example (and I realize this is very, very simplified), let’s say you have a factory, and that factory has 5 “slots” for laborers (they work some sort of machine, for the sake of this example). The factory owner hires 5 workers at $10 per day, and they each produce $15 worth of output, so the owner pockets $5/day/worker. Even in this case, hiring another worker would add some level of value — maybe each worker could get an extra 30 minute break, and the assistant worker could work the machines in the meantime — if that were to up productivity a modest amount, to $16 per each of the full-time workers per day, it might be worthwhile to hire an additional worker as an “assistant worker,” for $4/day, because each of those full-time workers would produce an additional $1/day, leaving an additional profit of $1 for the factory owner.

    But then let’s say the factory’s union contract prohibit anyone who works these particular machines from earning less than $6/day. Then the guy who might have received the assistant job is SOL, because the owner can’t hire him at a price that would deliver value.

    That’s not to say that union contracts are undesirable — just that unions ostensibly exist to protect and advocate for members (as they are supposed to), and they frequently do this to the detriment of non-members.

  32. La Lubu
    La Lubu April 7, 2009 at 1:15 pm |

    That’s not to say that union contracts are undesirable — just that unions ostensibly exist to protect and advocate for members (as they are supposed to), and they frequently do this to the detriment of non-members.

    How so? That certainly isn’t what research conducted by the Economic Policy Institute has found. When unions raise wages for union members, it raises the floor for their nonunion counterparts as well. In the absence of unions, those same employers do not voluntarily award their nonunion workers more money, nor do they hire more workers than is needed to get the job done (and certainly not to give workers more breaktime!).

    Read more about it here.
    And again, the labor legislation that unions were instrumental in passing help all workers, not just union workers. Employer groups were rabidly against the Lilly Ledbetter Act; why is this, if employers are such benevolent souls, hm? Perhaps it is because in the absence of union contracts and union protections, common employer practice is to pay women less money for the same job (despite the fact that practice has been illegal for some time) and give women fewer opportunities for promotion.

    Unions provide a counterforce to employer clout that individual workers can never exercise, and that is unlikely to come from any other institution save for those very similar to unions (like community organizing). It isn’t going to come from governmental entities; as in the example I gave above, merely having a law saying that pay disparity based on sex is illegal doesn’t mean employers will follow it, and placing the burden of enforcement on individual workers to hire lawyers and go to court pretty much ensures the same practices can continue carte blanche.

    But I do understand why some people are anti-union. Unions provide power to people who would otherwise be powerless. That is a direct threat to people whose standard of living and/or privilege resides in their ability to leverage their power in order to keep others powerless. What I don’t understand, is why after the long, global, historical record clearly demonstrates that state of affairs is not accepted by the majority of human beings, those “power for me but not for thee” folks insist it should be otherwise.

  33. Ex-Republican
    Ex-Republican April 7, 2009 at 4:21 pm |

    La Lubu, I practice in both Ohio and Indiana, but most of my experience is in Indiana.

    You asked:

    “Why wouldn’t the employer just pocket the profit by only hiring the number of people it requires to do a job? “

    For one reason, the profit is used as equity on the next construction job. Banks just don’t loan 100%. Equity comes from profits on prior deals for the most part, unless you have some joint venture partner with a large amount of funds. Profits are also used for expansion, which in turn hires more workers. It can also be used to pay shareholders for their investment in the form of dividends, which can then be invested in other economic activity, which creates jobs. You seem to be focusing on the seen, but forget the unseen positive externalities.

    Also, I don’t by the Marxist exploitation of labor analysis. The labor theory of value has been demonstrated false on hundreds of occasions. I highly recommend the chapter on Marxian economics in “Economic Theory in Retrospect”.

    Regarding labor costs, you still haven’t answered my question. Do you think that increases labor costs, decreases or increases labor demanded?

    You also wrote:

    “You seem to be against unions, but I have yet to see you speak against corporations or employer organizations or other group efforts to use power to keep workers subordinate (surely you don’t believe that workers willingly accept wages below the cost of living for the hell of it, right?).”

    I speak against corporate welfare quite often actually, but that wasn’t the point of the post. I’m against coercion as a general principle, whether it is against workers on the behalf of employers, or against employers on behalf of workers. I believe in free exchange, provided one’s rights aren’t violated. For instance the government may enforce anti-discrimination rules.

    You also implied that I have a religious faith in free markets. I think it is more accurate to say that I distrust unfree markets. Given the large number of economic calculations in what amounts to a subjective system (both supply and demand side), along with the complexities of a modern division of labor economy, I know of no algorithm or program that can allocate resources more efficiently to meet the demands of 300 million people than the market. Also remember than any such program or central economic coordinator would have to take in all opportunity costs as well for a given action or the setting of a price. Furthermore, government actors traditionally carries disparate rent seeking into such programs. I n essence, nobody is smart enough to do it. For further reading, I would recommend Hayek or Mises.

    You wrote:

    “Prove to me, with concrete examples, that my claim of “race to the bottom” is polemic. Show me that in the absence of unions, wages don’t fall to a level below self-sufficiency.”

    I would answer, how do you define “self-sufficiency”. Self-sufficiency is a way of sneaking in a normative judgment to an empirical issue. I’m talking about wages that clear based on demand for labor and supply for labor. It may be greater than the point where marginal revenue per worker equals marginal cost per worker, but just be equal to that wage.

    You wrote:

    “Unions will always be necessary as long as there is still a difference between employer power and employee power. In the absence of unions, employers abuse power. ”

    I’ve seen no evidence that labor is somehow immune from the abuse of power.

  34. Tom Foolery
    Tom Foolery April 7, 2009 at 7:30 pm |

    I’ve seen no evidence that labor is somehow immune from the abuse of power.

    Exactly. Jimmy Hoffa, champion of the powerless, right?

  35. La Lubu
    La Lubu April 8, 2009 at 7:29 am |

    Exactly. Jimmy Hoffa, champion of the powerless, right?

    This is a fine example of what I brought up earlier—that the existance of Jimmy Hoffa and his ilk, who are statistically a fraction of one percent of labor (corrupt and/or mobbed up), is used to describe labor as a whole.

    But back to the point of the Employee Free Choice Act:

    1. It does not eliminate the secret ballot. it provides the choice of the secret ballot to the workers, not the employers. See, as the law stands now, employers have the right to voluntarily recognize a union upon majority card check. Most of them don’t, but they have the right. It’s the workers who don’t have that right.

    2. The real meat to this law isn’t the card check. It’s the mandatory arbitration. As the law stands now, an employer can stonewall, hem-haw around, and generally bargain in bad faith, and then at the end of the year—-hey, screw you! No contract!

    For one reason, the profit is used as equity on the next construction job.

    You know what I meant by “pocket the profit.” You were claiming that the employer would be willing to hire more people than is needed to complete a job effectively, just because. This is the same argument used against the minimum wage. And it’s not true.

    Do you think that increases labor costs, decreases or increases labor demanded?

    If the work is needed, people will pay for it. I see this argument trotted out frequently when it comes to tradespersons, clerical staff, janitors, manfacuring workers, etc.—-but seldom mentioned for say, physicians or attorneys. Why so much complaint for a 2% raise for the working class, yet no argument at all on lawyer fees? I say that the so-called burden of that 2% raise has no effect on the labor demand, since it still takes x number of people to do a job.

    how do you define “self-sufficiency”.

    Self-sufficiency is the ability of a person to meet their basic needs without public or private assistance. It is based on the objective costs of housing, food, utilities, health insurance, child care, and transportation for a given area. The federal poverty standard is inadequate as it is based on the cost of food, and formulated during a time when the norm was a one-worker household with a stay-at-home partner. In this day and age, it’s housing costs that have skyrocketed, and both child care and transportation (which in most places means “car”) is necessary. If you really want an idea of what I’m talking about, visit this site.

    When employers pay wages below the self-sufficiency standard, everyone else gets to subsidize that, with the profit remaining the in the employer’s pocket. Or perhaps you haven’t noticed the shift of wealth from the bottom to the top?

    Ok, now I gotta say, I’ve been sorely disappointed in this thread. There’s been a hell of a lot of silence here, save for the wealthy white men who have been voaclly opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act, perhaps because they know this means more power for people unlike themselves. You know, there are nine labor posts on Feministe, and I wrote four of them. What’s up with that? Where is the Feministe community of commenters?

    I’d like to ask the community here—are you intimidated by labor posts? Do you feel unsure of or uneducated about the issues? Why do so few people respond to labor threads?

  36. Tom Foolery
    Tom Foolery April 8, 2009 at 8:57 am |

    There’s been a hell of a lot of silence here, save for the wealthy white men who have been voaclly opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act, perhaps because they know this means more power for people unlike themselves.

    This thread has become so ridiculous that my gold monocle popped out of my eye and I dropped my cigar wrapped in $100 bills. I’ll have to get my manservants to sweep up the ashes. Zounds!

  37. Ex-Republican
    Ex-Republican April 8, 2009 at 4:25 pm |

    La Lubu wrote:

    1. “ The real meat to this law isn’t the card check. It’s the mandatory arbitration.”

    It is also likely that in some cases arbitrators will set the contract wage at a level above that employer’s competitors. Also, do you mean to imply that unions never negotiate in bad faith.

    2. “You know what I meant by “pocket the profit.” You were claiming that the employer would be willing to hire more people than is needed to complete a job effectively, just because.”

    I never made the claim that the employer would just hire people for the sake of hiring people. You implied that I made that claim, but I was claiming that employers would use that money for additional employees (you assumed I meant on that same specific jobsite), and for other capital improvements and purchases for that matter.

    Also, I’ve worked for development and construction companies for 10 years (as outside or internal counsel). Profits are indeed used to pay salaries of other staff members, outside and internal counsel, capital acquisition employees, accountants, property managers and many other employees. Again, profit is used for these purposes and to act as equity in other transactions and projects.

    There is also a return on investment to the bank (in the form of interest), and equity to the equity partners (or dividends to shareholders of a public company). They get this for the risk of the venture. Given the recent downturn, there really isn’t a whole lot of return on equity for most large construction/development projects. It isn’t moneybags being hidden from employees.

    3. “If the work is needed, people will pay for it.”

    Really. It is much more likely that if wages increases beyond the ability to pay (in the case of manufacturing), those jobs are headed out of the country. As for development, most likely if labor costs are too high, that project simply won’t be done, and the money spent on a project in a right to work state.

    4. “I see this argument trotted out frequently when it comes to tradespersons, clerical staff, janitors, manfacuring workers, etc.—-but seldom mentioned for say, physicians or attorneys. Why so much complaint for a 2% raise for the working class, yet no argument at all on lawyer fees? I say that the so-called burden of that 2% raise has no effect on the labor demand, since it still takes x number of people to do a job.”

    Obviously you haven’t been watching the white collar job market. Attorneys are being fired left and right. We routinely take a harder negotiating position with our outside counsel on fees than we did in the past. We are frantically trying to cut all costs across the board, including legal costs. I’m not applying a different standard to the legal community, I believe in fee competition as well.

    5. “When employers pay wages below the self-sufficiency standard, everyone else gets to subsidize that, with the profit remaining the in the employer’s pocket. Or perhaps you haven’t noticed the shift of wealth from the bottom to the top?”

    The income gap is primarily a statistical phenomena based on the switch from measuring per capita income to measuring household income. On a per capita basis, the gap is not nearly as large.

    However, you are still operating under the assumption that employers will employ individuals regardless of labor costs. I also think you are ignoring the importance of profit in the economic system.

    Let me ask this: Should employers still be required to pay below your self-sufficiency standard if the business is operating at a loss, or there is no profit?

    6. “Ok, now I gotta say, I’ve been sorely disappointed in this thread. There’s been a hell of a lot of silence here, save for the wealthy white men who have been voaclly opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act, perhaps because they know this means more power for people unlike themselves.”

    You are making a lot of assumptions without any knowledge about me or my financial condition whatsoever. My opposition to the EFCA has absolutely nothing to do with apportioning more power to people unlike me. As a matter of fact, I really, sincerely want all people to do as well as possible. I want to see people succeed. I want to see businesses do well, provide goods and services at an affordable rate, make a profit and employ as many people as possible.

  38. helen
    helen May 22, 2009 at 6:15 pm |

    This post is getting attention across the internet, even though it is old. Unions are a feminist issue. It is a way to bargain with strength, banding together. When the top 1% of the weathy got all the gains from productivity in the 90s and the elite disbanded all financial regulation that got in their way of avoiding taxes and crashing the economy with AIG, basically, ponezy schemes, it’s time to have workers rise up. The wealthy want socialism and bailouts for them and no power of bargaining for everyone else. Let’s have capitalism where labor is truly bargained.

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