On Good Morning America, they just hosted a consultant advising employees worrying about downsizing to work lots of overtime, make sure not to take any sick days, and subordinate family concerns to whatever their boss wants them to do. Then in response to a question from the host about the stock market, she responded that high unemployment “sounds like a bad thing,” but isn’t so bad: it’s good for the stock market because it means the Fed won’t raise interest rates.
What she didn’t say is that high unemployment makes the stock market go up because the prospect of economic insecurity coerces workers into doing all the things that she’s on air advising them to do.
Intel head Andy Grove alluded to this strategy of management through fear in his book Only the Paranoid Survives, writing “Fear plays a major role in creating and maintaining such passion.” He encourages managers to foster “fear of being wrong and fear of losing” in employees as “powerful motivators.”
Indeed, fear of losing freedom from want will powerfully motivate people to work through illness and past their hours on the clock.
Disasters like this one provide a dramatic reminder of why we need a social contract through which people commit to mutual sacrifice for mutual prosperity and security. They make pronounced the limits of a worldview in which people are atomized entities threatened by the oppressive restrictions of a government which would have the gall to spend their money. The outrage of ordinary citizens at our leaders’ failure to take reasonable measures to ensure their safety is not the sign of weakness the radical right would have us believe any call for government action to be – it’s the rightful grievance of people who know they deserve a better deal which makes the investments necessary to protect them and their families. Hurricanes are a reminder that our interests are interconnected, and that justice demands finding common cause in common challenge, not appealing to the charitable private impulses of individuals as the single means to confront public crises. We may a thousand points of light, but we share the same space.
But even as these horrific events remind us of our common vulnerability, they demonstrate yet again how deeply the impact of such threats is determined along lines of race and class. By and large, those who have been unable to make it out of the devastated city have certain things in common – and contra Bill O’Reilly, they don’t include a desire to lay in wait so they can rape and plunder. A week ago, a friend was defending the old idea that property requirements for voting make sense because they restrict voting to those who have something to lose and therefore have a stake in what government does. I suggested that if we were really to assign votes based on one’s stake in what government does, the poorest would get the lion’s share because they’re the ones who have only voice, not exit, at their disposal when the government fails them. This week shows all too graphically how high the costs can be when elite decisions and oppressive poverty make a terrible situation that much worse.
While I don’t at all agree with Thomas Geoghegan’s contention in Which Side Are You On that the ACLU’s agenda, while noble, wouldn’t “cost anyone anything” to implement, he does speak to a well-justified frustration many “labor liberals” feel at the difficulty of stirring certain civil libertarians to get up in arms about the civil liberties of workers on and off the job. Not only are positive rights (like economic security) crucial to the meaningful exercise of negative rights (like free speech), positive and negative rights frequently and fundamentally intersect, perhaps nowhere moreso than the workplaces in which millons spend the majority of their waking hours. Opposition to civil liberties comes not only from those who see in others’ exercise of their rights a threat to their values but also from those who see in others’ exercise of their rights a threat to their economic interests. That’s why the right of workers to speak, assemble, and organize on and off the job has always been threatened in this country. And that’s why it’s so often fallen to unions, in Nathan Newman’s words, to “bring the first Amendment to the workplace.” It’s worth asking (as Geoghegan was trying, though through a troubling turn of phrase, to do) why the idea of deprivation of civil liberties affects many of us more viscerally than the idea of economic deprivation. But even those who only get up in arms over the former should be disturbed that, as Geoghegan has been reminding us for years, American law offers you no protection against being fired for expressing your political beliefs, and promises the weakest of responses to employers who threaten, punish, or fire workers seeking to bargain collectively.
What are the stakes? The Bush-appointed majority on the National Labor Relations Board provided a reminder last month when it upheld a security firm’s rule that bars its employees from “fraternizing” with each other on or off the job. Guardsmark insisted that its employees give up their right to associate with each other socially on their own time as a condition of employment, and the NLRB blessed the company to keep the rule in place.
Good news: Edith Brown Clement is not, for the moment, a nominee for the Supreme Court.
Bad news: I’m starting to miss her already.
John G. Roberts’ America is not one which does the best traditions of this country proud.
People for the American Way has compiled some of the reasons why. Among the more troubling of his arguments:
School-sponsored prayer at public school graduations poses no church-state problems because students swho don’t like it can just stay home from their graduations.
Congress can ban flag-burning without a free expression problem because bans don’t prohibit the “expressive conduct” of burning the flag – they just remove the flag as a prop with which to do it.
Arresting minors for crimes for which adults are given citations poses no equal protection challenge because minors are more likely to lie.
On choice, Roberts authored a government brief in Rust v. Sullivan that Roe “was wrongly decided and should be overturned.” As for the Lochner litmus test, he dissented from a D.C. Circuit Court case upholding the constitutionality of the Endangered Species Act. And at least in Law School, he apparently took a very broad view of the “takings” clause, opening the door to dangerous judicious activism targeting popular economic regulations which protect the economic security of the American people.
On Thursday, the Change to Win unions released twenty resolutions they’re submitting for votes at the AFL-CIO’s convention at the end of this month. Echoing the dissidents’ May platform, these amendments would commit the Federation to rebate dues to unions prioritizing new organizing, empower it to demand accountability from unions which aren’t and facilitate strategic mergers, and strengthen the power of the most populous unions with the AFL-CIO’s decision-making structure. They would commit the federation to aggressively promote internal diversity, international solidarity, and responsible budgeting. They would commit the federation to foster cooperation and the maintenance of bargaining standards within industries and solidarity across the movement in fighting for retirement security, universal healthcare, and global justice. And in defiance of the threats Sweeney’s issued should the dissidents split off, one of their resolutions would open central labor councils to the participation of non-AFL-CIO unions.
Given that Sweeney has the votes locked down for re-election (though a few are speculating he could still be pressured into bowing out), the debate and voting over these resolutions is likely to be the greatest flashpoint for controversy at the federation’s most contentious convention in a decade. And what happens to these resolutions will be crucial to determining whether the dissidents continue to pursue their agenda for change through the federation or whether they make a break.
As the Change to Win unions consider their next move, they’ve been joined last week by the Carpenters, who formally affiliated with Change to Win four years after themselves splitting off from the AFL-CIO over similar concerns. The Change to Win dissidents have played a key role in keeping the pressure on to stop Sweeney from forcing the Carpenters out of participation in the federation’s Building and Construction Trades Department, and the Carpenters were players in the New Unity Partnership as well. Their affiliation is no surprise, but it does help to further swell the new coalition and puts front and center the model of a union which has experienced success since breaking away from the AFL-CIO. The real coup for the dissidents would be pulling in the National Education Association (NEA).
All of this friction, though certainly tense, has the potential to transform a movement and a set of organizations sorely in need of it, and turn around the decline in American union membership which has steadily pulled the efficacy of the broader left down with it. But don’t take it from me – take it from the prestigious anti-union law firm Morgan Lewis:
If the Coalition’s members follow through on their threats to disaffiliate from the Federation later this year, employers can expect an increased interest in union organizing. This could be especially true for the nation’s largest non-union employers. For employers with existing unionized workforces, this means increased pressure to execute some form of neutrality and card-check recognition agreement. For employers with unions from both competing factions at their facilities, competition for better wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment is likely…the raiding between AFL and CIO constituent unions that occurred prior to 1955 will now play out between Coalition’s members and those remaining loyal to the Federation. The last several years have seen a significant increase in the amount of collaboration between U.S.-based unions and their international counterparts. That collaboration could increase significantly. Finally, more union mergers should be forthcoming.
Kevin LoVecchio is right to argue over at TPMCafe that the libertarian faith in free contracts willfully ignores to extent to which many of the contracts Americans are coerced into on a daily basis are “not about negotiations, but instead are about tricks and traps.”
The conservatives’ ironclad, reality-be-damned faith in the absolute inviolability of contract has an ugly historical pedigree, going back to Congress’ refusal, on “free contract” grounds, in the wake of the Civil War to punish industrialists who knowingly sold defective weapons to the US Army. It’s philisophical pedigree is fraught as well. Hobbes, for example, insists that “Covenants entered into by fear, in the condition of meer nature, are obligatory” lest collective irrationality in the absence of contract fundamentalism drive societies into the war of all against all whose avoidance Leviathan sets forth as the major task of political philosophy.
Such an argument begs the question of whether human desires can really be inferred from contractual behavior in absence of full information or meaningful alternatives, and of whether human beings have any inalienable rights which they are themselves unable to contract away.
Modern conservatives would do well to remember that even Hobbes is forced later in Leviathan to recognize that there are indeed limits on the individual’s freedom to contract freedoms away. “A Covenant not to defend my selfe from force, by force,” he writes, “is alwayes void.” No human being, Hobbes argues, would knowingly trade away the fundamental right to self-defense, nor should an attempt to do so be recognized as valid. Hobbes thus qualifies his faith in contracts as guardians of collective peace and individual liberty with a nod to inalienable rights. What Hobbes does not or cannot set forth is what should distinguish a promise not to defend oneself from violence from a range of other contractual promises – from mortgaging your home to renouncing union membership – which men and women are coerced into making every day, and which many experience as threats to their bodily integrity or that of their families. None of the free contract fundamentalists, most of them members like Hobbes of a class with little reason to fear for their economic security, has come up with a convincing answer since then either.
The Wall Street Journal is mourning the drop of the United States from the top 10 “Economically Free” countries – as measured by the Wall Street Journal:
The U.S., with its strong property rights, low inflation and competitive banking and finance laws, scores well in most. But worrying developments like Sarbanes-Oxley in the category of regulation and aggressive use of antidumping law in trade policy have kept it from keeping pace with the best performers in economic freedom…Most alarming is the U.S.’s fiscal burden, which imposes high marginal tax rates for individuals and very high marginal corporate tax rates.
Of course, it’s not news that the Journal sees the ability of wealthiest in our society to merge, spend, downsize, outsource, dump, poison, union-bust, scam, and exploit with impunity as a measure of economic freedom. It’s long past time for the left to take back the language of economic freedom to discuss the meaningful control over one’s own life which is fostered by the economic security the Journal is doing everything it can to destroy for working Americans. It’s not seemly, of course, for the Journal to appear to be waging class war on behalf of the wealthiest in America, so readers get the obligatory claim that shredding social insurance and regulation is good for the poor:
Policy makers who pay lip service to fighting poverty would do well to grasp the link between economic freedom and prosperity. This year the Index finds that the freest economies have a per-capita income of $29,219, more than twice that of the “mostly free” at $12,839, and more than four times that of the “mostly unfree.” Put simply, misery has a cure and its name is economic freedom.
Funny thing is, the US (supposedly the 13th most economically free country) had a 17% poverty rate in 2004, while Norway (all the way down at #30) was at 6.4%. So if you believe, as most Americans do and even the Journal (itself “pay[ing] lip service to fighting poverty”) claims to, that poverty is a blight on a decent society, think again before trying the Journal‘s prescription.