Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day

Jared Bernstein goes big:
But I think what’s missing from our national debate over labor and the condition of working families — those who depend on paychecks, not stock portfolios — is something more fundamental: courage.
So on this Labor Day, I’d like to call for more courage, especially by those of us, and I include myself, who are shy to the point of apologetic about what needs to change, about re-balancing labor’s power with respect to that of capital.
Doesn't take any courage at all for me, but it does for Bernstein as a member of the class-will-go-away-if-we-pretend-it-doesn't-exist fraternity of economists, and I applaud the courage that went into this very strong essay.

Further Reading

I was thinking about posting a list of Labor Day readings, but Corey Robin got there first, and of course not only was his list better than anything I could have done, but it was all things he'd written himself. So go read that.

One little thing I feel like arguing with there is Robin's take on what libertarians and anarchists don't know:
...readers of this blog know all too well that American employees are routinely punished by their employers for speaking out, controversially or uncontroversially, on political issues (and for a great many other things). As I’ve argued many times, this is a distinctly American mode of political punishment and repression: outsource to the private sector (or the workplace) the coercion that a liberal state is constitutionally forbidden to do, a feature of our system noticed by everyone from Tocqueville to DuBois that nevertheless continues not to get enough play.
It only strengthens the broad point to note that Robin has it somewhat upside down: It is not the state but the private sector, the quondam "bourgeoisie" or assembled powers of capital,  that those coercive powers intrinsically belong to; in design terms, the state is merely its "management committee", as the old guys used to say. Employers aren't in some way given the ability to abuse workers, they simply have it, and they're the ones who can outsource it to government, as happens in more repressive or illiberal capitalist regimes, not the other way around.

However, government can also be bent to other uses. The liberties of the American Constitution were doubtless meant for the gentlemen revolutionaries, squires like Jefferson (with slaves instead of tenant farmers) and proto-bourgeois like Hamilton, but its very liberality, plus the gradual expansion of suffrage, allow anybody to coopt it if they can get a party together.

That's how we got the eight-hour day, you know, and the prohibition of child labor, and the OSHA and workers' comp, and so forth, and it was there even in Tocqueville's time: the employers he witnessed were coercive because they couldn't quite get the government to do it for them.

Anyway, this is what completely distinguishes the state from organs of power such as industrial corporations, that its structure leaves it open to different strands of public opinion as the common understanding of the general welfare evolves. (German corporations are open to labor influence through the worker representatives on corporate boards, but that's because government, influenced by powerful labor organizations, was able to make them do it.)

Where the libertarians and anarchists err is in thinking the state is worse than the bourgeoisie, presumably because it has the guns. In a liberal state, though, it literally it can't be any worse than the bourgeoisie, which pays for the guns; only if it ceases to be a management committee and gives up its liberality, becomes a junta, and appropriates all the power to itself in a bourgeois-hostile (Leninist) or bourgeois-friendly (fascist) takeover. And don't pretend that's happening here because NSA, because you know it's not true.

But on the other hand the state can be a good deal better than the bourgeoisie, which is what ought to be the point of a democratic leftist politics.

The greatest Labor Day news in today's Times, then, isn't the rise in union jobs in New York City, heartening as that is, or Obama going on the road to push for a $10.10 minimum wage. It's what Steven Greenhouse reports as
a flood of recent cases — brought in California and across the nation — that accuse employers of violating minimum wage and overtime laws, erasing work hours and wrongfully taking employees’ tips. Worker advocates call these practices “wage theft,” insisting it has become far too prevalent....
Many business groups counter that government officials have drummed up a flurry of wage enforcement actions, largely to score points with union allies.
Uh, I don't think so. The thing is, those cases are real: 70-hour weeks with no overtime, fake classification of employees as independent contractors, out-and-out fraud. There's lots of it, and investigators at federal and state levels are taking some serious interest in putting a stop to it. (Hi, Eric Schneiderman, thanks for getting New York workers that $17 million!)

Oh, and there's a magnificent list of his This Day in Labor History posts from Loomis, so read that too.

The very fat man that waters the workers' beer

German tourist in the US buys a bottle of Budweiser, finds himself intrigued, mails a sample back home to a chemical lab for analysis, and a couple of weeks later gets a reply: Ihr Pferd hat Zucker (Your horse has diabetes).

Well, yes, but it's Labor Day, and your Dogberry Nutmeg Craft Ale or whatever is not union-made, as are all the Anheuser-Busch and Miller-Coors products for whatever it's worth. My favorite American-style horse piss for many years was Yuengling, from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, but they dumped their union in 2006 under an ownership more effectively anti-labor than the Coors family, if not as overall disgusting. Here is a list of union-made American beers; I'm not going to lie to you, it's a pretty dispiriting collection, but it includes Bass from Anheuser-Busch, which survived American manufacturing a lot better in my view than Beck's did.

The good news is that I've been able to resolve a peculiar problem with the list, which is its treatment of the Boston Beer Company, including Boston Oktoberfest and Boston Winter Lager but not the flagship Samuel Adams label: the Boston seasonal brands are made in the company's Cincinnati brewery, by 80 or so organized employees, while the Sam Adams brands are mass produced in Breinigsville, PA by nonunion workers.

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