Saturday, 24 January 2015

Government of Itself: Public sector trade unionism and the limits of democracy


I've had little time to sit and write since returning to Ruskin after the Christmas break given the pace of work, although I have been desperate to write something in order to reflect upon and interpret much thought related to recent teaching, and in particular linked to critical reflective practice and also trade union leadership.

I think I shall come back to these themes (not least as they will appear a lot within my teaching over the next few months) and instead use this post to grind an axe over a remarkably porous and ultimately ill-conceived new book published this month.

Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences by Daniel DiSalvo was published on 6th January by Oxford University Press (OUP), and is hailed in the marketing blurb thus:

As workers in the private sector struggle with stagnant wages, disappearing benefits, and rising retirement ages, unionized public employees retire in their fifties with over $100,000 a year in pension and healthcare benefits. The unions defend tooth and nail the generous compensation packages and extensive job security measures they've won for their members. However, the costs they impose crowd out important government services on which the poor and the middle class rely. Attempts to rein in the unions, as in Wisconsin and New Jersey, have met with massive resistance. Yet as Daniel DiSalvo argues in Government against Itself, public sector unions threaten the integrity of our very democracy.

Before I engage with the book, it is helpful to note that DiSalvo is a fellow of the Manhattan Institute (MI), a right-wing thinktank established by none other than William Casey, who was director of the CIA under Reagan. In its modern-day guise the Institute retains a ruthless, authoritarian position on the state, privatisation, immigration, welfare etc., and is core funded by a league of ne'er do wells including the Koch brothers. Here is a useful background institute and its background and contemporary status:

The MI status of DiSalvo is critically important in understanding (a) the dogmatic, irrational and deeply flawed theses of the book, and (b) why, in the frenzy of the post-Obama era, and search for the Republican presidential candidate, the books 'findings' have been leapt upon with such glee by the right, as a way to undermine any trade union support for the Democrat candidate.

Although it may set your teeth on edge, any sound critical analysis of the book (it isn't worth buying, trust me) requires listening to a first-hand account of the premise of the book by DiSalvo himself at a MI bash a couple of weeks ago:

Whilst I may sound na├»ve, I am surprised that the OUP have published a book whose critical weaknesses rest principally on the explicit bias and prejudice of the author, and thus can withstand no simple analysis of its many flawed arguments.

DiSalvo's principle position is that public sector workers rule government, particularly at local/state level (by supporting pro-union councillors etc.), and thus contrive corrupt rules and enjoy lavish benefits that no other workers enjoy. He claims a pretended love of private sector unions who, he argues, have nothing other then simple bargaining power to achieve vastly disproportionate levels of pay/benefits, and thus, somehow, are better/true unions, as a result.

Thatcher and DiSalvo: You can't
trust public sector trade unions
If you wasn't aware of DiSalvo's MI patronage, you'd wonder what he was up to, and how he could reach such conclusions, but then everything falls into place. Whilst DiSalvo claims, as Thatcher did in the 80's when banning unions at GCHQ, that there is a contradiction in allowing independent trade unionism in delivering sensitive public services, he is, unremarkably, silent about issues of impartiality/trust etc., when it is the private sector as service delivery agent.
Similarly, whilst he argues that public sector unions are a threat to democracy, he seems incapable of drawing a more relevant conclusion when analysing the rise of state power vis the state - but that's because he explictly ignores the issue, as he sees no conflict here in any case. That ALEC is one the organisations allied to MI is a testament to how corrupted is DiSalvo's position on the threats to liberal democracy in the US. Read Paul Krugman in the New York Times (NYT) on ALEC to understand my point:

Trade unions can indeed be reactionary, conservative self-serving bodies, and there is a vast body of literature which chronicles how this pattern of behaviour has both precipitated labour movement decline, and in some contexts is an impediment to renewal. DiSalvo's book however, has nothing to add that was not known already, nor does it  offer an authentic, original, scholarly approach within the field.

At a time when the limits of democracy in both the US and UK preclude the interests and values of the bulk of the population, trade unions can and do act as a corrective in providing an equilibrium within the imbalance of corporate influence on mainstream political parties, and thus on government. Additionally, public sector trade unions have a legitimate place as civil society actors in alliance with the public in defending services, particularly in the context of austerity measures. Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage provide a cogent insight on this in the Canadian context in Public Sector Unions in the Age of Austerity:

This book could have been a useful assessment of why and how trade unions seek to gain power and influence in the US, and perhaps even how this may act as a detriment to workers', society and government interests. Instead, it serves the beneficial purpose of realising further the manipulative reach of corporate interests within the academic/research sphere.

In Solidarity


Thursday, 8 January 2015

2015: Reasons to be Cheerful


Have returned to Ruskin from the Christmas break and, as it is as hectic as ever, I am copping out slightly of writing an original first post for 2015, by referencing a great article written In These Times just before the end of 2014, which signalled another set of reasons to remain hugely optimistic about the future of organised labour.

I had better not get into hot water with the good folks at In These Times so rather than reproducing the text, here is the link to the article on the 9 most important victories for workers in 2014:

When we come together, when we fight together, we can win.
As we have always known and understood as trade unionists, a victory for workers anywhere, is a victory for workers everywhere (nicking and adapting a profound Martin Luther King phrase). So, whilst the article focuses on gains by the labour movement in the US, we all gain strength from these, not least in the context of a neo-liberal globalisation.

When I first read the article I was already minded to think that some of the gains e.g. those by the courts and NLRB extending workers' rights to those nominally deemed to be self-employed, or recognising that franchisors (like McDonalds) can be treated as employers and held liable for infringements of employment and labour laws, and even confirming that workers can use company email for union/organising activity, were anathema in the current economic and political climate the UK and much of Europe.

Indeed, as I reflected on the article, and the job losses at City Link where I live in Coventry, it placed the US gains in even sharper relief, as these UK workers find that the company, bought for £1 by venture capitalists, would have to rely on the government scheme to possibly get the redundancy payments they are entitled to (the self-employed, so called 'partners' entitled to nothing) as the company was revealed to be run on the basis of debt and perversely a company's workforce is not a preferential creditor in such circumstances.

The casino capitalism of City Link: A sure-fire way to destroy local and national economies.
As the day's rolled by after the closure of City Link the scandal of how the company was run in order that 'investors' be shielded from its eventual implosion was revealed in successive articles by the Guardian (e.g.

It is only a strong international labour movement, backed by regulatory fairness in employment practice, that can act as a corrective to the casino capitalism that lays behind the scandal of City Link.

As the In These Times article, and many other labour movement victories in 2014 evidence, we should never abandon the struggle to realise these goals on a global scale.

Those who built labour movements around the world didn't, and nor should we.

I look forward to reporting on further victories in 2015, and discussing them with you if our paths should cross.

In Solidarity