Distributive LaborPosted: April 24, 2014
By Gerald Wickham
Labor is misunderstood by conservatives who disdain it but not by workers who want what’s due them for their labor. Workers know that a union is necessary if they are going to get a fair shake from company management. Bob Taft, Ronald Reagan, and George Will are conservatives who are known for their opposition to unions. Bob Taft, an unforgiving conservative is the author of the Taft-Hartley Law that rolled back the hard-won gains of the nineteen thirties. Ronald Reagan put on his anti-union face when as president he fired all traffic controllers striking for better working conditions. George Will is the conservative author of an erudite opinion column that worries about the damaging effects of unions on American capitalism. These three men represent the anti-union attitude of conservatives.
Workers before the 20th century fought for their rights many times against private police forces. It was an adversarial system in which the company’s police beat and killed the workers and the workers sabotaged the company’s property. To this day the workers and the company are adversaries. Workers in the food industries have begun to demand better wages, an hourly rate better than $7.25 per hour. This is not the right way to run a capitalist economy. Workers should not have to go out on the street and fight their company for a decent wage. A better way is with distributive labor. But what is it?
Two examples of leveling the concentration of power that concern labor are: computer processing and electrical power.
IBM programmers and engineers in the early days worked at the big main frame computers which required travel between their office and the main frame. The travel was wasted labor. IBM improved on this by connecting a display and keyboard to the main frame for each engineer and programmer. This got rid of the travel time but it ran up against an overloaded main frame with slow turnaround time. This was corrected with the introduction of the personal computer. Like entropy leveling a natural process. Take a high concentration of computer power and distribute it to small islands of power.
This same scenario is happening now with electric power. The present system of a large generation plant supplying homes and businesses with their electrical needs is beginning to change with the advent of solar panels and government support. This like distributive processing is replacing a high concentration electrical generation with small islands of generation, in homes and office buildings. Ideally, the power plant would reduce its wattage over time and would become a controller and monitor of the distributive network. It would also be the site for the storage of electrical power.
Question: Can we do the same for labor and turn around the adversarial mind set? I think it is possible, but not easy.
First of importance, is that the political power is concentrated in the hierarchy of company and union management This concentration has to be spread out to small islands of compatible company and union workers. They are not adversarial, but each one half of a team trained and educated to work in the best interest of their site. And management must come to accept the workers as political and knowledgeable equals for it to be agreed to by the workers. A motivator for them is that their jobs depend on the success of their site.
This labor and management innovation needs the support of the company and the union hierarchy. Each site would have a board consisting of elected leaders from labor and assigned leaders from management. The pilot project will demonstrate the superiority of a team of management and labor working together for the success of their enterprise contrasted with management and labor working towards the same end as adversaries. The project has to be researched and designed carefully to prevent its failure. It’s possible management will resist seeing workers as equals and the union should be prepared for it. The union has to pick workers committed to the company’s success. But they should work with the board advocating for fair pay and working conditions. An example of management’s skepticism is outlined below.
When Saturn Division was created by GM, there was going to be a new era for GM workers. Their advice and suggestions were to be part of running of the division. The workers tried to convince management to produce the SUV, a hot new automobile model. Saturn sloughed off the workers’ advise and did a company study of the market. The company study of the new market was finished in two years, after the “hot market” had run its course. Convincing companies that workers have a lot of knowledge of the product and will work to see it succeed if they are treated with respect has to be shown to the company’s upper management.
The sites should be manageable sizes. Five hundred could be a limit. A Ford engine plant is one example of a proper size of a site where workers and management can work together for the best of Ford Motors Company. CVS Pharmacies in Broome County could be an example of a distributive site which is just a collection of pharmacies.
The hierarchical organization of the labor unions wouldn’t disappear; they could become research and opinion institutions like the Heritage and Brookings Institutions. They would provide a source of information for the “distributive” workers and management.
Management and labor’s centralized leadership will be the hardest nuts to crack. But they can be, if each side will support a demonstration project. To experience company and union workers operating in a friendly, supportive atmosphere will be unique in American labor history. George Will might accept the results if he doesn’t think that American capital has disgraced itself by giving up too much power.