Repeal Taft-Hartley (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Assuming that the US Presidential election is between Trump and Clinton (or, for that matter, Sanders) the voting bloc that’s most obviously up for grabs is that of working-class whites[^1]. Relative to expectations, working class whites have done worse under neoliberalism/market liberalism than almost any other group in the population. So, they ought to be more solid than ever against the right. But it’s easy for tribalists like Trump to blame migrants and minorities for the losses that working class whites have suffered.

What’s needed to turn this around, I think, is something, in Trump’s words “yuge”. My suggestion is repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act. Way back in 1948, Taft-Hartley prefigured anti-union laws that were passed throughout the English-speaking world[^2] from the 1970s and have spread even further since then. Its repeal would, at a minimum, be a huge symbolic step.

Would it be more than symbolic? The case for mere symbolism was presented (a little surprisingly for me) by Doug Macarey in Counterpunch

Yes, without Taft-Hartley there would be more national membership drives, more people being allowed to join unions, all of which would be a salutary, democratic effect of repeal, one that would benefit working people. But, arguably, the country is too “grown-up,” too cynical and world weary, to engage in radical industrial actions such as secondary strikes and boycotts, even if they were made legal.

With so many workers now invested in the stock market, and union expectations and identity having been profoundly warped over the last half-century, it would be hard to find a critical mass willing to engage in the more radical actions made available by repeal of Taft-Hartley.

This argument, presented in 2008, looks hopelessly dated now. Whatever could be said of the American electorate, and particularly the working class, no one today could argue that they are too “grown-up” to consider radical ideas. The question now is, what kind of radicalism they will embrace.

[^1]: This is a much abused term. Since class isn’t easily observable, it’s commonly used to refer to white people without a college degree, a group that includes Paris Hilton and Bill Gates. A further problem is that, regardless of education, Southern whites vote as an ethnic bloc, having switched their allegiance from Democrats to Republicans over the past 50 years or so. But, if we confine attention to non-Southern whites who work for a living at low or moderate wages, we still have a large group, and one whose votes can’t be taken for granted.
[^2]: I regularly get objections to commenting as a foreigner on US politics. But it ought to be obvious that the outcome of this election matters just as much to residents of client states like Australia as to US citizens who have a vote.

29 thoughts on “Repeal Taft-Hartley (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. And we both have to tolerate Murdoch media outlets as he attempts regime change in each country.

  2. Wikipedia says, “The Taft–Hartley Act prohibited jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing, closed shops, and monetary donations by unions to federal political campaigns. It also required union officers to sign non-communist affidavits with the government. Union shops were heavily restricted, and states were allowed to pass right-to-work laws that outlawed closed union shops. Furthermore, the executive branch of the federal government could obtain legal strikebreaking injunctions if an impending or current strike imperiled the national health or safety.”

  3. I came upon this op-ed piece in my local northern NJ newspaper a few days ago. Its title “Why the working class embraces Trump” engaged my interest. A key distinction to bear in mind is that Trump’s campaign has financial support from one person – Trump himself, while Sanders is supported by thousands of contributors at the $35 level. I apologize for the length of the post, and realize that it’s not completely on topic, but here it is:

    Why the working class embraces Trump

    By Keith Zakheim (former Republican councilman in Paramus, NJ)
    The Record March, 9, 2016

    It is ironic that in a year when a socialist candidate for president is posing a credible challenge in the Democratic primaries, it is the followers of a man who preens in his capitalist cape as a peacock flaunts its feathers who embody the Marxist prophecy. It is not Donald Trump who has captured the imagination of the working class; he is the beneficiary of a decades-long economic alienation that has led to a mass migration away from the political establishment. For Trump, it is just the right place at the right time.

    Karl Marx lived in Europe more than 150 years ago during a time of revolution, counterrevolution and intracontinental wars that left in their wake killing fields in England, France, Germany, Russia and Poland and elsewhere. Marx and his intellectual followers challenged the working class of Europe to reject the pull of nationalism, race or religion in favor of uniting around economic interests.

    Why, asked Marx, should a factory worker in Germany bear arms against his economic brother in Russia when the benefit of that war accrues to the very people who are his economic subjugators? In the jargon of Marxism, history first reveals a “class in itself” before the full consciousness emerges of “class for itself.” In other words, claimed Marx, workers were only a “class in itself” in that that they shared an economic reality and station but lacked a political consciousness and will.

    Marx predicted that from the friction of international conflict and economic subjugation there would finally emerge a true international working class, a “class for itself,” that comes to the historical realization that only the worker can truly stand sentinel over the interests of the worker. And that nationalism, race and religion are ruling-class artifices that confine the working class to stagnant wages and political impotence.

    More recently, Thomas Frank echoed this in his 2010 book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” It explored the motivations behind GOP voters in middle America supporting candidates who promoted economic policies that undermined those voters’ self-interest. To Frank, social, religious and security issues were little more than populist red herrings designed by the political class to distract working-class voters from pursuing their self-interests.

    Economic interests

    As we know from the history books, Marx’s pleadings fell on deaf ears in his lifetime, and the tens of millions of graves from World Wars I and II bear witness to the magnetic pull of national, racial and religious identity. And while Marxist ideology gave birth to the Soviet empire and Communist revolutions in dozens of countries around the world, in the United States, the notion of identifying along economic interests and voting those interests to the exclusion of a social, religious or nationalistic agenda has never occurred.

    That is, until now.

    Trumpians are Republicans and Democrats, hawks and doves, evangelicals and atheists, urbanites and suburbanites and men and women. They are united by their class suffering: growing income disparity, stagnant working-class wages, subpar health care, failing schools, unaffordable college tuition, blighted urban areas, underwater mortgages and massive youth unemployment.

    They will no longer be fooled by the smooth-talking pol who harangues against Wall Street on the stump but uses its lucre to pay for campaign advertisements. Politics 101, which teaches both political parties to use race, gender and religion to distract, divide and conquer, is finally being confronted by an electorate that wants access to the American dream for themselves and their children.

    Trump is a foul-mouthed bigot who lacks the intelligence, grace and humility to lead the greatest nation on earth. But he does have one redeeming quality — he is not a member of the political class — and a vote for him is not an irrational choice. In fact, if it is true that “insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting a different result,” then Trump voters today are acting perfectly rationally in not pulling the lever for career politicians.

    So, with all due respect to Bernie’s Army, if Marxist theory materializes in this election, it won’t be to the benefit of Bernie Sanders.

  4. This is a curious thread,…

    “Proponents of the act mostly fell into two categories. The first group included those who were opposed to all collective bargaining of any kind. The second group consisted of people who were generally not opposed to collective bargaining but who felt the labor unions had gained too much power during the war. Both groups thought the government should put limitations on the unions that would coincide with the limitations already in place for employers. Still others felt that labor organizations had become a cover for racketeering (fraudulent business schemes involving intimidation) and other unsavory activities.”

    ……considering that Malcolm Turnbull is threatening a double dissolution of our parliament if he cannot apply finishing touches to the Australian legislation series that have to be an “above and beyond” of the Taft-Hartley (trade mark) act.

  5. @JKUU

    That article is of considerable interest. The writer is correct in identifying that class interests (and to some extent “tribal” interests as J.Q. calls them) are coming to the fore again. The rest of the story to date illustrates that those who do not remember history are indeed condemned to repeat it. The “repeating” consists in the appearance and support for an extremist, right-wing demagogue. Trump stands for nothing except ultra right-wing, capitalist power. He will divide people and create ugly conflicts in order to cement his power (and incidently to him as he is totally selfish) and cement the power of US capitalists generally.

    I don’t want to explicitly invoke Godwin’s Law here but everyone of intelligence and learning knows where the Trump bandwagon is headed if he gets full power. Note, becoming President might well be a necessary but not sufficient condition for Trump to get “full power”. Time will tell if Trump wins the presidency. I still doubt that he will win the presidency. However, the USA’s trend to corporatocracy still continues. Could Bernie Sanders halt that trend with wide popular support if he made the White House? Again, I don’t know and only time will tell.

  6. Given that things were good for the white working class for 20-30 years after Taft-Hartley, is it really a problem?

  7. @JKUU

    That article’s entire premise is bunk. Trump supporters are not “united by their class suffering”. Income and education do not predict support for Trump:

    “What I found is a trend that has been widely overlooked. A voter’s gender, education, age, ideology, party identification, income, and race simply had no statistical bearing on whether someone supported Trump. Neither, despite predictions to the contrary, did evangelicalism.”

    And arguing that the rise of Trump—whose key policies are unabashedly xenophobic and jingoistic[1]—heralds the formation of an international working class that eschews other forms of identity politics in accordance with Marxist theory is perhaps the most special reading of American politics I’ve ever encountered.

    [1] This is as true of his economic policies, which revolve around making America great again by beating other countries in international trade, as anything else. His rhetoric is nationalistic, not class-based—he talks about America as a whole losing, and other countries winning, as a result of international trade (which is a nonsense), not about the implications of trade for working class Americans (which are very plausibly negative for some types of trade).

  8. Trump is selling American trumpalism, and he is doing it well. People who do not feel they belong to any particular “classical” class are looking toward Trump and seeing someone who eschews class, but sells the “America can be great” theme to those self-described un-classed people. His appeal, I think, is that he also is giving the finger to the usual political bluster of the Republican party, and in it’s own way that frees him from easy categorisation. Given that he was born into an extraordinarily rich family, this is is seemingly deeply ironic, on the face of it; however, it doesn’t actually matter to the potential voters, since, after all, it has been a long time since a presidential candidate wasn’t a multi-millionaire. Being a $500 million dollar candidate or a multi-billion dollar candidate, it’s all the same to the potential voters earning a minimum wage.

  9. Its good to see a discussion of this obnoxious law which belongs up there with other relics of feudal system.

    Especially when Turnbull is expending a lot of hot air currently pushing legislation of similar intent and proving yet again he is Abbot lite – if this is possible given what a lite weight Abbot himself was.

    The only trouble with the proposal arises when one applies Bayesian probability/cause > effect analysis to it.

    Legislative repeal doesnt come from nowhere but from a chain of events which I would provisional propose as something like this:

    =>Electorate suddenly gets intelligent/informed
    => the professions like economists change their view on how the economy works and progressive actions should be facilitated and a big body of consensus work evolves which is unchallenged and provides the basis for unions and the public to move forward
    =>the process is not whiteanted by the security services targetting early on the ‘subversive’ organisations championing change – see recent documentary on Anonymous and the Scientologists for illustration of how this works.
    => the unions come on side and provide an organising focus rather than a barrier because of their vested interest in the status quo
    => the backlash PR propaganda vested interest campaign fails
    => sufficient voters actually get out and vote in sympathetic politicians to replace the politicians beholden to dark forces
    => the proposal goes to the Democrat controlled congress and Senate
    => who dont resist the second tier propaganda campaign directed at congress or the President
    => and who dont water down the repeal/amendment which is locked into a complex of other legislation
    => fillibustering fails
    =>changes in allegiance in all three tiers of US government align for the better
    => the legislation is passed
    => no significant reaction takes place to scupper the beneficial effect in non-union states
    => the process doesnt take to long so that the progressives put this through before the backlash gains a foothold
    => etc. etc.

    Now the real world process would actually not be a chain but HACCP network/system style process which would be even more complex though probably still amenable to defining using a Bayes Net or something similar…maybe a neural net.

    The plus side is the latter process would provide a technique for identifiying where to target effort. The downside is that the forces of dakness could use this same understanding to whiteant such change.

    Sadly at present I dont see this complex causal chain having a snowballs chance in hell once you add the probabilities. As a consequence I dont see the solution as occuring through everyone being rational and civilized or even revolution……the people who currently look most like revolutionaries are busy choosing between Trump and Cruz…..enough said.

    We have had a recent demonstration of these barriers and effects operate in the US in the form of health care reform. Its been going since before Clinton, the final result is far from satisfactory and the corporations still rule OK.

    No, something else needs to happen following which repeal of this act would be a mere afterthought. I have no clue what this might be except maybe a visit from a real life Klatu or Xenu, or a second coming. And the chances of these…..? (see David Ecke and his intergalatic lizards).

  10. Trump is right. Free trade in labour intensive goods and immigration does damage labour even if it provides efficiency gains to the economy as a whole. The evidence suggests this – for decades wages have remained stable (or fallen) as incomes have increased.

    Strengthening trade union monopoly power and bidding up wages in this situation without addressing the effectively increased competition labour faces will cause unemployment and misery.

    The obvious first best policy here is to enjoy the efficiency gains but tax capital owners and land owners more intensively to compensate those who lose.

  11. The yuge step may be much reduced market liberalism regarding access to the American labour market- neither Sanders nor Clinton will step away from their market-fundamentalist views on immigration- leaving Trump as the defender of labour and more of a leftist on this matter than his opponents.

  12. @hc

    Trump is wrong. He presents trade as a zero-sum form of competition in which some countries win and other countries lose. He is not preaching the Stolper-Samuelson result. Why would you defend such economic illiteracy?

    Your argument about union power only works if wage stagnation is wholly, or at least mostly, about factor price equalization brought about by the actual or virtual (embedded) international movement of (unskilled) labour.

    But the evidence strongly suggests that, at least in the 1980s and 1990s, international trade could account for only a small share of the increased inequality in the US.

    The literature on the wage impacts of immigration in the US is pretty equivocal. Generally little to no impact is found, but even for approaches/studies that do find a significant impact, it’s a long way from fully explaining wage stagnation/decline or increased inequality.

    Click to access w9755.pdf

    The above paper is an example of a study finding a relatively large impact: a 3.2% decrease in the wage of the average native worker as a result of immigration between 1980 and 2000 (8.9% for high school dropouts, 2.6% for high school graduates, and 4.9% for college graduates). This is a reduction of 0.16% per year, which is very small compared with labour productivity growth over the period, 1.5-2.5%. If there had been no immigration, there would have been essentially the same divergence between wage growth and labour productivity growth. And this paper assumes a fixed capital stock, when in reality labour mobility surely affects capital flows.

  13. @Stockingrate

    Denying workers from poor countries access to higher-wage labour markets makes somebody a “defender of labour” and more left wing? Does the welfare of workers born in developed countries matter more to you than the welfare of workers born in developing countries, or is it just the welfare of those born in the US that counts more?

    Your post is a perfect example of why it makes no sense to talk about an international working class.

  14. @Luke Elford

    Capitalism is playing the game of labour arbitrage. That doesn’t mean it cares for workers in poor countries nor that its machinations will help them. It wants to manufacture in countries with no worker protections and no environmental protections. Apple’s practices in its Chinese factory were a prime example.

  15. @Newtownian

    Yes Newtonian, the Murdoch forces will campaign relentlessly against the progressive reform so its chances are slim.

    But a third force does not need to be a Xenu or a Second Coming: all it will take is for a big chunk of Iceland to fall into the sea and generate a tsunami that swamps New York; or for the Gulf Stream to reverse and 50 million Europeans head for the exits. Climate change won’t be incremental and a sequence of big events that affect USA or Europe directly will change the tenor of the debate.

  16. @Luke Elford
    Luke Elford, Surely international trade must net out as a zero sum game? To the extent that I understand Stolper/Samuelson, which I admit falls a fair way short of good, it is just another branch of economic theory which ignores the consumption of energy and the manipulation of exchange rates that warps comparisons across international borders. If its basic assumption of perfect competition doesn’t hold, then the theory collapses.

  17. Luke, You cite evidence on immigration impacts not trade. I think the combined effects of dumping extra labour in the US economy and of importing almost all labour intensive goods must be adverse for labour. It is difficult to detect these effects econometrically for a host of reasons but evidence that globalisation has no effects on wages in rich developed countries seems to me suspect.

    It all works well. These liberalisations provide income gains but most benefits go to capital and perhaps highly skilled workers. That is what has happened.

  18. @hc

    The issue at hand is the extent to which globalisation is to blame for wage stagnation/increasing inequality, not whether or not globalisation has had adverse effects on low-skilled workers in developed countries such as the US.

    I did mention evidence about the impacts of international trade, but if you want something specific, consider the following paper.

    Click to access wp279.pdf

    Again, I’m deliberately highlighting a study that predicts fairly large impacts.

    It finds that US trade with less developed countries reduced the wages of unskilled workers in the US by 2.8% by 1995 and by 4.0% by 2006. So, the effect is of a similar magnitude to that of the immigration study I cited in my earlier comment. The study finds that, in the future, offshoring could plausibly increase the effect to 9.4%. A later paper by the same author found that the effect of trade had increased to 5.5% in 2011.

    These certainly aren’t insignificant amounts. But within the context of median real wage stagnation over a 40-year period, during which time real wages could reasonably have been expected to double? There must be a lot more to the story, and so it is completely legitimate to explore other policy responses.

  19. @Geoff Edwards

    The Stolper-Samuelson theorem implies that international trade between the US and developing countries with a relative abundance of low-skilled workers (e.g. China, Mexico) makes low-skilled US workers worse off. Still keen to reject this result because it relies on perfect competition?

  20. @Luke Elford

    You are correct to highlight the effect of trade with less developed countries reducing the wages of unskilled workers in developed countries. I suspect this effect would not be entirely limited to unskilled labour.

    The important thing is to put this phenomenon into the context of the capitalist system, its history and developments. In earlier eras, workers in the West were able to become the “aristocracy of labour”. The term has several meanings. Without going into it too deeply, I use the term here to refer to the privileged position Western labour carved out for itself by forcing concessions from Western Capitalists, mainly in the Colonialist/Imperialist eras. The West industrialised first and used this productive power and colonialism to amass wealth. Western labour was able to wring concessions out of capitalists and imperialists who in the era were making what one might term super-profits.

    This era faded with fuller globalisation aided by better transport, communications and automation. It is now more cost effective for many capitalists to move production to lesser developed countries than to buy off labour in their own developed countries. This creates a strong downward pressure on wages in developed countries. The phenomenon that modern “accommodationists” miss (those who think we can come to another accommodation with capitalism within our developed polities) is precisely this. The era where Western labour could wring accommodations out of capital is over. It was ended by full globalisation including the full internationalisation of finance.

    Capital does not have to play the accommodationist game anymore. It can move production offshore or anywhere almost at will. It can now play the labour arbitrage game internationally. Labour has no more ways to win, even regionally, under capitalism. It is all downhill for labour and this has been the empirical case for the last 40 years in the West. On technical, economic measures there is still a benefit in moving from peasant to worker in the third world. Whether this benefit is entirely real in all cases would be a matter requiring extensive investigation. I would suspect the benefits are still positive overall but patchy and contradicted in specific instances and regions. Given the environmental damage and unsustainable practices involved, there is good reason to suspect these improvements are historically temporary.

  21. @Ikonoclast

    I don’t find this globalisation-means-labour-has-no-way-to-win-any-more stuff very consistent with, for example, evidence about the effectiveness of minimum wages.

  22. @Luke Elford

    What Krugman says applies only in markets where foreign competition does not occur or does not occur in a significant way. This means fast food and local retail but not heavy manufactures for example. A person in the USA can hardly order takeaway food from mainland China. They also cannot do the weekly shop in a mainland China store. They shop downtown in Main Street, USA. Krugman mentions wages are horribly low to begin with. That says a volume in itself and illustrates what the main trend for the working poor has been for the last 40 years in the US. He fails to mention, as he should, or I missed it, that raising these wages increases the ability of workers to spend and this is good for the economy due to that higher marginal propensity to spend of the working poor.

    However, there is little to suggest in all this that US labour has much bargaining power. The odd state in the USA has raised the minimum wage a little bit. It has had positive effects locally. True so far, but most states and most capitalist ideologues in the USA still don’t know and don’t care about these facts and effects. US Labor has little to no bargaining power to push it further.

    Labor, in the main in the developed world, has no way to win from globalisation. Those poorer workers who can get or are given some movement in real wages in the other direction in the US are often on less than subsistence wages (I am sure most get food stamps) and in industries where global competition is scarcely an issue. Also, it is happening in a tiny piecemeal way and not a general way. I don’t see this as refuting my general point.

  23. So the Humpty Dumpty Trumpies look at government and realise that it is dominated by big business and powerful interest groups. And that clearly includes most of the Democrats. They feel their lack of power and control. Is it any surprise they latch onto a candidate like Trump (or like Sanders, for that matter)?

    If corporations continue to dominate debate (and one only has to look at the never ending attack on penalty rates here), then no doubt a Trump will triumph, sooner or later. So JQ is probably right – do something that genuinely does benefit the working population.

    But what chance is there of that when the idealogues of the right in Oz didn’t want a GST increase unless every last cent of it went to fund tax cuts for those who don’t need them?

  24. @hc
    Yes, and yet the push is still on to increase the power of business. IBM has Indian programmers here on 457 visas. One slip and they go back to India. They aren’t paid at the rates applicable to IBM’s Australian employees. And many local IBM programmers haven’t had even a nominal pay increase in years.

    We all love cheap prices, but it seems to me that they cost some of us too much.

  25. Unions are dead in the USA and a Republican Congress has no plans to bring them back.

    Given that Trump is a slightly moderate Republican on many economic policies including trade but married to rancid nationalism and complete and total ignorance of everything including what he said 5 minutes ago, Clinton will prefer to camp over the middle ground because Trump has abandoned the independents but will appeal to blue dog Democrats.

    #NeverTrump I would prefer to vote for Hillary Clinton while she was in a jail cell rather than Donald Trump

  26. @Jim Rose

    Only workers and dispossessed can bring unions back in the USA and then not easily. It would be a tough campaign with many heads broken.

    Phantom say: “When many people have starving bellies, many people risk broken heads.”

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