Thursday, December 10, 2009

On Unions

The following is an excerpt from Arthur Schlesinger's classic "The Age of Jackson". It addresses the first major instance in American history when a case was taken to court involving the rights of workers to unionize. For those conservative friends of mine who derive an unseemly pleasure out of attacking efforts on the part of the working class to empower itself, you should note that the incidents described below occurred in 1836 - a full twelve years before the publication of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto. Labor has fought for its rights long before their right-wing adversaries decided to conflate them with the logical and moral errors of Communism.

In the fall of 1835 the Society of Journeyman Tailors increased its rates, winning recognition of the increase after a brief strike. In January, 1836, their employers combined to roll back the rates to the original level. The tailors promptly struck again. Each side employed its weapons of picketing and black list, and fights between the strikers and the "dungs", as scabs were then called, led to considerable bitterness. When Savage rendered decision in the Geneva case, the employers took the hint and had twenty to the leader tailors arrested for criminal conspiracy.

Brief note: In 1835, the National Trades Union was formed as the first effort on behalf of American laboring classes to organize for the protection of their economic rights. Later that year, a group of shoemakers in Geneva, NY organized a strike when their employers refused to pay them fair compensation for their work. The case eventually went to the New York State Supreme Court, where the shoemakers argued that denial of their right to unionize would "deprive them of the means and opportunity of learning the rights and duties which they are to exercise as citizens" and "forbid these men that union which alone can enable them to resist the oppressions of avarice". Nevertheless, the Chief Justice ruled decisively in favor of the employers, claiming that workers had no right to demand higher wages for their labor since "such practice was injurious to trade and commerce" and deeming all such efforts to constitute the statutory offense of criminal conspiracy.

The strike alone constituted the offense in accordance with the Geneva doctrine; incidental violence was irrelevant in the indictment. Judge (Ogden) Edwards modeled his charge to the jury on Savage, and the tailors were convicted.

William Cullen Bryant, now back in active control of the "Post", led the attack on Judge Edwards. "According to his position, a combination to take a settled price and no less, for any thing to be sold, is a conspiracy injurious to trade and commerce, and is punishable." Apply this, Bryant dryly proposed, to bankers, to owners of packet ships, to butchers, insurance directors and newspapers with their uniform rates for advertising and subscriptions. "Or will it be allowed that the law would be unjust and oppressive if enforced against the opulent and prosperous, while it is contended that it is just and equitable, when those who depend only on the labour of their hands are made its victims?"

Although I readily admit to having a weakness for historical anecdotes, I do not cite this incident merely because of its individually interesting qualities. As measures like the Employee Free Choice Act are mulled over by Congress and strongly supported by progressives, conservatives and their allies among big business are outspoken in their claim that granting workers these rights would somehow constitute an infringement on their commercial liberties. The undeniable implication of their reasoning is that if a free market is necessary to the preservation of political liberty (which I agree is the case), then unions must be stopped, since workers who demand certain wages and benefits for their labor infringe on the commercial liberties of their financially powerful employers.

What makes William Cullen Bryant's observation so brilliant is that, rather than identifying the deep moral wrongs inherent in their reasoning, he instead reprimands big business for their poor logic. Wouldn't big business resent it if the government ruled that they could not charge as much as they desired for the goods and services they provided? On what logical premise did they rest their claim that it was beneficial to the interest of "trade and commerce" for the rich and powerful to control the prices they demanded for their efforts, but dangerous for the middle-class and poor to do likewise?

Once this transparent logical fallacy is understood, of course, the disgusting moral wrong is made self-evident. Those who oppose the rights of workers to unionize do not hold their opinion because they feel organized labor threatens individual liberty, or because they believe laissez-faire economic policies are most likely to stimulate prosperity for the whole of society, or because workers' rights are tied up with Communism and the countercultural movement and a host of other threats to good old fashioned values, or for any other of the other faux reasons that they have fabricated in the past and will continue to manufacture in the future in order to give their position the false appearance of legitimacy. The only reason they oppose efforts on the part of America's working class to economically and politically empower itself is because they want one set of rules to apply to this nation's wealthy and powerful (which of course will serve their desire to become richer and more powerful than before) and another set to apply to the nation's middle-class and working poor (which, similarly, will keep them in their proper social station). In short, the big business and right-wing efforts to thwart worker unionization is motivated by the proudly elitist principle enunciated by Alexander Hamilton in 1780:

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people... The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give, therefore, to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second...

The only noteworthy difference between the early economic conservatives of American history and their modern counterparts is that the former - like Hamilton and the Federalist party -were open about their elitism, while the latter learned how to convince the masses of their populist intentions by proclaiming that all Americans were fundamentally one and the same as the leaders of big business, and that government efforts to curtail their power thus constituted a threat to everyone's freedom. As the greatest pro-elitism orator in our nation's history, Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, proclaimed in 1820:

There is not a more dangerous experiment than to place property in the hands of one class, and political power in those of another... If property cannot retain the political power, the political power will draw after the property.

Webster was correct in his discernment of the fundamental axiom which determines the relationship between economic power and political power. The key difference between conservatives and liberals is that the former want to use this reality to permanently consolidate in the hands of the wealthiest citizens the bulk of our political power; the latter want to guarantee that that power is always available to all of the people.

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