The Union Difference

Part-time faculty members at Montgomery College, in Maryland, have voted overwhelmingly in favor of union representation by the Service Employees International Union Local 500.

The 365-to-105 vote was a first for part-time instructors in the state, the union said in a news release. About 1,000 adjuncts teach about half of all courses offered at Montgomery College, the union said.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, News Blog, June 5, 2008

If you do a search on the web about labor unions and why people want them you find that the majority of the results, at least on the first page or two, are anti-union propaganda sites. That says a lot about the threat unions represent to the current order. We are hardly organized at all, particularly in the private sector, yet it seems too much for some.

Yet now and again you see a story like the one about the faculty at Montgomery College and you remember that the traditional logic is as powerful as ever. The AFL-CIO has the basic facts, which can be verified in any number of ways: among other things, unions raise salaries, improve health care benefits, and improve productivity.

Rise of the Machines, Part II

This is something that people in the media world don’t understand. Media in the 20th century was run as a single race–consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you’ll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it ‘s three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.

And what’s astonished people who were committed to the structure of the previous society, prior to trying to take this surplus and do something interesting, is that they’re discovering that when you offer people the opportunity to produce and to share, they’ll take you up on that offer. It doesn’t mean that we’ll never sit around mindlessly watching Scrubs on the couch. It just means we’ll do it less.

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus, Clay Shirky, April 26, 2008

What always fascinates me about the technology Utopian crowd– in this case, the web 2.0 guru, is that they sound like they are talking about people when really they are talking about systems. And whenever they talk about these systems amazing things happen, as if by magic.

It’s like looking for the subject in the sentence, “It’s raining.” Who is raining? Who is consuming and producing and sharing? It’s all that messiness of the world, uh, all the complications of the people in the world, that this way of thinking would like to avoid.

The problem is that if you fill in that blank “who” things don’t sound so nice or neat. We in the west have certainly created a social surplus, but it is deeply rooted in the poverty of the global south. And maybe Shirky is right that we also created a cognitive surplus.

I think, though, that people have always been smarter than the boredom offered by capitalism. Shirky says we went on a collective bender and watched sit coms for the last several decades. Some of us did other things– civil rights movements, or unions, or feminism, or environmentalism.

And some of us were doing other things: most dramatically, waging state-sponsored wars that killed hundreds of millions of other people. I think the people in the first group have just barely managed to save us from the people in the second group.

One of the ways these folks saved us is that they kept turning spears into plowshares; the paranoia about the Soviet Union helped to create the very internet that Shirky believes is going to save us. My guess is that this is simply another tool, and that we don’t quite yet know who will be using it.

I don’t think it helps, though, to talk about the future as if the dominos were already pushed over, even in the name of a certain kind of optimism. I think that first group still has a lot of spears left in its arsenals and that the creation of plowshares is not yet automated.

Good News

WASHINGTON — Little-noticed in the tumult of the presidential campaign an the teetering economy, the Teamsters have racked up a series of organizing and contract wins, and may be on the verge of another, at United Air Lines.

The wins range from signing up approximately two-thirds of the workers at UPS Freight — the former Overnite Express — to breaking into the Deep South bastion of Mobile, Ala., by first winning a recognition vote last July and then getting a contract last month, with the help of the NAACP, at the New Era cap company there.

Mark Gruenberg, Monday, March 24, 2008

I’ve never liked this idea that the news should cover ‘good news’ although it’s very clearly true that the major networks and cable news shows push violence. I watched FOX the other morning at the gym and for nearly an hour it was murder after murder after murder. It’s a weird smoke-screen, too, because all of the moral outrage seems to dissipate when the subject changes to the state-sponsored violence in Iraq.

It’s also true that the ‘bad news’ focus makes the presidential race freakishly narrow minded. Really, it becomes ‘bad news horse race’ news. Obama and Clinton are essentially tied, and neither has much of a chance of winning by getting enough delegates. Yet the media narrative has become, “Will Hillary Clinton destroy the Democratic party by refusing to give up?” It’s part of ‘acceptable sexism.’

Why aren’t Obama and Clinton engaged in a fierce competition over ideas about justice and the economy and the war and health care and so on? That’s a better question. This is the context that made the labor news refreshing. It shows that there are media out there offering ‘good news’ of a substantive sort. Now if we could only get ABC to ask the candidates how they would help extend the winning streak.

Workplace Democracy

Liberal ideology insists that a society in which conscious solidarity is the dominating attitude/approach is impossible, because humans are primarily and perpetually motivated by individual material incentives. But the revolutionary process that Venezuela embarked upon in 1999, known as the “Bolivarian Revolution,” is challenging the core liberal tenet that narrow self-interest is the immutable human condition.

In common with notions of participatory democracy and democratic socialism, the Bolivarian process asserts that solidarity and collective action are possible because individuals’ preferences (i.e., needs and desires) are socially and historically constructed through their practices. Rather than being invariably egoistic, humans can come to value social solidarity if institutions are designed to facilitate and not to penalize cooperation.

Workplace Democracy and Collective Consciousness: An Empirical Study of Venezuelan Cooperatives, Camila Piñeiro Harnecker

It’s relatively rare, I think, to find a piece of good old fashioned scientific socialism research, especially a piece that is both accessible and relevant. That’s exactly what Harnecker has produced and like much out of Venezuela recently, it’s a welcome surprise. There’s a lot to think about in the essay, not the least of which is her concise formulation of what might be called the ontological root of capitalism, the Social Darwinian notion of a so-called selfish human nature.

What I like most about the piece is the way it frames this question as an open ended process of creation ratter than a metaphysically closed discovery. The question, in other words, is not whether or not human nature is this or that; the question is whether or not human beings can begin to live in a more directly democratic, cooperative way. If “individual preferences,” in other words, “are socially and historically constructed,” then “humans can come to value social solidarity if institutions are designed to facilitate… cooperation.”

Harnecker also provides a historical portrait of workplace democracy in Venezuela as well as a set of criteria that could be used anywhere to measure any institutions’ progress towards the goal of participatory democracy. Among the most important criteria are “extent,” “mode,” and “scope.” Harnecker also focuses on what we might call transparency and on the extent to which a cooperative has ameliorated problems associated with the traditional divisions of labor.

Her descriptions of the problems these institutions face are relevant well beyond Venezuela. “The emergence of a sense of community among the workers’ collective is undercut,” Harnecker writes, “by internal conflicts largely stemming from members’ inexperience in social relations and administrative tasks.” That sounds like most unions (or universities for that matter) that I have known.

Interestingly, Harnecker links these sorts of problems to size: “But I found that these clashes are only significant in cooperatives with a large membership, where participatory practice is also considerably limited.” It’s a very traditional anarchist idea and perhaps one rooted a kind of social common sense: the larger the organization the more difficult it is for participants to have an effective voice.