Karl Marx Meets the CTU
I’m currently on an airplane watching Fox News, because evidently I hate myself. The show I’m watching today is Stossel, focusing on the just-concluded strike of the Chicago Teacher’s Union. Beyond the usual Fox News blizzard of disinformation are some glimmers of sense – namely that public-sector worker activism often generates skepticism amongst even strong proponents of worker activism in general. I think this skepticism makes perfect sense, and that even strong supporters of worker’s rights should not uncritically embrace every public-sector union in every labor action. While of course any reference to Marx by a market liberal is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I think old Karl can shed some light on the issue.
Marxist theory supports worker activism against employers grounded in the “surplus labor theory of value”. Basically, the value (and price) of a good represent the labor put into it. Whatever profit an employer is able to make represents the differential between the prevailing wage his workers demand and the actual value of the good. Profit is, to Marx, the theft of that “surplus” value by the employer. Workers have a moral right to attempt to recover that surplus by organizing, bargaining collectively, and using direct action when necessary.
With public workers, there is no surplus labor value because there is no profit. Because public employers (let’s say “CPS”, the Chicago Public Schools”) aren’t skimming the surplus labor value, they can’t be exploited in the classic sense. It is within worker’s rights to organize – there’s even a pragmatic case that the relative security and decent pay of public-sector jobs attracts better employees, and that expanding benefits packages would further that aim. But the moral imperative for workers to take what is owed them does not exist – they are not bargaining over an equitable distribution of enterprise profits, but for ever-greater distributions of public cash and less accountability.
Counterpoint: Teachers needever-greater distributions of public cash due to Baumol’s Cost Disease.
Conservatives have displayed admirable discipline and strategy in their mostly successful long game against unions. By focusing on erecting obstacles to unionization and disarming the enforcement mechanisms that guard against employer abuse, the role of private sector unions has been dramatically diminished over the past 50 years. By making public-sector unions the face of unionization, the Republican Party has done a fantastic job of diminishing the political clout of unions. At the same time, the Democrats have not made a priority of shoring up the ability of private-sector workers to organize. Barack Obama promised unions card check legislation and enhanced NLRB enforcement, but has been able to deliver only (somewhat) on the latter. While I am hopeful that the pendulum will swing back towards a more organized private sector eventually, I’m not holding my breath.