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Garfinkle Responds to Via Meadia on Michigan Union Battle

On the domestic front at least, Michigan’s battles over right-to-work laws and other union rights are the most important story of the week. If right-to-work laws continue their sweep of the Rust Belt and unions continue to decline in their old heartland, there will be far-reaching implications that could affect the development of national politics for the next decade or more.

We’ve given our own take on the story as it’s developed this week, but on his own TAI blog, Adam Garfinkle weighs in on the situation in Michigan, arguing that in the rush to dismantle the unions, Americans have forgotten the non-economic benefits of a strong working relationship between employers and labor:

Barring some very improbable mass return to a more egalitarian and self-sufficient pastoral life, or a leap forward to a comparable situation where people in much greater numbers work for themselves, there is nothing to be done about this. It just is what it is. (Attempts to eradicate the problem by having the state play the role of capitalists, whether in “soft” Left socialist or “hard” Left communist terms, haven’t worked out so well, and indeed they didn’t even solve the basic problem.) A work contract within any for-profit enterprise, even in America today, is still essentially a form of indentured servitude, though for the vast majority of us it is so very mild a form that the term doesn’t feel right: We can quit and seek work elsewhere on pretty short notice or no notice, we can get severance pay, we have certain rights of redress, we can get government unemployment benefits if one party or the other breaks the contract, and so on and so forth. All the same, no one who does not work for himself or within an integral family unit is truly free and “at liberty” the same way that someone who does work for himself is.

This is so simple and obvious a point that it is rarely made explicit or recognized at all these days. But it is important precisely because in the absence of the radical liberty afforded by self-employment the only thing that makes this condition morally tolerable is the extension by an employer to an employee of the unambiguous acknowledgment of workers’ inalienable dignity. Yes, the very act of employing someone instrumentalizes that person; the employer cares more about what a person can do than who a person is. That is natural, and the larger the enterprise and workforce, the more natural it is. But that is not a sufficient basis for a stable and mutually beneficial relationship. What that means, among other things, is that understanding capital-labor relationships, and understanding the role of unions as well, requires more than economics.

And that, finally, is what is really disturbing about what the Republicans in the Michigan state legislature have done. Whatever their thinking or their actual motives—and I’m not thereby giving them the benefit of the doubt—they are instrumentalizing people. They are in effect enabling the withdrawal or the diminishment of the acknowledgment of workers’ dignity. They are encouraging the breaking of a bond far more important and precious to a society than a mere labor contract. They have done something that is both wrong and ultimately foolish.

Garfinkle’s take has many differences with our own, and he is considerably more pessimistic about the possibilities of post-blue economies than we at Via Meadia. Nonetheless, Garfinkle’s piece touches on a subject that has been lost in most discussions of the slow death of America’s unions, and it is well worth reading in full.

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