Posts Tagged ‘labor’

Ambrose Bierce

LABOR, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.

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–from The Devil’s Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce

Benjamin Tucker

“A just distribution of the products of labor is to be obtained by destroying all sources of income except labor. These sources may be summed up in one word — usury; and the three principal forms of usury are interest, rent, and profit. These all rest upon legal privilege, and the way to destroy them is to destroy legal privilege and monopoly.”

–Benjamin Tucker, Instead of a Book

Preliminary Comments

Every time a politician or pundit tells you that there’s simply “not enough money” to pay for some obvious public good, they’re lying. The problem is not lack of money. It’s the incredible waste and inefficiency in both the economy and government spending. That waste and inefficiency also means that we produce far more than we need; add in the gross maldistribution of wealth and income in this country, and it’s very obvious that we’re slaving our lives away for no good reason.

Recap of Previous Posts in the Series

In Part I (distribution of wealth and income), we saw that the distribution of income and, especially, wealth in the U.S. is extremely inequitable, with the top 1% owning 42% of financial (nonhome) wealth, with the top .1% owning as much as the bottom 90% combined, and that the bottom 50% of the population owns essentially nothing. As well, since total wealth in the U.S. is currently $81.5 trillion, average (not median–which is half above, half below) per capita wealth comes to over $250,000 Yet distribution of wealth is so lopsided that most people have almost no net worth.

We also saw that American workers–who have one of the longest average work weeks in the world, 47 hours–have seen their real wages decline nearly 10% since 1973, while productivity per hour worked increased by, on average, over 1.75% per year during the same period; compounded, that works out to an over 80% increase in productivity. So, American working people are producing far more than we did four decades ago, and are being paid less. To maintain the same average standard of living as in 1973, we should (assuming a 40-hour work week then) only be working 22 hours per week, had wage increases merely kept pace with productivity.

In Part II (taxation), we saw that working and “middle class” people (an increasingly quaint concept) pay higher taxes than the top 1%. There are two primary reasons for this: 1) Capital gains income is taxed at a far lower rate (15%)  than a good majority of earned (through work) income (with a rate of 28% starting at $37,000); and 2) Other taxes (sales, property, social security, gas, “sin”) hit average people, who spend almost all of their income, far harder than those in the top income brackets, who don’t. It works out that a single worker earning $10 an hour pays taxes amounting to roughly 40% of his or her income, while a nonworker in the top .1% only pays about 30%.

Eliminate that difference in tax rates, reduce the average tax rate to what the top .1% pay, and the average worker would take home 17% more income–or could work 17% fewer hours to maintain his or her standard of living. (The 10% tax reduction on before-taxes pay would equal a 17% increase in take-home pay.) Adding that to the 18 hours of work per week that should have been eliminated over the last four decades, and it means that the average work week should now only be about 15 hours.

In Part III (wasteful government spending), we saw that a huge amount of tax money is wasted. The U.S. spends as much on its military as the next eight to ten countries combined (depending on which recent year you look at; as well, estimates of China’s military spending vary considerably), and the U.S. spends at least three (maybe four or even five) times the amount of the next highest-spending country, China. Taking the highest estimate of China’s military spending, that means that if the U.S. simply matched China’s expenditures, it’s now wasting approximately $400 billion annually (out of an annual military budget of approximately $600 billion). That $400 billion in excess military spending comes to $1200 for every man, woman and child in the country. And that doesn’t even include “black budget” spending or interest on military spending-incurred debt.

We also saw that the U.S. through its sky-high–by far the highest in the world–incarceration rate and the “war on drugs,” is wasting at least $50 billion per year (probably considerably more), and that this is not keeping us safe, with the U.S. having the highest murder rate and the fourth highest rape rate in the industrial world.

As well, we saw that the government gives tax breaks amounting to over $1.2 trillion annually, with almost all of the breaks going to corporations and the wealthy, and it also gives direct subsidies to them coming to tens of billions of dollars annually. This works out to total taxpayer subsidies to corporations and the wealthy of approximately $4,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country.

In Part IV (the inefficiency of capitalism), we saw that  under capitalism a huge amount of work is useless or harmful. We dealt with ten of capitalism’s inefficiencies in Part IV. Here, we’ll only mention what we consider the most important of them:

Cost-shifting, the shifting of costs from businesses to the public, is rampant.  An immediate, blatant example of cost-shifting is the cost of cleaning up mining and toxic industrial sites. Private companies in many cases made massive amounts of money while those sites operated; when they quit being profitable, the private owners walked away leaving the public to pay the oftentimes massive cleanup costs.

Unsold wasted goods. Huge amounts of unsold goods are wasted, simply thrown away in the U.S. and other developed countries. The most flagrant, and maddening, example of this is waste of edible food. A 2012 estimate in the Washington Post placed the amount of edible food wasted in the U.S. at 40% of the total, or $165 billion worth annually. The USDA reports that 30% to 40% of edible food is wasted in this country.

Planned obsolescence is difficult to quantify, but very real. Going beyond such things as Apple cultists standing in line overnight to buy the newest must-have versions of their gadgets, you have such things as auto manufacturers deliberately making their vehicles very difficult for shade-tree mechanics to work on, and thus uneconomical to keep running over the long haul.

Parasitic jobs comprise a higher percentage of the total than most people realize. We can define them as “jobs” that do nothing to produce goods or services that meet human needs. Lawyers provide one example. There are 1.3 million lawyers in this country, and the average pay for lawyers is over $114 thousand a year. Then there are stock traders, stock brokers, and hedge fund managers who produce nothing, yet receive vast amounts of money, in some cases over a billion dollars a year. In contrast, those doing the dirtiest, most necessary work–farm workers, sanitation, healthcare workers–are among the lowest paid. Under capitalism, parasites make the most money, and those doing the most necessary work make the least.

Systemic unemployment. The current unemployment rate is 5.3%, but that 5.3% refers only to those currently working or actively seeking work, and doesn’t include those working part time who want full-time work but can’t find it, nor “discouraged workers” who want to work but have given up on finding it. Estimates place the real unemployment rate between 10.7% and 14.2%, and the percentage of the working-age population without a job (voluntarily or involuntarily)  is far higher than that. Participation in the labor force is currently only 62.6% of working age adults.

This represents a huge waste of potentially useful labor. It means the nation is producing far less than it could; it means those of us doing useful work are carrying a disproportionate share of the work load; and it means that the huge “reserve army of the unemployed” holds down wages, which benefits only corporations and the wealthy–not those of us doing useful work.


Taking everything into account, how much work would be required to maintain the average standard of living if all of the above problems were addressed? If wages per hour worked had merely kept pace with productivity increases over the last four decades, workers would make as much in 22 hours today as they did for working 40 hours in 1972/1973 (the high point of real wages). Instead, real wages have not only not kept up with productivity, they’ve dropped by approximately 10% since 1972/1973.

Low and middle income workers pay considerably higher taxes as a percentage of income than upper income individuals. Unearned income (basically capital gains) is taxed at about half the rate of earned (through work) income.  Taxation is a very complex subject with many variables, but it’s fair to say that if tax rates for the rich and poor were merely equal–not even tilted against the rich–low and middle income people would save roughly 10% more of their gross income. That translates to nearly seven hours per week of work. (This is a somewhat fuzzy part of the equation, so we’ll ignore it in the estimate below.)

Then eliminate grossly wasteful military spending (above that of the next-highest military spender), the utter waste of the war on drugs and mass incarceration, and government tax subsidies and direct subsidies to corporations, and you end up with per capita savings of well over $5,000 annually. Since the average worker’s income is roughly $32,000, this equates to about six hours per week. (This is the fuzziest part of the equation, so even though it’s very real, we’ll ignore it in the following estimate.)

Then consider that only five out of eight working age adults actually work. Even taking out the under 10% of the working age population who are disabled, that still leaves 27% of the working age population who could work, but don’t. If they all worked, and were as productive as the average worker, that would create a 40% productivity increase overnight, which in turn equates to another twelve hours that could be lopped off the average work week.

So, how long should the average work week be to maintain the same average standard of living? Even without redistribution of wealth and income, even without taking into account tax inequities and wasteful spending, even without taking into account the difficult to quantify but very real inherent inefficiencies of capitalism,  the average work week should be no more than about ten hours a week.

Dummy 3 flat 72-small
(From The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, scheduled for October 2015. This Cookbook will contain dozens of tasty vegan recipes, recipes for social change, and accurate information on anarchism. The following is from the “Recipes for Social Change: Approaches We Do Not Recommend” section of the book.)


Business Unions

Contrary to wishful thinking among progressives, the AFL-CIO unions are not a means to fundamental social and political change. Rather, they’re an obstacle to it. Their very nature ensures this, and their history amply demonstrates it. They’re hierarchical organizations with entrenched, often highly paid bureaucracies that are in the business of selling their members’ labor for top dollar (unless their hierarchies are only concerned with harvesting dues from their members, as sometimes happens).

The business unions have never challenged capitalism (or the state); rather they have always attempted to make themselves an integral part of it, ensuring “labor peace.” One needs only to look at the history of the American labor movement to confirm this. In the World War I and post-World War I period, when the largest genuinely revolutionary union in U.S. history, the Industrial Workers of the World, was being viciously persecuted and thousands of its members imprisoned (for opposing U.S. participation in the war, or for “criminal syndicalism”), the AFL unions sat on their hands. This complacent attitude was exemplified in a well known photo of AFL founder Samuel Gompers in formal attire dining at a banquet with the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Over the coming decades, the business unions continued to sell out their members. One infamous example of this was AFL-CIO head George Meany’s support for the Vietnam War, which pointlessly killed over 50,000 working class Americans and several million Southeast Asians. A famous Meany statement from the period perfectly exemplifies the reactionary attitude of the business unions: “Why should we organize the unorganized?”

Today, AFL-CIO leaders mouth more progressive rhetoric, but the zebra hasn’t changed its stripes. The business unions are still hierarchically organized with well paid, out-of-touch executives, many are outright undemocratic, and they still are in the business of selling their members’ labor.

And they’re increasingly ineffective at even that. In 1940, 34% of the private sector workforce was organized; more than one in three workers belonged to unions. Things are different today: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014 the percentage of unionized private-sector workers was down to 6.6%–one in 15.

Where the business unions are effective is in serving as bad examples. Most people think that the oft-times corrupt, hierarchical, undemocratic, accommodationist, uninspiring AFL-CIO unions are the only type possible, even the only type that ever existed. And so they look down on and are resistant to joining unions of any type. (And, yes, other types are possible. See the piece on Labor in the “Approaches We Recommend” section of the book.)

We’d be better off without the business unions. Don’t waste your time and energy on these dinosaurs.

Alexander Berkman“The law says that your employer does not steal anything from you, because it is done with your consent. You have agreed to work for your boss for certain pay, he to have all that you produce. Because you consented to it, the law says that he does not steal anything from you.

“But did you really consent?

“When the highwayman holds his gun to your head, you turn your valuables over to him. You “consent” all right…

“Are you not compelled to work for an employer? Your need compels you, just as the highwayman’s gun,

–Alexander Berkman, What Is Anarchism?

WAGE LABOR, n. 1) Death on the installment plan; 2) The process by which those who work enrich those who don’t.

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–from the revised and expanded edition of The American Heretic’s Dictionary, the best modern successor to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary

“[T]here must be human work before any article of wealth can be produced, and, in a natural state of things, the man who toiled honestly and well would be the rich man, and he who did not work would be poor. We have so reversed the order of nature that we are accustomed to think of a working man as a poor man.”

–Henry George, The Crime of Poverty

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Quoted in The Heretic’s Handbook of Quotations

Front cover of "The Heretic's Handbook of Quotations

Anarchist Cookbook front cover(from The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges, scheduled for October 2015)


When Americans think of means to change, labor organizing tends to be well down on the list, if it’s there at all. There are good reasons for this.

There have been no mass membership revolutionary unions in the U.S. for nearly a century, and the only type most Americans are familiar with are the business unions of the AFL-CIO. As “business” implies, these unions are purely in the business of selling their members’ labor. in other words, they serve as bulwarks of capitalism, not challengers to it.

As you’d expect, they’re run along traditional hierarchical lines, often quite undemocratically, with highly paid executives who are out of touch with those they supposedly represent. Also, as you’d expect, many of those executives have been markedly reactionary, two notable examples being former Teamster’s president and Nixon buddy Frank Fitzsimmons, and former AFL-CIO president George Meany, a supporter of the Viet Nam War who was completely indifferent to organizing the unorganized.

Given all this, how did the AFL-CIO become the face of labor? It did so with major assistance from the U.S. government. In the period 1905 through the early 1920s, the AFL faced a radical rival, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). (The CIO emerged in the 1930s and merged with the AFL in 1955.) While the AFL was a federation of craft unions, interested only in its own members’ wages, and always presented itself as being a partner with business–there are photos of AFL founder Samuel Gompers at an elegant dinner with the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce–the IWW was practicing militant unionism, attempting to organize all workers, and had as its goal the elimination of capitalism and a democratically controlled worker takeover of the economy.

The government found this intolerable, and subjected the IWW to continual harrassment (often in the form of mass jailing of its members) in the years prior to World War I.

When Democrat Woodrow Wilson broke his campaign pledge and involved the U.S. in that war, the AFL supported U.S. involvement, and the IWW opposed it. As a result, repression of the IWW intensified, with many IWW members jailed for expressing opposition to the war, and many others jailed for refusing to be conscripted. In the red scare that followed the war, many states passed “criminal syndicalism” laws, which banned unionism of the IWW type. As a result of all this, thousands of IWW members were imprisoned, often for years, during World War I and its aftermath. And the government all but succeeded in totally destroying the IWW. (Today, the IWW survives with perhaps 5,000 members.)

The AFL (and its later partner, the CIO) stepped into this void and emerged as the only kind of union entity most Americans know, or can even conceive of.

The percentage of American workers represented by the AFL-CIO has plummeted from its high point of 34% of nongoverment workers in 1940 to under 7% today. And that percentage is still falling. (Today, the bulk of the AFL-CIO’s members are government workers, with its unions representing over 35% of them.)

Why has the percentage of nongoverment workers fallen so far? AFL-CIO backers would (correctly) point to the laws passed since World War II that hamstring the union movement (notably “right to work” laws and the Taft-Hartley and Sherman Acts–laws which among other things prohibit secondary boycotts and allow the government to order striking workers back to work.) AFL-CIO backers would also point to lack of enforcement of laws protecting workers who try to organize; because of that lack of enforcement, employers have fired organizers with impunity for decades.

But there’s another reason too: the very nature of the business unions (hierarchical, often undemocratic, often corrupt), and beyond that their utter lack of an inspiring vision. Many invite noninvolvement of members–just pay your dues and leave the rest to us. And having no goals beyond selling your members’ work lives for the highest amount you can get simply isn’t inspirational.

So, is labor organizing ineffective as a means to change? Not necessarily. In the 1930s in Spain, revolutionary unionism of the IWW type, as practiced by the anarchist Spanish Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), did lead to a genuine revolution and social transformation in approximately half of Spain, including Catalonia, its major industrial region. That social transformation lasted approximately two years, until it was crushed by the anarchists’  Communist “allies” and the combined military forces of Spanish, Italian, and German fascism. This, however, does not take away from the achievements of the Spanish anarchists. And it provides evidence that revolutionary labor organizing can lead to fundamental political, social, and economic change.

The hallmarks of such organizing are direct democratic  control by members, horizontal structure, decentralization, no paid officials, rotation of all offices, and immediate recallability of all (unpaid) officials. And, importantly, having a motivating vision. That of the CNT was elimination of capitalism, elimination of government, and direct democratic control of the economy by those who work.

In the United States there’s very little such organizing going on at present. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing.

“Centralize property in the hands of a few and the millions are under bondage to property–a bondage as absolute and deplorable as if their limbs were covered with manacles. Abstract all property from the hands of labor and you thereby reduce labor to dependence; and that dependence becomes as complete a servitude as the master could fix upon his slave.”

–Lewis Henry Morgan, “Diffusion Against Civilization”

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Quoted in The Heretic’s Handbook of Quotations

Front cover of "The Heretic's Handbook of Quotations

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The Heretic's Handbook of Quotations coverby Chaz Bufe, editor See Sharp Press

(Note: I wrote this in 1914, and the figures for unemployment rate, etc., have changed since then. But there have been no major changes, and the arguments here still hold.)

In what passes for political debate in this country, one of the current hot topics is whether or not to raise the minimum wage (currently $7.25 an hour). Those arguing against raising the minimum wage express concern for low wage workers and speculate that paying them higher wages would somehow hurt them. Their argument is that higher wages would reduce the number of ultra-low-paying jobs.

Well, guess what. Wages have fallen drastically since G.W. Bush stepped foot in the White House, and that hasn’t produced a bonanza of jobs, nor income growth for those fortunate enough to have a job. In the period since Bush took office through 2011, median income fell a staggering 12.4%. And, since 1973, wages for the bottom 60% of working men have actually fallen. Especially since the start of the recession, almost all wage growth has benefited the top 1% of wage earners. According to the New York Times, in 1979 the top 1% received 7.3% of all wages; in 2010, they received 12.9%. As for the minimum wage itself, half a century ago it was $1.25 an hour, equivalent to $9.50 an hour today; a few years later, in 1968, it went up to its peak, $1.60 per hour, which is equivalent to $10.84 today. Today’s minimum wage of $7.25 is almost exactly a third lower than that peak minimum wage.

At the same time,  productivity per hour worked has been rising at a fairly steady rate of roughly 1.5% – 1.75% per year for over half a century. Increases in wages and productivity almost exactly matched from the end of World War II through 1973, when wages began to stagnate as productivity continued to rise. Since then, productivity has gone up roughly 80%, while wages have been nearly flat. As for wealth, the percentage owned by the top 1% has steadily risen since Reagan took office, and now exceeds 40% of total national wealth.

In other words, the “job creators” are doing just fine. So, where are the jobs? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the official unemployment rate in February was 6.7%. The actual unemployment rate, counting “discouraged workers” and those involuntarily working part-time, is roughly twice that, and even that’s probably understating the matter. The percentage of working-age adults participating in the labor force is only about 63%, very near a historic low.

Given all this, let’s take a closer look at the argument that keeping wages at just above starvation level is somehow good for those looking for work.

Many on the right actually argue that there should be no minimum wage law, and that workers would be better off without it. They’re seriously arguing that wages already so low that many workers can’t even afford to rent a studio apartment (and instead must sleep in their cars or in homeless encampments) are beneficial to workers. And that workers would benefit from even lower wages.

They argue that earning $3 or $4 an hour is better than having no job at all. At the same time, they never argue against laws restricting labor organizing and tactics — Taft-Hartley, “right to work” laws, laws against boycotts and secondary boycotts, etc. In other words, they’re in favor of laws restricting the rights of workers, and against laws guaranteeing worker rights.

Let’s take the right-wingers’ argument a step further. If labor for any compensation at all, no matter how minimal, is preferable to unemployment, there’s an obvious solution to the jobs crisis. There’s a tried and true way to guarantee every able-bodied worker a job, food, and a place to live: slavery.

Some Republicans are already arguing for it.


LABOR, n. The process through which those who work enrich those who don’t.

by Chaz Bufe

Most people believe that economics is far too complicated for them to understand, and that they shouldn’t even try; they should leave economic decision-making to “the experts”–simply not concern themselves with it.

And, yes, some economic matters–tariffs, trade deals, taxation, the stock market, futures trading, derivatives, etc.–are complex. Very complex. But other economic matters are pretty damn simple.

Let’s start with material wealth. What creates it? Labor applied to natural resources (coal, oil, ore, timber, etc.), using the collective knowledge of human civilization, acquired over hundreds of generations.

Who created natural resources? If the answer is God or nature, why should a handful of people receive the lion’s share of benefits from the world’s resources? What possible justification is there for this? If the answer is “inheritance,” that’s merely an assertion that the descendants of those who have unfairly benefited should also unfairly benefit.

As for labor, why should those with inherited wealth, who have often done no useful work for generations, benefit from the labor of others? Why should there even be inherited wealth? Why should heirs, many of whom have never done an honest day’s work in their lives, inherit the wealth created by the collective labor of hundreds of generations? And again, why should they be the primary beneficiaries of the world’s natural resources?

Another question regarding labor: If wealth is produced by labor applied to resources, what possible reason is there for unemployment? What benefit derives from producing less wealth than is possible? Who does this serve? No one but the 1%, the relative handful who control the world’s resources. “The reserve army of the unemployed” allows them to hold down wages through the threat of replacing any worker who isn’t sufficiently subservient with someone so desperate for a job he or she will put up with anything.

And what about immigration? An overwhelming majority of immigrants come here to work, that is, create wealth. What’s so wrong with that? The all-too-common answer is “They’re stealing our jobs.” This answer points to two things. The first is that the current economic system, corporate capitalism, does not produce jobs for all who want them. This holds true across the globe.

The second is that unemployment not only suppresses wages, but it turns workers of different races and nationalities against each other. Again, this serves only the interests of the 1%. It helps to ensure labor “peace”–that is, subservience to corporations, and rivalry and hatred among workers, who compete with each other for crumbs from the corporate table. Anxiety over immigration also encourages the rise of xenophobic, racist political movements whose members are so deluded they consider themselves patriots. Who does this benefit?

One final question regarding labor–beyond whether those who inherit wealth should benefit from the labor of those who actually work–is whether the present system of payment for labor is rational, that is, whether it provides fair compensation to those doing useful work. Of course, this is a difficult question, given the near impossibility of accurately assessing the value of work. This difficulty is not, however,  an argument in favor of the current extreme differential in wages, with CEOs, for instance, receiving hundreds of times the wages of average workers. Rather, it supports the argument that wages should be equal across the board.

At present, those who do the dirtiest, hardest, most necessary work–farm workers, garbage collectors, childcare workers–are among the lowest paid, while those who perform useless or worse-than-useless “work”–stock brokers, hedge fund managers, commodities speculators, corporate attorneys, lobbyists, advertising executives–are among the highest paid. Is this fair? Is this rational? Again, the answer is pretty damn simple: it’s so far from fair and rational it’s a sick, cruel joke.