Markets in everything, Eugene Debs edition

We again see life imitating art:

The picketers marching in a circle in front of a downtown Washington office building chanting about low wages do not seem fully focused on their message.

Many have arrived with large suitcases or bags holding their belongings, which they keep in sight. Several are smoking cigarettes. One works a crossword puzzle. Another bangs a tambourine, while several drum on large white buckets. Some of the men walking the line call out to passing women, "Hey, baby." A few picketers gyrate and dance while chanting: "What do we want? Fair wages. When do we want them? Now."

Although their placards identify the picketers as being with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters, they are not union members.

They’re hired feet, or, as the union calls them, temporary workers, paid $8 an hour to picket. Many were recruited from homeless shelters or transitional houses. Several have recently been released from prison. Others are between jobs.

"It’s about the cash," said Tina Shaw, 44, who lives in a House of Ruth women’s shelter and has walked the line at various sites. "We’re against low wages, but I’m here for the cash."

Carpenters locals across the country are outsourcing their picket lines, hiring the homeless, students, retirees and day laborers to get their message across. Larry Hujo, a spokesman for the Indiana-Kentucky Regional Council of Carpenters, calls it a "shift in the paradigm" of picketing.

Political groups also are tapping into local homeless shelters for temps.

One resident of the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter earns $30 a day holding a sign outside a Metro stop protesting nuclear war. In 2004, residents of at least 10 shelters were paid to collect signatures on petitions in favor of legalized gambling. Residents call this type of work "lobbying."

The carpenters union is one of the most active picketers in the District, routinely staging as many as eight picket lines a day at buildings where construction or renovation work is being done without union labor.

Supporters of the practice consider it a creative tactic in an era of declining union membership and clout. But critics say the reliance on nonunion members — who are paid $1 above minimum wage and receive no benefits — diminishes the impact and undercuts a principle established over decades of union struggles.

Here is the story, and thanks to Scott Rogers for the pointer.


Looks like the union is outsourcing the job of picketing to take advantage of comparative advantage. Seems win-win to me.

8 bucks an hour? I wouldnt get out of bed for 8 bucks an hour. They really need to unionize.

@Jacob: "getting out of bed for 8 bucks an hour" is not a problem for people in shelters. They pretty much have to be out anyway. What's the harm in getting out with a purpose (8 bucks an hour)?

I notice them picketing all over Atlanta, they always looked a bit to ragged to be actual workers.

This is very interesting—when left-leaning unions hire unemployed shelter residents to picket a non-union job site and the “Post† prints a story about it the story gets picked up by an intellectual blog where everyone yawns and says, “so what†.

However last year when it’s revealed that the Republican Party hired unemployed shelter residents to attend rallys in support of Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich’s re-election campaign (unsuccessful as it turned out) the MSM and Left were incensed that the poor were being exploited and it became a major issue. That wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party, “The Baltimore Sun† leading the charge.

The hypocrisy of the left knows no boundaries.

You shouldn't let your visceral dislike of unions cloud your vision.

First, picket lines have always been manned by a variety of people. Historically this has included the wives and children of workers as well as sympathizers. On the other side owners hired Pinkerton men to break up strikes and disrupt picket lines. Sometimes these people mingled with scabs and appeared to be outraged workers just trying to get into the plant, but not always.

Second, walking a picket line does not make the best use of the worker's talents. A striker still needs an income and if he can find work elsewhere while withholding it from the firm where he is striking he will be able to feed his family. It will also put less of a burden on the union's financial resources as well. So this has a practical motivation as well.

Third, those being paid to walk the picket line are currently unemployed, most have few marketable skills so this is something they can do. They are being paid well above the national minimum wage for unskilled work. Would you prefer that they stay on the dole?

It's not hypocrisy to assign tasks in a way that maximizes economic efficiency. You don't expect the CEO to clean the toilets, so why should highly skilled craftsmen perform menial work?

robertdfeinman: Good points, all. But then, all of that also explains why the employer doesn't
want to hire union labor in the first place.

Christina: The difference is that hiring non-union labor is consistent with the employer's professed
beliefs, while hiring picketers blatantly violates several of *their* employers' professed beliefs.

You miss the point that the carpenter's union represents "carpenters" (and whoever else they have brought in through the years).

People who man picket lines don't belong to this trade, so there is no a priori reason why they should belong to this union. Many craft unions have strict rules about what sorts of skills they will represent. That's why many firms have to deal with several unions.

Look at Hollywood. The directors don't belong to the same union as the screen writers or the actors. Different interests, different representatives.

Now if there are enough "professional" picket line workers they are free to join a union or form one of their own. One that represents their needs. You also understand that in the real world walking a picket line is usually short term work.

The fact that conditional workers don't have union representation is the way things work in this country. Even unions have to operate within the strictures of our society. That some unions are imperfect is also true, so what. Show me a firm that is perfect and that doesn't have workers unhappy with conditions.

The amazing thing is that probably 95% of those in the work force are just plain employees. They work because they have to. No work, no food. Yet the idea that they might be better off combining their negotiating skills is seen as demeaning. Don't fool yourselves, unless you can live without working you are as much a wage slave as any blue collar worker.

Not recognizing one's own self-interests is one of the major achievements of the laissez faire political philosophy which has been dominant for the past 40 years. Your interests are not the same as the owners/managers of enterprises. This goes for academics and pundits as well. (Pundits married to billionaires excepted.)

robertdfeinman: No libertarian objects to forming a union. What they object to is when, upon being replaced
with non-union labor, the union then violates the employer's property rights and forces him to hire them by law.

And if your post was directed at me, I'm still figuring out what it was responding to.


Do you think this is a leftist blog?

I nominate the robertdfeinman comment at 11:45 a.m. as the most ironic of the year.


I found nothing objectionable to the contents of the comment, however, the irony of it is pretty strong in that it is a defense of a union hiring non-union labor. Do you really not see this?

robertdfeinman: My (unaddressed) substantive contribution w.r.t. your posts was that your justification for
unions hiring nonunion, exploited labor, is the precisely the justification employers already use -- and
are attacked by unions for -- in deciding not to hire union labor. Just a heads-up.

This is my last remark on "irony", then we can move on to more interesting things.

I'm not defending the union, only explaining why in the real world people do things that are imperfect. Unions now amount to about 12% of the workforce, down from a high of 30-40% post WWII. This means their resources are limited, so compromising their ideals is one of the things that they are forced to do. You can see it as irony I see it as a sign of the times.

I notice no one has commented on my puzzlement as to why people who have to work for a living side with the owners and managers. At least union members know which side their bread is buttered on.

It's nice to engage in ivory tower philosophical discussions about the role of the market or which aspects of human nature govern decision making, but earning a living is fairly fundamental. The evidence shows that those who belong to unions do better than those who don't. You can chose to ignore this if you wish, but the facts are out there.

If you don't like the way the union is being run then you can take action to reform it from within. Is this easy. No. But it is no harder that trying to reform any large organization - see the current political landscape.

Why should a carpenter be running a union? What have the management skills needed for this position to do with driving in nails? A large organization needs professional management whether its a union or GM. Get the best for the job at hand that you can find.


Just because you claim "those who belong to unions do better than those who don't" doesn't mean we would all do well to unionize, even those "wage-slaves" of us. I can think of countless ways that unions do/could impede economic efficiency and technological progress, the source of most of the growth in material well-being over the past few centuries.

I would even dispute your claim that unionized workers do better than non-unionized. Sure plumbers in a union may make more than independent plumbers, but many of the high-paying jobs in modern society are better described as being staffed by talented free-agents. Maybe these jobs are high paying due to lack of unionization....

Jim Outen:
There is a wide spread belief, especially among knowledge workers, that they can play the game better than the blue collar workers of yore. This is misguided elitism. It's what leads to junior lawyers putting in 80 hour weeks. One can be exploited and be high paid at the same time.

There are highly paid specialists who are unionized. This includes film directors, screen writers and even actors. There unions negotiate for things that are of importance to them such as residuals and not the sorts of things which are importance to factory workers, such as work rules.

If you are a wage worker why should you be concerned with the economic efficiency of your firm? That's management's problem. They certainly aren't worried about the economic efficiency of paying for your kids college education.

Having said all that I think we can agree that the existing industrial unions are ill adapted to deal with this new type of worker. There have been some modest attempts to do something about this. Barbara Ehrenreich has started a free-lancer's group.

I proposed something modeled on AARP awhile ago. A worker's affinity group:

A proposal for a worker's affinity group

With all the organizational and managerial skill available in the knowledge community surely they could design something for their own benefit.

You've just restated the libertarian/anti-union talking points. Do junior lawyers have a "choice"? Well it depends what you mean by choice. If they decline to put in the hours then they get dropped by the firm. If they get dropped by the firm then their chances of finding another job in the same industry are slight (blacklisting by word-of-mouth). In fact women have been complaining about this for years. Many law firms discriminate because they think that women (even unmarried ones or those without children) will, eventually, put family first.

Employers always have the upper hand, that some don't want to realize this is shortsighted on their part. It is the rare person who can negotiate better on their own than as part of a group. The exceptions are usually sports or entertainment figures, where they don't have any competition - there being only one of them.

As for the union bashing - get over it. A union with millions of members isn't being run for the benefit of the leaders, even if they overpay themselves. Furthermore the days of corrupt union bosses are mostly in the past. Unions are under closer scrutiny and are far weaker than in their heyday. Jimmy Hoffa is dead. Look at conditions today.

Is the UAW leadership getting rich by giving concessions to GM? They are in retreat and holding on as best as they can. The fact that the new workforce hasn't had their "consciousness raised" is one of the great triumphs of the libertarian philosophy in the past 40 years. Those committed libertarians should look into who has been supporting this effort. What do you, Scaife, Coors and the Mars family have in common? Why do you think they buy up intellectuals to put out a stream of white papers? Because they are interested in the freedom of workers or because they want to preserve their privileged position?

If you aren't in the top 1-2% you are being taken for a ride. Wake up.

So you are claiming that in the past 100 or so years, when we have seen a 20 fold increase in median standard of living, vastly improved opportunities for medicine, travel, education, political expression, recreation, intellectual pursuits, and individuality, falling cancer and disease levels, increased lifespan, massive increases in civil liberties (especially for certain groups), improvement of the environment, and on and on, that we, those of the lower 98%, have been duped? If we have been taken for a ride it was a pleasant one on net. In almost every objectively measurable way the world (and US) have improved (with a notable exception being potential trouble from climate change).

I won't continue because we have strayed far off the post's topic and I believe neither of us will have success at convincing the other. Fundamentally different world views might sum up the impasse.

I'm surprised someone could say something like "It's not hypocrisy to assign tasks in a way that maximizes economic efficiency," and not understand why non-union labor is generally preferable. In addition, one would think that if conditions were truely as bad as you infer, that unions would have a bit more marketable clout than just 12% of the workforce.

By your definition, I am currently a "wage slave," so I'm qualified to answer some of your statements, assertions and questions:

"Not recognizing one's own self-interests is one of the major achievements of the laissez faire political philosophy which has been dominant for the past 40 years. Your interests are not the same as the owners/managers of enterprises."

"I notice no one has commented on my puzzlement as to why people who have to work for a living side with the owners and managers. At least union members know which side their bread is buttered on."

It baffles me how certain people just don't get that most workers recognize that, while our own self-interests are not exactly the same as owner and managers, they ARE directly tied together. I think this also speaks to the real intellegience of those who try to speak in an intellectual way about their puzzlement of this. It seems to me that those who you think aren't recognizing their own self-interests and "side" with owners and managers are a bit smarter than you think, and actually a bit smarter than you in this regard.

We recognize the fact that our self-interests (which includes having a job to begin with so we can put food on our tables, save and spend money, AND have the opportunity move up the ladder through our hard work, etc), are directly tied to the self-interests of the owners/managers/board members/stockholders of the companies for which we work.

Perhaps one time unions were needed to win certain rights. But we've also seen the effects when they go too far with their definition of what is a "right." Examples being unsustainable pension and health care systems, that in the long-term tend to erode the very company that provided the job to begin with.

I would say back to you that the misguided elitism involves people like you assuming that workers can't play the game better than blue collar workers of yore.

In regards to your assertion on young lawyers, they DO have a choice. When someone takes the time to go to school for eight years or more and take the LSAT and the bar exam, they know exactly what they are getting into, including how much time they'll have to devote to their career, especially as they are first starting out. Who are you to deny the freedom of someobe to work that 80-hour week? This goes for women as well. How is it your perrogative to sit back and question what they do willingly?

Yes, employers do have the upper hand, as it should know, since it is their investment and their capital that provided the venue of opportunity to begin with. And again, that is not to say that they have the power to abuse workers. Your assertions speak to a time that has long past, which is rather ironic given that you mention the term "progressive" as a moniker for those who would like to see unions gain more power in this day and age. True progress would be letting go of the past and letting the market take control.

The days of corrupt union bosses are mostly in the past? Really? Is this why the conviction rate of financial crimes involving unions as remained at 90 or higher every year this decade? Why restitution resulting from these convictions tops $20 million a year? Is this why labor racketeering convictions have nearly doubled per year since 2001?

I'll tell you exactly what the Scaife, Coors and the Mars families have in common with me (and again, it baffles me that certain people do not get this): we all have a common goal of sustainability. This means not only the survival of the companies they own, but the survival and creation of the growth that provides the jobs and opportunities offerered therein. It's a win-win situation for both groups; the owners continue their business, and continue to get rich, and the workers continue to work, and have the opportunities for advancement for reward of their hard work. Seriously, why is this a difficult concept?

On your assertion that "rights are being eroded," you need to look how we have been blessed with a bountiful economy that is full of competing options for both the company looking for the most economical labor and the labor looking for the most economical deal out of the company for which he works. As was mentioned in another comment, with that has come an ever increasing standard of living that, short of disaster on a Biblical scale, will not allow us to ever go back to the days where it was acceptable to lock people in a factory, etc.

Ah, yes! Mr. Feinman is one of those idiots out there who espouses the "GDP doesn't accurately reflect societal growth" bullshit that I've heard TIME AND TIME AGAIN. God, I'm so sick of that. You're more than FREE to make your own social or economic measurements if you like. No one's stopping you. GDP was never intended as a measure of TOTAL LIFE QUALITY. All it does is measure ECONOMIC GROWTH, to help show how the economy is doing from time to time. If you can't understand that, I can't help you.

Oh, yes. People must "fund their own retirement" with the reduction of defined benefit plans. As if it's SOOO hard to remember to set aside money for when you get older and can't or don't wanna work anymore. Come on, dude. How fucking hard is it to SAVE when you've got extra money from your job? It's their own fault if they don't save up, not "the employer's."

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