The Not So Gilded Age: Conflict of Ideologies Between Capital and Labor

One of the important things that came out of this week and this morning's lecture was that power inequity disables debate. This has been a theme running through all the readings and work this quarter, but there's a red herring here. There a problem in that so much of the conflict over power inequity is about who's in power, not about addressing the actual conflict itself.

One example from previous weeks would be the power inequity faced by the Cherokee. They were required by the law to abide by the terms of treaties which the States and the Federal government were able to alter or ignore. Another example of this kind of inequity is the way that the Railroad companies used the power of federal injunctions against the unions in a unilateral way. From lecture today, the power inequity between agribusiness in California resulted in the inclusion of an exemption in the National Labor Relations Act.

In some cases, there was no opportunity for the power inequity to change. However, in the case of the unions there were changes. For example, the modifications to the NLRA in the the Labor-Management Relations Act (Taft-Hartly Act) were in response to the increasing power of the unions. In the conflict between the United Farm Worker Union and agribusiness, the power changed hands. The idea of the “natural business cycle” also includes the effect of switching power between Capital and Labor since as labor becomes scarce during an economic boom there is more power for labor to determine its own conditions, but in a bust labor is under-employed and there is an abundant supply of people ready to fill positions at less than the currently employed. In all of these cases there's a transfer of power, but there is not a change to the system of conflict involved. There's a winner that imposes conditions on the loser of the conflict, and the conflict continues until the power balance shifts again.

This continuing cycle of power shifts through conflict suppress dissent. The Cherokee were unable to affect the outcome of the removals because they did not have power to do so, and even appeals to those in power were ineffective. The striking rail workers were not only suffering from the injustice of their plight, but they were at a disadvantage in voicing dissent in a way that was able the affect change. They were painted as reprehensible and oppressed under the draconian omnibus injunction because they did not have the power.

One might concluded that if the power imbalance suppresses dissent and the constant shifting of power means than one group or another is always a loser in a power struggle, then suppression of dissent is inevitable. However, this is a false dilemma.

If the actual conflict itself is addressed, then there's an opportunity to change the nature of the conflict itself. If, for example, the United Farm Workers Union had taken up the offer to remove the exemption of agricultural workers from the NLRA, instead of deciding to maintain power over agribusiness in the conflict, they may have been able to create a tenable 3rd solution that didn't involve agribusiness attempting to completely dismantle the progressive gains. Another example is from my own life, where I am a technology worker that had the opportunity to join a union when times were good, but failed to do so until after the economic downturn in the computer industry. During the boom in the technology sector, labor had the opportunity to determine for itself the conditions of employment but failed to organize into unions to negotiate contracts.

In a previous seminar I mentioned the formula that the primary privilege of privilege is the privilege of not talking about privilege. When the owners of capital refuse to talk to workers, they are exercising privilege. When technology workers refuse to organize, because they are able to determine the conditions of employment in a period of near full employment, they are exercising privilege.

Not only is it true that “[a]nything taken in extreme blocks the original purpose,” [Gomez] but it is essential that power inequity be addressed in a way that does not perpetuate the suppression of dissent. The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 is an example of addressing the power inequity without merely reversing the power balance. The tendency of justice to address the power inequity is the optimal outcome. Unfortunately, the privilege of power has been used to alter the approach toward justice by changing the law to protect power and the conflict itself. This is seen in the examples of how the labor acts were subsequently altered by the Taft-Hartly Act and in how the political power of many administrations have been anti-labor.

It's not enough to struggle to gain power over others in a conflict because that merely addresses the question of who's in charge, a socio-economic king of the hill game. The real opportunity is for the conflict to be addressed and for those in power to lay down the weapons of privilege gained merely by having power.