Ruthless Criticism

Resistance to mass layoffs:
Why union “deals” are not about “jobs”

[Translated from a radio broadcast by Gegenstandpunkt Marburg: December 8, 2004]

Wage cuts, work time extensions, layoffs – not a single company isn't doing it. Successful companies want to protect their success and thus increase it; less successful companies want to become successful again. For all of them, the way to success consists of lowering costs in order to be able to undercut the prices of their competitors on the market. For labor costs, this means: get more work out of fewer workers for less wages. More unpaid work increases the profit of the company and limits the living costs of the workers to the same extent. The less money the workers receive, the more they have to work for it, the better for the company. The free market economy is based on this fundamental conflict and its representatives admit it themselves.

The last and only ones who don't want to know anything about this conflict, who on the contrary deny it as much as possible, are the professional representatives and spokespersons of the workers who have to suffer from this conflict: the labor unions. They persistently insist on the nice concept that until recently the interests of capital and the needs of the employees could still be harmonized in the best possible way. It could continue too, if only smarter “decisions” were included in the “business strategy.” Quite realistically, union management and consultants assume that the workers' living standard represents a barrier to business success, and they thereby accept the principle of capitalistic exploitation. However, they insist that the bigger problem is the growth of fixed costs – the costs of raw materials and machinery, intermediate products and bookkeeping – which the workers have nothing to do with, so they shouldn't be made liable for them. Enlightened public opinion, however, only gives them the aggressive reply that, in addition to these long-run operational fixed costs, the nation is up to its neck in labor costs that are too high for too many people who don't do enough work.

This is also supposed to apply to the nation as a whole: the whole investment site suffers, above all, from people being altogether too expensive and working too little. Not only the competitive success of individual companies depends on fewer people getting more badly paid for more work, but capital growth as a whole compels it. This logic lets nothing continue as “comfortably” as before. It is put quite bluntly: the whole splended free market system is characterized as fundamentally hostile to employees – and this is true and not something to be improved.

Free market politicians, bosses and economic experts can afford this offensive insolence in confessing the meanness of their free market system because the practical implementation of this meanness meets no effective resistance; on the contrary, it meets a lot of understanding. Of course, employee representatives grumble about “bad business decisions” and in this way uphold the fundamental superstition of the workers’ friends of a successfully managed capitalism. Then they take part anyway in every step of the only business strategy that conforms to the system: they let fewer people work longer and more effectively for less wages and fix this in a contract. No component of the wage isn't up for restructuring, and not a moment of spare time couldn't be given up: management dictates the exploitation conditions which it considers necessary in order to win the next round of competition – and the workers in the form of their appointed representatives shake on it. This is how capital comprehensively sets its interest in the companies.

But of course it is not so simple. All the expertise of unionized worker representation proves itself by managing to deliver agreements to the demands of management in the form of an exchange. This can be done very simply: they agree to everything; but at each point they interject something about why agreeing to this point means that the price of the imposition to be accepted wouldn't be as high as they originally feared:

“Our people pay a heavy price for keeping their jobs,” say the deputies of the unions. What is the case for an exchange supposed to be here? This is a bad joke: the “heavy price” must be put on the table not this one time, but again and again. Lower wages and longer working hours are fixed for the future as conditions for employment. And in return the staff doesn't even buy a small bit of security so that at least all those who depend on their wages can continue to earn them in the company. Adept union leaders don't make “impossible” demands because they view the state of business from the same perspective as capital:

A crazy deal in each case: the workers let themselves be exploited better – and ask that it may happen in protection of their own interests.

That employees are willing to understand their across-the-board subordination as a kind of exchange, to explain their increasingly worsened situation in life as an agreement, is because their entire existence depends on the need of a business for their work. This makes them extortable! Every employee is threatened by the alternative of complete impoverishment and this is put right before their eyes. This should be regarded as an irrefutable argument for the abolition of this kind of living condition. However, the affected persons make the mistake of calculating their private damage in this unambiguous position as a comparison – in this way, according to the “logic” of the lesser evil, they take part in the cynical calculations that are made with them. They position their dependence on each brutal calculation of their employers’ advantage as a good reason to offer themselves to them as a totally special deal in anything related to wages and labor performance. They look for their welfare exclusively in this submissive maneuver, which takes place fully at their own expense. The competition for the status of the most useful idiot is on!

This competition takes place within businesses and more than ever between the staffs of different companies. In the competition between the individual work forces, each one presents themselves to management as the most efficient profit production machine the world has ever seen. Union managers tell company managements what they could still extract from their “reduced” staff in profitable labor output – in comparison to their fraternal colleagues elsewhere. All strive to help “their” company again achieve competitive success. The companies provide the means for the next rationalization that makes workers redundant and get ready for new difficulties against the competitors who reorganize exactly the same way, i.e. with wage lowering, additional work times and layoffs. Thus the wage earners actively increase the damage which capital does to them.

This is welcomed as the first sign of “economic reason” by the labor unions. Economic reason in this best of all economic systems demands that a lot more must still be extracted from the employees – they must be made much worse off before the economy can grow again.