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Thursday, February 17, 2011


Mark Povich suggests that I say something about unions, in light of the events now taking place in Madison, Wisconsin. Topographical sidebar: I spent much of my career at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, which flourished in the asparagus fields of the Pioneer valley, eighty miles and more from the Statehouse in Boston. For a long time, there was only one member of the State Legislature, Jim Collins, who had actually graduated from the State University, and since most people in Boston do not know that there is anyone living West of Worcester, we were pretty much left entirely to our own devices. This was a bad thing, when we wanted the legislature to allocate some money for the perpetually underfunded university, but it was a very good thing when we became one of the most politically left-wing campuses in America. Even when a Dean [with the Catch 22-like name Dean Alfange] peremptorily hired five tenured radicals into the Economics Department in one fell swoop, no one in Boston so much as raised an eyebrow, let alone an outcry. But as I discovered, in 1969, when I delivered Matchette Lectures at the University of Wisconsin that then became my book, THE IDEAL OF THE UNIVERSITY, the Madison campus sits in the state capital on one hill, and the state legislature sits in its building on another hill, the two looking at each other suspiciously. Anything that happens on either hill is immediately taken note of on the other. Hence the instantaneous response on the university campus to the Governor's assault on unionized state employees.

What can I say about unions that will not simply be a matter of preaching to the choir? Americans as a whole have developed a rather bilious negative view of organized labor, but the handful of people who visit this site regularly are, I am reasonably sure, predominantly supporters of the idea of workers joining forces to fight for decent wages and working conditions. All of you know that virtually everything people generally like about their jobs is owed to the often violent struggles of previous generations of organized workers: the eight hour day, the five day week, overtime pay, health insurance, paid vacations, pensions, some measure of job security, safety measures to protect workers in physically dangerous jobs -- none of this was introduced by benevolent employers whose love for their workers led them to forgo profits so that those "less fortunate" [as we used to say] could have a decent life.

The full-scale assault on unions by the Republican Party began in earnest with Reagan, whose first, and signature, act was to break the Air Traffic Controllers' union. It has been downhill ever since. Unionized primary and secondary school teachers, unionized fire fighters, unionized police officers, unionized automobile workers, unionized health care providers -- all have been demonized, scorned, and slandered.

Rather than rehearse these familiar facts, I thought I would tell a personal story that brought home to me how far supposedly progressive intellectuals have strayed from the left. Many years ago, I was invited to participate in a symposium at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, on the subject of the political responsibilities of intellectuals. This was part of a series of symposia open to the public, and we are asked to present talks that would be accessible and interesting to a non-academic audience. The other two participants were Martin Jay, a sociologist who had written a very valuable book on the Frankfurt School for Social Research, the famous pre-war gathering of left intellectuals that included Horkeimer, Adorno, Fromm, Benjamin, and Marcuse, and a very well-known UMass Comparative Literature scholar [whose name I am crushed to discover I cannot recall -- a real senior moment], and myself.

I took the assignment seriously, and wrote a rather pedestrian, but earnest, talk on the responsibilities of progressive intellectuals. It was moderately well received, I guess, but at least it was entirely comprehensible. Martin Jay chose to speak on images of the mirror in nineteenth century French literature, a subject obscure even in the most recherche of circles, in impenetrable to the good citizens of Lexington who had gathered for the event. The third chap, not to be outdone, delivered a talk on Heidegger's essay on technology that I found completely incomprehensible, to put it as delicately as I can.

I was, I must confess, genuinely offended by the performance of my colleagues, so
when it came time for those of us on the dais to engage in edifying intellectual intercourse, before throwing things open to the audience for questions, I asked each of them where he stood on the subject of the unionization of professors. I should explain that the UMass faculty had recently been unionized, in an effort that I had very strongly supported. The two of them stumbled over one another fleeing from the question. It had obviously never occurred to either of them that the political obligations of ostensibly left-wing intellectuals had anything at all to do with unions, and most certainly not with the unionization of professors, which they clearly considered infra dignitate.

It is this complete divorce of the gilded literati from the raw facts of worker exploitation and the need for strong unions that makes me pessimistic about the prospects for the left in this country. Marx has been transformed into a Comparative Literature eunuch. He lives in the pages of literary journals as the ostensible source for silly clever "interventions" in a discourse unconnected with the world of working men and women.


Murfmensch said...

I don't watch a lot news commentary but Rachel Maddow did a very good job spelling out what this was about. Several right-wingers (I can't remember the sources) stated that the SEIU should be the next target after ACORN.

Intellectual analysis of the Dem's losses in the last congressional election always leave out the destruction of ACORN, an organization that turned out a large number of low-income and minority voters. Turn-out is a very labor-intensive job. "Message" is wrapped-up by PR machines.

I still am chafed by how weak the support was for ACORN on the left.

I love the Frankfurt School because they sought to make the public its audience. Habermas' newspaper columns are very approachable and help his audience make the move over to his theoretical work. Adorno had a regular series of radio lectures. We could use some of that.

Mark Povich said...

Thanks a lot, Prof. Wolff. Given your command of Marxian and neo-classical economics, could you say a little about the economics of unions - The old criticisms about unions becoming monopolies, unionization causing decreases in wages for non-union workers, unionization causing unemployment, inefficiency, etc? Or at least point us to a good discussion of these issues?

Amato said...

Well, Marx has also become a pejorative in mainstream discourse.

Schimpfinator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Paul Wolff said...

What you say is just not true. Where on earth did you get this notion? Do you think fire fighters, teachers, policemen, nurses, EMTs, automobile workers, steel workers, and sanitation workers are lazy, greedy, and indifferent to work? As compared to whom? I was a member of a union for as many years as there was a union to join. I don't recognize myself in your offhand slanders.

Justin Mueller said...

Painfully true story at the end. I study political theory in a political science department, and the forms of obscure, pedantic and unconnected thought that can crop up are a little different... but the outcome can be similar enough.

Murfmensch said...

Some Union politics is disheartening. I also think that US unions concentrate too much on the firm when they have more power over against the state. (They higher more case workers than organizers.)

That said, a union contract tends to increase professionalism and raise wages. This, alongside their legislative agenda, tends to benefit non-union workers. Unions always support minimum-wage increases sooner than others.

The Marxist critiques that are out there are worth keeping in mind if you are in an organization that is independent of labor. They do not provide a reason to wish them ill. That would be making the perfect the enemy of the good.

wallyverr said...

Mark (mainly),

There is a good and readable book, by two mainstream economists who take a broader view of unions than is typical in microeconomics textbooks: Freeman & Medoff, What Do Unions Do.

Another more technical book is Pencavel, Labor Markets Under Trade Unionism. A non-technical case study of Pencavel's approach applied to the UK (he is originally English) is in "The Surprising Retreat of Union Britain" available at

Both these books are a bit dated (as am I), but should provide a good starting point.

Schimpfinator said...

My original comment was poorly worded. My apologies.

I can't put it into sufficient context for this discussion.

Mark Povich said...

Thanks, wallyverr! I will check those out.