T Nation

Labor Is The Superior Of Capital


I won't pretend to believe the below article will be understood (much less liked) by any conservative here (in fact, I fully expect them to have the customary right-wingnut fit, and thoroughly and viciously attack it), but I hope it at least brings some solace to my left-wing friends.

I'll even leave the note from my friend (who forwarded me the article), to remind people that a Christian Left also exists:

For quite awhile now I have been in prayer for a thought picture, an idea, an angle. I have mentioned before that I feel the need to explain to the community the intrinsic value of unionization, and also that it agrees with the tenets of my faith. And at the same time, I needed a philosophical position for arguments in preparation for the next bargaining session my union has scheduled with my employer.

The Lord responded in time with an article penned by Joe Twarog, and reprinted in our local union's newsletter. Mr. Twarog pulled together a history and a philosophy so complete and concise, that I called him personally and asked if I might be allowed to reprint it. He agreed, and it follows:

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves the much higher compensation."

-- Abraham Lincoln, State of the Union message, 1861

Workplace benefits: not the result of employers' benevolence or goodwill

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training, MNA

You may have seen bumper stickers on vehicles as you drive down the highway that read, "The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend."

What exactly does that mean? Well, in a nutshell, it means that many workplace benefits that we all take for granted were issues that were fought for and won by organized labor.

Consistently over the years, it has been labor unions that have waged the battle (and it has always been a battle) for improvements for workers--whether in a collective bargaining agreement or through legislation. These include: the non-working weekend; child labor laws; the 40-hour work week; overtime premium pay; contractualized tuition reimbursement; employer-paid health insurance and disability insurance; paid vacation leave; leaves of absence; guaranteed pensions and retirement; health and safety legislation; child care and elder care provisions; paid holidays; due process through a grievance and arbitration procedure; a wage scale with escalator clauses; job security; workplace non-discrimination; and other major intangibles like dignity and respect in the workplace.

Many of these issues have been won over time, with labor working in coalition with other spearhead groups. These also include many of the broader social issues, such as: Social Security; Medicare; civil rights legislation; Fair Labor Standards Act; family and medical leave; and OSHA to name a few.

[b]Which side are you on?[/b]

Consistently throughout history, management and employers were on the wrong side of these issues. None of these improvements in American workers' lives were given out from the goodness or generosity of the boss. The boss always had an argument why anything that stood to enhance working conditions would cripple their business. This was the case in:

    * The late 1800s with the push for the 40-hour work week

    * The early 1900s with the drive to eliminate and regulate the use of child labor

    * The 1970s and the initiation of health and safety regulations through OSHA

      1993 with the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act

    * The current issues of mandating safe needles, bans or limits on mandatory overtime and nurse-to-patient ratios 

The arguments of doom and gloom have always repeated themselves. That's why it is important to remind ourselves collectively how the workplace improved. It was Thomas Jefferson (with a sometimes controversial quote, "Every generation needs a new revolution") who realized early in the history of the American republic that the benefits and freedoms enjoyed in this country would be taken for granted by later generations who never experienced first-hand all of the sacrifices made to achieve those gains. Much is the same in labor today.

[b]Collective amnesia[/b]

In today's workplace many workers forget--or never had the opportunity to learn--when or where all of these benefits came from. Some workers assume that these benefits are simply a part of the package that employers unilaterally want to offer employees. Others point to non-union workplaces where some or even many of these benefits are also in place.

It is important to recognize that many non-union facilities are forced to offer some of the benefits that labor has won elsewhere simply to attract and retain employees and to remain competitive in the labor market. These benefits are not offered as a result of the employer's benevolence. Furthermore, in non-union worksites, all benefits that are not protected as a part of legislation are not enforceable because of the lack of a contract. That is, the employer can choose to ignore or to use "management's discretion" in providing or continuing benefits. Such benefits have not become part of the workplace "social contract" as it has in many other countries. Every gain has been fought for--often with blood, sweat and tears--and they are always in danger of being lost.

Employers have fought all of these benefits repeatedly using the same old and stale tactics and arguments, such as "the need for management flexibility," or the right to exercise management's prerogative to run the business, or--the most over-used one of all--business cannot afford to operate with such onerous laws that require a minimum wage, or safe working conditions, or bans on child labor, or family leave, etc. Allegedly, these employers won't be able to compete as a result and it will be the end of Western civilization as we know it.

Of course, none of that has happened. What has happened is that because of labor's constant struggle over many of these issues, the workplace is a better and safer place to work. And yes, more rewarding financially as well as personally.

[b]Health care and nurses[/b]

For nurses in the workplace, whether in an acute care hospital, mental health facility, school district, visiting nurse/hospice association, or long-term facility, the same lessons hold true.

New nurses coming into the workplace come out of the same popularized culture that tends to hold labor unions in disregard or outright disdain. It is therefore the union's job to educate new members and the general public on what labor has won over the years. This is particularly important in each worksite. The record of improvements in health care work is impressive for the working nurse, as well as for the patient and the over all delivery of health care.

For instance, the hospital industry vigorously fought against safe-needle legislation, claiming that prohibitive costs would force them out of business. Yet such federal legislation passed in 2003 and no hospitals have closed over the use of safe needles any more than bottling companies have gone out of business because of the can/bottle deposit law.

Consider the record on:

    * Whistle-blower legislation

    * Latex sensitivity contract provisions

    * Flexible scheduling

    * Professional development clauses

    * Bans or limits on mandatory overtime

    * Living wage ordinances 

Where did the health care industry fall in each of these instances? They consistently fought against them. Labor, along with patient advocacy groups, senior organizations, health care groups, community groups, and health and safety advocates fought long and hard for many of these, and continue to do so.

The fight continues

It is no surprise then that currently in Massachusetts the hospital industry is fighting the MNA's safe staffing legislation in the same manner. They are willing to spend gross amounts of money to mislead and confuse the public and their own employees about such legislation. They have taken out misleading ads and billboards and testified at the State House relating contrived and inaccurate stories about the impact such legislation has had on hospitals in California. Carefully they avoid recognizing the many studies that support and endorse the MNA's position.

None of the workplace victories were easily won. It took sacrifices, and even death, to force changes and improvements--from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that took 146 lives because of the lack of proper precautions and safety exits, to registered nurses' deaths by AIDS or hepatitis from infected needles and sharps.

Yet there is a constant and ever-increasing onslaught of attacks on these workplace gains from:

    * The employer and corporate industry, through mergers, runaway shops, benefit cuts, globalization and outsourcing

    * The Legislature and Congress by sacrificing union rights in the Department of Homeland Security and "free trade"

    * The executive branch by the loss of public sector collective bargaining rights in Indiana and Missouri by newly elected Republican governors, and anti-union appointments to the courts and the Department of Labor and the suspension of the Davis Bacon Act's prevailing wage provision in the rebuilding of hurricane-ravaged communities

    * The media by negatively stereotyping labor and using loaded terminology in news reports such as "special interest group" and "labor bosses"

    * And the NLRB with decisions increasingly hostile to workers 

Unions remain a progressive force in the United States today, even as its numbers decline in the face of this multi-pronged attack. They are among the most democratic, dynamic and diverse organizations in the country. As organized labor is under attack it has responded by joining coalitions in social justice movements and broadening its own vision. History has shown unmistakably that it is organized labor that has fought for employee rights and against the race to the bottom.

I was a latecomer to unions. My college career was the business curriculum. My work included manual labor and management. I joined a union after watching how every company I worked for abused the salaried people in their employ.

Though the union might be despised, it is extremely effective in giving voice for the working. I'll wrap this up with a few other quotes that enlighten:

The important role of union organizations must be admitted: their object is the representation of the various categories of workers, their lawful collaboration in the economic advance of society, and the development of the sense of their responsibility for the realization of the common good.

 --  Pope Paul VI

Every advance in this half-century-Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, aid to education, one after another-came with the support and leadership of American Labor.

  -- Jimmy Carter

The essence of trade unionism is social uplift. The labor movement has been the haven for the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor.

  -- A. Phillip Randolph

If capitalism is fair then unionism must be. If men have a right to capitalize their ideas and the resources of their country, then that implies the right of men to capitalize their labor.

  -- Frank Lloyd Wright

Open your mouth for the dumb [those unable to speak for themselves], for the rights of all who are left desolate and defenseless;
Open your mouth, judge righteously, and administer justice for the poor and needy.

  -- Proverbs 31:8-9 (Amplified Bible)

Two are better than one,
Because they have a good reward for their labor.
For if they fall, one will lift up his companion
But woe to him who is alone when he falls,
For he has no one to help him up.
Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him.
And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

  -- Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, 12 (NKJV)


Always funny how in a list about the good things unions have done, all is strangely quiet. Especially for the folks who think Maryland is going to disintegrate because of Wal- Mart legislation.

Nice article Hspder

"My daddy was a miner
And I'm a miner's son
And I'll stick with the Union
Till every battle's won.
Which side are you on?"


Unions have done their share of good over the years.

Now unions are big business intent on enriching the union leaders to the detriment of the workers and businesses.

I am surprised so many "enlightened" people do not see this.

I think labor unions would do a world of good in many places such as China, India etc.


Admittedly, things have changed a lot since unions first came into existence, but I think your assessment is a talking point.

Unions often poll their members to determine what issues to bring to management... a democratic process no less.

If you want to argue the unions are no longer necessary, that is fine, but perhaps you could do so with something approaching a legitimate argument?


Not all unions are like this. But I do agree they have seen their fair share of corruption. These men need to be purged out of the union...they are as bad as the corporations that they unions fight against.


There have to be some limiters on how much the labor of a company gets. If all of the money earned goes directly or through benefits to the workers, how will equiptment that is better safer and more productive be purchased? Who is going to plan and adapt to future business environments?
There are a lot of things the management does while the workers are working to ensure that there is work to be done in the future. That doesn't mean that management should be able to run rampant through the labor forces benefits and pay scale, but sometimes they have to do what they have to do for the longevity of the entire company.

There has to be balance. You can't cut off the head and expect the body to continueto function, or vice versa.


True to a degree. However, this country has historically fought tooth and nail against any and all organized labor, from the Molly Maguires to Reagan to the California referendum about union campign contributions.

Hence why labor is not nearly as strong here as it is in other countries.


Yea, I'm prety familiar with the labor movement and its struggle. My grandfather was a miner here in Pgh. from the age of 14, also familiar with the Molly Macguires. He used to share some of his stories with us.
That is probably why I don't view it as one side versus another, but a company as a body whose product is the result of the function of all of its parts.
I'm not academicaly familiar with the economies of other nations, but I would venture to say that having an overwhelmingly strong labor movement could be prohibitive to effective management.
Maybe someone from Europe could chime in with more on that.


That's humorous. My great grandfather was also a coal miner in PA.


Unions no longer needed? Its a useless arguement. If they aren't needed they will disapear. If they are needed then we will have more people in them in the future. So this labor movement is self regulating.


True. But have you noticed how your brain is actually the part of the body that consumes the LEAST energy and resources?

I'm all for investment in equipment and paying managers a salary that is proportional to the level of responsibility and talent they should have. But not a cent more. Definitely not the millions of dollars most of them get in bonuses every year, for just doing their job -- and some of them not even that.

I always laugh when stock holders say "well, we have to pay them $20 million dollars a year so that they won't leave". So let them leave. Most of them just hire McKinsey or some other consultancy company and outsource a brain. Anyone can do that -- you can fetch a hobo off the streets and get him to call up McKinsey.

I teach future managers every day, and, trust me, they're not rocket scientists. In fact, I wonder how some of them even got to finish High School...


Lived in Holland for 4 years... pretty strong labor movement. My wife and I worked for these guys:

and no, it's not prohibitive to effective management. It does force managers to use their brains once in a while, something that unfortunately people seem to have an increasing problem with, "even" in Europe.





Although the brain represents only 2% of the body weight, it receives 15% of the cardiac output, 20% of total body oxygen consumption, and 25% of total body glucose utilization. With a global blood flow of 57 ml/100 g?min, the brain extracts approximately 50% of oxygen and 10% of glucose from the arterial blood. Hence, the glucose utilization of the brain, as assessed by measuring the arterial?venous difference (22), is 31 mmol/100 g?min. Oxygen consumption is 160 mmol/100 g?min; because CO2 production is almost identical, the respiratory quotient (RQ) of the brain is nearly 1, indicating that carbohydrates are the substrates for oxidative metabolism (60). Given a theoretical stoichiometry of 6 mmol of oxygen consumed for each mmole of glucose, glucose utilization by the brain should in theory be 26.6 mmol/100 g?min. As indicated earlier, the measured glucose utilization is 31 mmol/100 g?min, indicating that an excess of 4.4 mmol/100 g?min of glucose follows other metabolic fates. Glucose can produce metabolic intermediates, such as lactate and pyruvate, which do not enter necessarily in the tricarboxylic acid cycle but rather can be released and removed by the circulation. Glucose can be incorporated into lipids, proteins, and glycogen, and it is also the precursor of certain neurotransmitters such as g-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, and acetylcholine (10, 60).


I wish I could magically push a button and get all the 'Lefties' to understand: Before you can distribute wealth, such as in social programs and the like, the WEALTH HAS TO BE CREATED. Who created it? Did the guy tweaking a bolt in a GM plant? Did the guy loading plants at a gardening center?

It's certainly true that labor is necessary and makes a tremendous contribution. And I won't defend fat cats making $20 million per year, PROVIDED THEY DID'T EARN IT. But before a company can sign a contract creating all these benefits, the wealth has to be there. Someone had to create it. Who?

Much of capitalism's contribution in intangible. Do you guys realize what it takes to put up a factory? Often, the capitalist gambles his entire wealth, every dime, to start a business. He risks everything. And now, along comes the nearest janitor or assembly line worker demanding his 'cut'. Do we honestly think that an hourly worker actually earns that?

If you want to know the real meaning of labor, go back to the Middle Ages and try to make an iron bar. It would takes you DAYS of intense labor. Now fast forward to today, where you can now make the iron bar in a few minutes. That difference is the CONTRIBUTION of Capital. Your labor is actually worth very little in comparison.

The time of labor unions is over. They established good things that we all enjoy. They forced stubborn capitalists to share the wealth, and there's no going back. But, their time is done.


To a degree? Interesting answer.

So then what are your thoughts as to why are we so much more productive (GDP/PPP) than other countries? Especially despite not necessarily being the most productive country on a per capita basis. These numbers and the historical fighting "tooth and nail" would seem to argue that if you want to be successful as a nation, supporting the individuals and/or unions that represent them isn't necessarily the way to go.


Two points:

First, we all agree that monopolies are bad, right? I mean, being a monopoly is good for the company in question, and its shareholders (who may number in the thousands, or millions) but that good comes at the expense of everybody else, and the net effect of a monopoly is negative. This argument is the basis of our current anti-trust legislation.

A labor union is, in essence, a corporate entity (with members in the role of shareholders) that has a LEGAL monopoly on the provision of labor in a given industry. The consequences are similar: the union's monopoly on labor is good for its membership, but bad for everyone else.

As an example, consider the recent transit strike in NYC. MTA employees are VERY well compensated for blue-collar workers. When they struck for better benefits, they made it nearly impossible for millions of subway riders, most of whom made less than the striking workers.

The second point (and the MTA is a good example of this, also) is that today, most unionized workers are public employees. Somebody said that if unions weren't needed, they would disappear. Well, it turns out that union membership in the private sector has been falling for years. Usually that's presented as a terrible thing, but maybe it's the result of the fact that unions have won most of the battles worth winning, and the need for them today is not so great.

Anyway, public employee unions are fundamentally different from private sector unions for two main reasons. First, government does not have the profit motive that private sector employers do, so there is less downward pressure on employee compensation. Second, public employee unions are HUGE contributors to political parties and campaigns. The problem with this is that when the candidate that the union gave millions of dollars to wins (and, though they favor the Democrats, they give to both parties), at the next contract negotiation, the union is effectively sitting on BOTH sides of the table. Again, this is good for the union membership, and good for the politicians, but it's a disaster for you, because you're paying for it.

Finally, the political power of public employee unions is a contributing factor to many social problems in this country, our declining public school system first among them.


But not a cent more? But isn't that the purpose of market forces to begin with? To determine what the level of pay is for company leadership? I'm not sure how you would determine what that ideal level is independent of the market doing so for you.

And while I will admit there are likely some very overpaid top executives out there, I think people are kidding themselves if they believe most just seem to stumble into those jobs or that there is not a high degree of talent required to do that job well. In this business climate, there is very little room for forgiveness, especially for publicly traded companies. Either get it done or get out.


I worked at place that had union manuacturing. The old elected president of the union is a friend of mine.

For years the union rep (who was a union employee not a company employee) kept pushing for a union pension plan. This pension plan was a bad deal for the company, did not return a higher rate than the companys pension plan but if it went through the union rep would have gotten a HUGE bonus and the union president would have gotten a new truck.

My friend knew there was no way in hell the company would ever go for it so he used it as a negotiating ploy.

My friend eventually took a non-union office job.

When the contract went out the new union president was a fool and pushed a strike to get the pension plan. All he could see was a new truck and to hell with everyone else.

The company started outsourcing most of the work to local nonunion machine shops.

When the strike finally ended the union pension plan did not happen.

The union workforce was reduced from about 50 to 10 people.

This place was known for paying the highest wages for machinists and welders in the county.

The union ruined it through greed.

As I said the unions have done good in the past but now they often take things too far and are just as bad as big business.


I think this is outright theft. In many cases these managers did not start the company, they just come in and steal before they move on.

There are huge problems at both the managerial end and at the labor end.


Wow, good to see our academics are broad-minded enough to tolerate opposing points of view in the marketplace of ideas - but then, academics have not proven to have much of a stomach to actually practicing what the preach. Academics like orthodoxy dressed up as analysis, so I am not surprised at this opening.

As for unions - they have served their purpose in another time. Nowadays, most health/safety issues are covered by legislation, not union contracts. But I give unions a lot of credit for doing what they did at the turn of the century.

Fast forward to today - unions are just another breed of creature seeking entitlement. They are just another special interest. It is no accident that unions continue to lose influence and lose percentages of workers in their respective memberships - unions seeking entitlement are in conflict with others who are tired of it.

For example, public schools in Cleveland are atrocious - but one major sticking to point to reform is the custodians' union refusing to renegotiate their wages. They won't budge, depsite the fact that some broompushers make nearly double that of a public school teacher. Even labor sympathists are getting tired of unions holding progress hostage. Further, witness the grumpiness at the transit workers' strike in NYC - more than a little backlash at them holding public transportation hostage for a posh retirement that begins at 55.

Having said that, I used to work along side union construction men, and to be frank, that shaped my very pro-immigrant stance. While union carpenters stood around pitching hammers and talking about how much money they were really worth, Mexican and South American workers ran rings around them. And rather than listening to the inevitable whine from the ivy-covered tower about how these immigrants were exploited, I am happy to say that developed skills and began to run industrial construction jobs as foremen, carpenters, and carpenters' helpers. That is real labor in action.

As is, unions now see jobs as entitlements, when I suspect most of middle America are not quite that soft. Working conditions have improved, and even a conservative like me supports some level of legislation that promotes work safety, welfare, and morality. But so long as unions continue to choke business off and destroy wealth creating opporunities, they do more harm than good.

Labor is always the superior economic factor - hammers don't swing themselves and medicines don't research themselves. It doesn't take a gaggle of academics who have never had dirt under their fingernails to try and convinvce America - red state or blue state - of that.