It’s Time to Revive an Old Rallying Cry: Labor Is Not A Commodity!

Joe Burns

For America’s labor movement to survive, it must recommit to — and defend — the principles that once defined it

During last year’s strike against Mott’s, the apple juice maker, Tim Budd, an employee on the bargaining team, heard a plant manager say across the bargaining table that employees were a commodity like soybeans and oil, and the price of commodities goes up and down.” Mott’s management quickly disavowed their errant manager’s statement. After all, comparing workers to soybeans is not smooth, even for a unionbusting employer.

The verbal slip-up did, however, reveal a fundamental belief of management which has much to do with the future of the labor movement. To management, human labor is a simply commodity — nothing more, nothing less. A commodity is an object traded in the marketplace without differentiation, such as lumber, oil, or soybeans. In this context, commodities are inputs into the production process. They are things. 

To the traditional labor movement— from the 1880s up through the 1960s — the notion that human beings were mere objects to be used up during the production process was highly offensive. As Samuel Gompers, the conservative head of the American Federation of Labor in the first part of the 20th century, melodramatically stated, You cannot weigh the human soul in the same scales with a piece of pork.”

In fact, labor activists spent decades lobbying Congress, eventually winning inclusion into the 1914 Clayton Act the simple declaration that The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce.” While that legislation did not serve its intended purpose of stopping courts from issuing anti-strike injunctions, the ideas underlying labor’s push proved vital in reviving the labor movement during the Great Depression. 

During the 1930s, a powerful form of unionism rejected the idea that workers were mere objects holding no rights to the workplaces their very labor created. According to historian Sidney Fine, during the sit-down strike at Flint, Mich., in 1937, the United Auto Workers contended that the strike was legal since the worker enjoyed a property right in his job.” As one sit-down striker explained, Our hides are wrapped around those machines.”

Workers took over their workplaces, blocked scabs at their plant gates, and prevented management from removing equipment from their plants. The property right of the worker in his job,” explains Fine, was superior to the right of the company to use its property as it saw fit since the workers had invested their lives in the plant whereas the stockholders of the company had invested only their dollars.”

For the last several decades, formerly mainstream trade union principles — such as the ideas that labor is not a commodity, and that labor creates all wealth — have been marginalized within the labor movement. With rare exceptions, such as the United Electrical workers union’s takeover of the Republic Windows plant in Chicago, the labor movement has failed to challenge the illegitimate, management-inspired viewpoint embedded in the legal system. 

Trade unionists have come to accept a system where workers can spend their entire lives toiling in a plant, and in return, investors can ship their jobs across the world.

Unions cannot win operating under management’s framework. In Wisconsin alone, Mercury Marine, Harley Davidson, and the Kohler Corp. all extracted concessions from unions by threatening to move plants. As Working in These Times contributor Roger Bybee points out, Without the national labor movement contesting every threat of plant relocation as an act of greed and disloyalty, workers sense no broader movement against de-industrialization and are unable to see any way out through a protracted battle.”

And it is not just in the private sector that this corporate ideology prevails. The ongoing attack on public-sector unionism is not only an attack on unions and unionism; it is an attack on the very idea of a public sphere not controlled by the market.

Anti-labor conservatives envision a world where capital reigns supreme; where the market rules every sphere of human activity. So hand in hand with attempts to gut public sector union rights, come attempts to destroy public education and public service. To anti-labor conservatives, everything should be a commodity, human labor, education, and even the water we drink.

As the struggle in Madison shows, the revival of the labor movement is about big ideas and bold action. Through heroic struggle, workers in Wisconsin transformed the terms of debate. Rather than debating public sector pay and benefits, the focus became the very right of workers to collectively bargain and issues of corporate control of the economy. The signature chant of the protesters, This is What Democracy Looks Like,” pitted people power against a political system fueled by corporate dollars.

As long as we allow management’s ideas to prevail on the big questions — how wealth is accumulated, the role of labor in production and the rights of capital versus labor — unionism will continue to be on the verge of extinction. Successful trade unionism must, by its very nature, challenge corporate control over the economy.

Joe Burns, a former local union president active in strike solidarity, is a labor negotiator and attorney. He is the author of the book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (IG Publishing, 2011).

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