Every Pay Bump Is an Admission of Guilt
Where did your raise come from? It was always there.
Last November, the UAW finished ratifying the new contracts it had won with the Big Three automakers after its triumphant strike. About a week later, they announced ambitious plans to organize 150,000 new workers at every major nonunion auto company in the US—Tesla being the juiciest target of all. This week, Tesla joined other nonunion automakers in announcing a pay hike for its employees.
These pay raises are, of course, attempts to head off worker enthusiasm for unionizing. Let’s take it as a given that everyone recognizes that. But it’s important to be even clearer about the implications of these kinds of desperate gestures: These are things that your employer could have given at any time, but are only giving you now because they fear the prospect of you having a union. Is such a thing really an argument against a union? No. It is an admission of guilt, that companies hope you will not notice.
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By that I mean that these little wage bumps that seem to magically appear whenever workers are able to demonstrate a legitimate possibility that they may organize should not be seen just as logical enticements from business owners, nor just as straightforward gains that ripple out from the movements of big unions like waves from a whale’s tail. They should also—and primarily—be seen as evidence of the crime that an employer has been committing against its workers, all along. Not a legal crime (sadly), but an economic crime, and a crime against humanity.
The economic crime is more specific than not paying workers what they deserve. It is the crime of not paying workers what they could be paid. It is the crime—which is inherent in the capitalist workplace arrangement, and which is taught at business schools as basic good management technique—of a business reserving for itself money that it could be giving to the people who do the work while still remaining a healthy business. What businesses typically say when workers ask for more money is: “We can’t afford it. It will put the business at risk.” But these sorts of sudden raises give the lie to that pose. These raises are the business equivalent of a rich guy who is refusing to give you what he promised for cutting his lawn all of a sudden coming up with the money when you threaten to punch him in the face. Yeah, you had that money the whole time! It was always there!
Compounding this economic crime is the fact that even when businesses feel some amount of pressure from organized labor power, they still don’t give workers all of the money to which they are entitled. They give it in drips and drabs. They try always to give the smallest possible amount in order to get the business running as usual again. These preemptive raises from nonunion automakers should be understood as a man walking down the street with a sackful of gold tossing out a few pennies to the poor and hoping that they are satisfied enough with that that they don’t demand more. The only way to get the full amount that the company is capable of giving you is to say to it: Give us what we’re worth or you will have neither workers nor a business any more. You have to put their backs fully up against the wall. That is accomplished by collective bargaining, which is accomplished by a union.
I know that these points are extremely basic, but the precise way that the general public interprets these things is important. When you read that the UAW’s recent strike will raise base wages by 25%, ask yourself: Where did that 25% come from? When the online media industry was unionizing several years back, it was common to hear about workers making rock bottom salaries who got $10,000 raises the moment that the union contract was signed. Where did that $10,000 come from? How is it that the act of collectively demanding something with the explicit threat of withholding our labor power can, with no other changes in the business, produce such huge new piles of money for workers?
The answer, of course, is that the money was already there. Your boss was just taking it instead of giving it to you. This is the simple but critical point that we all should chew on. Because when you chew on it, the flavor of revolution leaks out into your gums, real sweet. Every celebration of a union’s hard-fought gains in a strike or in bitter contract negotiations should be accompanied by an equal and opposite condemnation of the company itself for making its own valued “team members” go through such a struggle just to get what was clearly there all along. Capitalism makes every company’s management into hoarders, pathological little rats that will not stop gorging themselves on every scrap even when others are starving. You do the work. The company collects the money. It gives you the lowest amount possible to keep you working. The rest goes to make people who don’t do the work very rich. And—in the sickest twist of all—no matter how rich they get, they never, ever get to a point where they say, “You know what? We should give the workers all this extra money now.”
That bottomless appetite for excess in a world of need is what makes this everyday economic crime into a crime against humanity. Nothing I have described above is in any way a secret. Every successful manager in corporate America takes for granted the fact that labor costs should be minimized in order to maximize the revenue flowing to managers and investors. Try telling them that such an arrangement is shameful, and they will laugh in your face. That is how it works. That is the normal functioning of capitalism. Investment professionals who deploy all the capital understand it. Managers who receive the capital and run businesses understand it. The business press understands it. Consultants understand it. Unions that negotiate contracts understand it. The only group of people who are presumed not to understand it are the workers themselves, who are fed by their employers a diet of the most treacly nonsense it is possible to imagine about why this obvious arrangement does not exist. Your boss and your boss’s boss and the whole company’s boss and the bankers and the investors and the analysts and the lawyers and the IR and the HR people all spend their days trying to maximize their position in this paradigm relative to yours, and they all are explicitly rewarded based upon how successful they are in doing so, and then, when they are forced by the specter of a union drive to do anything at all that might go against their own direct interests in this system, they give you a dollar and say, “We are doing this because we are nice.”
No. They are doing it because they are mean. They never have to appear to be robbing you, because they are robbing you every day, in the natural course of business. It’s not that this is some great insight. It’s just that we can only get everyone in the proper state of mind when we start viewing each concession that we wring out of them as further proof that they have been taking what should be yours for a long, long time.
The union is the hammer. If you want to organize your workplace, contact EWOC, or email me. “The Hammer” is also my book, which will be published one month and one day from today. You can preorder it here or wherever books are sold. Book tour info coming soon.
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