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Radical Economics and the Labor Movement

By Jon Bekken - Industrial Worker, October 2005.

More than 50 economists and labor activists went to Kansas City Sept. 15 – 17 for a conference on radical economics and the labor movement organized as part of the IWW centenary. Presentations addressed a wide variety of topics, from historical work to studies of recent efforts by Latin American workers to defend their labor standards through strikes and worker collectives. Other papers sought to update IWW and Marxian economic analysis, reported on initiatives to bring radical economic analysis to broader audiences, and explored the intersection between radical economics and economic thinkers such as Galbraith and Sraffa. In addition, there was a tour of Kansas City labor history sites (shortened by bad weather), culminating in a performance of Wobbly songs in the old City Market by Bob and Judy Sukiel. The idea was to bring together economists and labor activists for a dialogue which might restore the dialogue between economists and working-class movements that once posed a vital challenge to the dominance of capitalism’s house economists. As Dirk Philipsen of Virginia State University noted in his presentation on historical struggles for economic democracy, “It is clear that corporate capitalism is not sustainable. It is not realistic to believe that it can survive.” And so there is an urgent need to open a conversation about economic alternatives.

Ric McIntyre and Michael Hillard presented a critique of U.S. industrial relations theory, noting that recent economic developments have undercut the foundations of the traditional family, creating widespread social disintegration which the right wing has taken advantage of. The labor movement, they argued, needs to integrate issues of home and work, creating community-based organizing campaigns better suited to the modern, dispersed workplace and its workers – many of whom work closely with their managers (and so may have trouble seeing them as enemies) but who nonetheless face systemic problems that are making it increasingly difficult to live any sort of satisfying life.

Claude Pottier of the University of Paris discussed offshore production, opening by noting that everyone thinks the debate is more advanced on the other side of the ocean. While mainstream economists celebrate the emergence of global labor markets, this has had enormous social consequences (notably downward pressure on wages and social standards) which the capitalists have dumped on the broader society. Noel Thompson of the University of Wales looked back to the 1830s to the British union newspaper The Pioneer, which laid out an early syndicalist vision focusing on the role of workers in securing their own emancipation at a time when most radicals looked to upper class saviors.

And Fred Lee, an economist and IWW member, presented a controversial paper on the economics of the IWW which argued that we can see in early IWW economic writings a more sophisticated analysis than is commonly recognized – one which focuses less on the wage-profit nexus than on struggles over job control. Although it can be difficult to raise real wages under capitalism, especially for the working class as a whole, workers can win real gains in areas such as working conditions and the hours of labor, and in doing so can wrest substantial control over work from the bosses. Struggles for job control give workers control over their lives, Lee said; “job control makes people out of us, instead of children whose lives are controlled by others.” The paper sparked lively debate from other economists in the room, who saw wage struggles as the central issue facing workers.

Other presentations addressed the need to take economics out of the academy. Judy Ancel reported on a project which toured hardhit communities throughout the Midwest in the months leading up to the recent elections, educating workers about the connections between trade policy and job losses. Labor consultant Peter Donohue argued that unions need to adopt a very different approach to organizing, as the traditional staff-driven model (whatever one thinks of its meager results) is simply unaffordable. IWW General Executive Board member Jim Crutchfield stressed the need for accessible materials to bring radical critiques and visions for a non-capitalist economics to ordinary workers. And Charles Reitz and Steve Spartan discussed their work raising issues of economic inequality and its consequences to students and in diversity training workshops.

They suggested that the best way to teach critical economics is to begin with concrete illustrations of wealth and inequality in our society. Among the examples they discussed was Send a CEO to Jail Day, in which students were assigned research questions demonstrating that it would be cheaper to house corporate chieftains in jail that to pay the social cost of allowing them to continue to exploit. Many of the presentations will soon be available online at iwwconf/