Sunday, December 23, 2012

Follow up on strikers' problem in a liberal society

My recent post on "strikers' problem in a liberal society" tried to make the point that there is what I call a conflict in values when it comes to unions' resort to striking tactics.  I hope I made clear (despite the indulgent footnotes [1] (and several parenthetical remarks (and related meanderings (which I am wont to do (especially when I have a lot of time (like now))))) what the basics of this conflict were.

However, I think I left the reader hanging a bit, without giving much indication of where I was going or what I wanted the takeaway to be.  Here's a brief (I hope) summary of what I want people to come away with as well as a qualification of some of my harsher language.

First, I think it's possible someone could have read my post and come away with the impression that I was accusing labor historians as being apologists for violence.  I do think someo of them fall into that role, and more certainly, a number of them gainsay violence.  However, what I call "gainsaying" is often no more than establishing necessary context to counter a simplistic, manichean narrative of "business good, unions bad."  Also, I have trouble finding any labor historian, save one (a trotskyite acquaintance of mine), who has actually in their writing or in their personal statements given me any reason to believe they condone violence by workers, and even the exception is prone to contrarian-sounding hyperbole that may mask a more decent motivation that I sometimes decline to see.  Finally, several labor historians have written on labor violence and have not shied away from exploring unions' role.

Second, I mentioned in a footnote, but did not elaborate further, that the state during strikes is often very guilty of perpetuating or condoning unnecessary violence or itself engaging in it.  It is possible that state-implicated "unnecessary" violence ("unnecessary" being perhaps a term of art) is used more against unions during strikes than  union-implicated violence is used or even threatened against employers or replacement workers.  This is, at least theoretically, an empirical claim that might be proven or disproven, and I'm open to the possibility that what I call the "specter of labor violence" is perhaps only a subset of, or a defensive reaction to, what is a fundamentally violent system.

Third, my principal goal is to address an attitude in a criticism I sometimes see.  This criticism goes, "the strikers were advocating for a just society, and they might have succeeded if the state hadn't 'sent in the troops.'"  My point is that there are perfectly understandable reasons for the state to intervene in strikes that have the potential for violence, and further, that if one accepts commonly held assumptions about the rightness of violence and the principal function of the state, then state intervention is (in principal and perhaps even usually) a good thing and something to be welcomed.


[1] Hah!

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