Free to Be a Free Rider

(Image: Cornell University Press)(Image: Cornell University Press)An excerpt (pp. 1-5) from The Origins of Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago, by Cedric de Leon (Available May 1, 2015 from Cornell University Press)

On December 6, 2012, a Republican-controlled Michigan legislature passed “right to work” legislation, allowing workers in this longtime labor stronghold to receive the benefits of union contracts without having to pay the dues or comparable service fees that support the daily operation of unions. Amid mounting protests from thousands of union members outside the state capitol in Lansing, Republican Governor Rick Snyder said that the law was “about being pro-worker, about giving the freedom to choose who they associate with.” Though “right to work” laws make it extremely difficult for unions to represent their members and secure strong contracts, Governor Snyder added, “I support the unions in many regards; I support their right to organize. This has nothing to do with collective bargaining. I continue to be an advocate of collective bargaining in Michigan.” State Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville echoed Mr. Snyder’s sentiments. He said, “I have long been a supporter of collective bargaining, but whether you support collective bargaining or not, it should be the worker’s freedom to choose whether or not he or she belongs to a union … what this ultimately comes down to is the individual worker” (Skubick 2012).

The weakening of workers’ collective power is justified as a safeguard to individual freedom.

A century and a half earlier, in another Midwestern town just three hours west of Lansing, Republican mayor and Chicago Tribune editor, Joseph Medill, spoke before throngs of Chicago workers striking for the Eight Hour Day. In a move of either astonishing faith in his fellow man or outright effrontery, Medill declared, “Journeymen have the lawful right to combine by trades or unions and determine the conditions on which they will exchange their labor for wages, but they have no legal right to compel any outside worker to accept their conditions or to sell his labor only at their price, for that would be to destroy his personal freedom and liberty of action” (Chicago Tribune, May 16, 1872, 4).

Though separated by 140 years, the two sets of statements are based on the same premise. The spokesmen of the Republican Party, past and present, concede the right of workers to assemble and to set rules for their own organizations, but employ the rhetoric of liberty in ways that delegitimize the workers’ most effective strategies for improving their wages and working conditions. In each case, the weakening of workers’ collective power is justified as a safeguard to individual freedom. Governor Snyder speaks of the worker’s right to associate with whomever s/he likes, while Joseph Medill cautions against infringing on the individual worker’s “personal freedom and liberty of action.” Whereas free riders are often reviled for reaping all the benefits of the team’s efforts while doing none of the work, these appeals insist that the free rider is entitled to shirk his duty. They encourage workers to accept the higher wages and benefits that unions are able to negotiate relative to non-union workplaces, while not contributing financially to house and staff the organization, advertise its objectives, and mobilize the rank-and-file behind a common list of demands. Beyond shrinking the operational budgets of labor organizations, the “right to work” dulls the urgency of collective action. If workers are unwilling to contribute dues, they are unlikely to put themselves out in other ways as well: they might choose not to sign a public petition, attend a rally, or walk a picket line. In sum, the “right to work” encourages wholesale divestment from the financial and organizational means through which unions can bring pressure to bear on recalcitrant employers and then frames the resulting power imbalance as the moral imperative of a free society.

Enticed with the American Dream, they are simultaneously denied a collective route to fulfill its promise.

This book is about the bait-and-switch that has historically constrained American workers’ freedom under liberal capitalist democracy: enticed with the American Dream, they are simultaneously denied a collective route to fulfill its promise. I trace the present moment back to the time of Joseph Medill when employment relations were being rewritten in the context of slave emancipation. As I seek to demonstrate, the United States emerged from the crucible of the American Civil War as an anti-labor democracy – one that, despite occasional assurances to the contrary, sought to frustrate the attempts of workers to bargain collectively with their employers.

This is not to say that American workers are forever doomed by history or that a more progressive future was somehow foreclosed by the end of the nineteenth century. It is to say, rather, that workers have had, and must therefore always be prepared, to defend their hard-won collective rights in the face of a political and economic system that was set up to preserve only the right of individuals to negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment.

That outcome was hardly pre-ordained, for both antebellum politicians and workers were deeply critical of the individual wage contract, often calling it wage “dependency” or “slavery,” because it rendered white men subservient to a master class. This arrangement was less troubling when it was still possible for most workers to start their own businesses and become master craftsmen themselves, but political discourse shifted as workers became permanently mired in wage labor. The cost of doing business increased even as workers earned and saved less, thus putting a life of economic independence out of reach to all but the wealthiest merchants, manufacturers, and commercial farmers. Accordingly, during the Jacksonian era (1828-1844), the Democratic and opposition Whig parties often framed their competing economic policies as ones that would enable white men to escape wage dependency and become self-sufficient farmers. Between 1846 and 1861, as Americans colonized the land that would become the continental United States, the major parties fractured over whether slavery should be permitted in the new western territories. All factions agreed, however, that the goal of land policy should be to preserve a path to self-sufficiency for less affluent white men. Indeed, it was only in the years immediately after the Civil War that the wage contract became understood in mainstream political discourse as a safeguard to personal liberty. Politicians, in what became known as the doctrine of “free contract,” held that even the poorest white man was free, because no one could make him enter into a wage contract unless he agreed to the terms. Yet even then, it was the political establishment that espoused that view, while workers rejected it as a fancy reinterpretation of wage slavery.

If free wage labor is the central feature of capitalism – its sine qua non as Marx, Weber, and countless others have argued – then the emerging industrial order had something less than the full-throated political support of antebellum actors. Accordingly, any adequate examination of workers’ place in the transition to liberal democracy must reconcile the persistent critique of wage dependency with the outpouring of support among northern workers for the cause of “free labor” prior to and during the Civil War. The ensuing chapters therefore address the following puzzle: why did the critics of wage dependency reorganize in favor of liberal capitalist democracy only to reject it shortly thereafter? In contrast to other accounts, which emphasize the importance of the law and social actors on the ground (e.g., classes, ethnic groups, voters), I argue that mass parties pressed formerly adversarial class and ethnic voting blocs into the service of liberal capitalist democracy and then incurred the wrath of immigrant workers when they abandoned the critique of wage dependency in favor the doctrine of free contract and its core implication, the right to work.

Northern workers bought, and Republicans sold, the claim that barring slavery from the western territories would allow them to escape wage dependency in the nation’s cities.

Specifically, my solution to this puzzle unfolds in a narrative of the changing relationship between political parties and workers, for the key is to understand that while the critique of wage dependency persisted, its target changed through three phases of partisan struggle. In the Jacksonian era, the close relationship between Democrats and workers was built upon that party’s populist critique of economic dependency on the one hand, and the increasing inability of workers to escape such dependency on the other. But beginning in 1846 both the Democrats and the Whigs became internally divided over the question of slavery extension. The crisis shifted the terms of political debate away from the critique of wage dependency under capitalism towards a critique of dependency under slavery. Instead of arguing about the tyranny of banks and other economic institutions, parties and workers debated whether southern planters would monopolize western lands and thereby prevent workers from becoming independent farmers. In the North, the specter of a “slave power conspiracy” reshuffled the parties’ electoral bases, uniting previously antagonistic class and ethnic voting blocs (i.e., elites and non-elites; native-born and foreign-born) into a grand free labor coalition under the leadership of the Republican Party.

This is only half the answer, however, for while the first two phases explain why the critics of wage dependency came to the defense of free labor, antebellum politics do not explain why workers later rebelled against the very social order they helped to establish. To address this piece of the puzzle, we must examine a third phase in the relationship between parties and workers, a phase in which Joseph Medill loomed large. Northern workers bought, and Republicans sold, the claim that barring slavery from the western territories would allow them to escape wage dependency in the nation’s cities. What workers did not – and could not – know is that the North’s triumph in the Civil War would be used to delegitimize collective bargaining.

As labor unrest mounted during and immediately after the war, the major parties despaired of a strategy to settle the so-called “labor question” and thereby return to issues like the tariff that once peaceably organized the terms of political debate. Eventually, both parties advanced a contractual vision of free society: in contrast to its previous incarnation as a slaveholding republic where some laborers were forced into the service of their masters, the republic, now formally without slavery, would protect the right of all workers to exchange their labor freely in a one-on-one negotiation with their employers. Workers, recognizing that the doctrine of free contract was merely a glorified version of wage dependency, were persuaded by trade unionists, socialists, and anarchists to reject the major parties’ appeal in favor of strikes, boycotts, independent third parties, and revolution.

The political establishment responded by drawing a powerful implication from the doctrine of free contract, the right to work, and used it both as a rhetorical tool to mobilize those frightened by labor’s uprising and as a rationale for antilabor state violence. A trade union, politicians argued, coerced individual employers and workers into a collective agreement that was tantamount to the enslavement of free white men. Collective agreements prevented the individual’s “right to work” at whatever wage he wanted, while simultaneously prohibiting another individual, the employer, from paying that wage. Revising the English common law doctrine of labor conspiracy, postbellum political elites thus imposed a double standard on the modern employment relation. Though late-nineteenth-century employers were incorporated increasingly as combinations like partnerships, corporations, and companies, the right to work framed the employer combination as a free rights-bearing individual, a “corporate person,” and the labor combination as a conspiracy in restraint of trade. Having constructed both trade unionism and the slave power as plots subversive of individual liberty, northern party leaders ordered the police and military to break strikes and eradicate the labor movement just as they did the southern rebellion. Thus, the northern victory in the war was prolabor to the degree that it ended the institution of slavery, but antilabor in the sense that it enabled political elites to forcibly subdue workers’ collective attempts to address economic inequality under capitalism.