Labor’s paycheck fetishism

Via Mike Elk, I came upon this article in Labor Notes about Piketty. It is written in that affected homespun style that a lot of Labor writing is, and, also like a lot of Labor writing, flippantly dismisses as inferior anti-inequality strategies that don’t involve organizing to cram more money through people’s paychecks:

When workers bargain collectively, they can affect the distribution of wealth at its source. That’s more effective than attempting to recoup what they’re entitled to once it’s already in the boss’s pocket and out the door.

This is an empirical claim and it’s not correct. The American labor movement suffers from a serious lack of imagination about how to go after the boss or capital more generally. This serious lack of imagination has them fetishizing the paycheck as the holy grail of income channels, which is a severe mistake.

With organization and some good fighting, you can push the needle on labor paychecks a considerable amount. That’s a good thing and worth doing, but it doesn’t get us anywhere near the level of equality that we should want to see.

Despite what the author says, taking money from the boss’s pocket once it’s “out the door” has a greater capacity to cut inequality. That is, taxing and transferring has the ability to reduce inequality much more than organizing for raises does. Both can push down inequality and both are worth doing, but, as an empirical matter, the former has more potency.

Elsewhere in the world, Labor seems to be aware of this. If you delve into the countries that have the highest union membership and coverage rates in the world, you see their unions being extremely serious and proactive about getting the state to put in place equalizing tax-and-transfer schemes as well as public benefit systems. This overall approach to fighting capital and the rich is massively more effective than solely containing the fight to workplace scrapping.

Sloganeering labor movement people who act like everything is basically silly and irrelevant compared to local organizing to push up paychecks are wrong on the merits and doing a disservice to the populations labor is supposed to fight for. The labor movement should be using every channel of power to get more for the bottom of the economic hierarchy, and it can’t do that when it fetishizes workplace-to-workplace agitating to the exclusion of all other strategies.