Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part Six: Unions and the Police

I read an article on unions and the police that I thought would be useful for readers: George Rigakos & Aysegul Ergul (2011), “Policing the Industrial Reserve Army: An International Study,” in Crime, Law & Social Change, Volume 56, Number 4. (see I came across the article while researching the function of the police in a society characterized by the domination of a class of employers. The article explains, indirectly, why social democrats like Herman Rosenfeld have a hostile attitude towards more radical political positions (see earlier posts in this series for a criticism of Mr. Rosenfeld’s social-democratic position on the issue of the abolition of the police).

In the article, the authors argue that there is empirical evidence (factual data used as evidence for a hypothesis or theory) among many countries that shows that unions, at the micro level, function to limit exploitation of workers but, at the macro level, they may well function to limit the radical nature of the working class. This is consistent with some of my own experiences with and observations of unions–as well as the social-democratic left.

Let us first look at their arguments and evidence for their view that unions limit the radical nature of the working class (page 330):

After the Second World War, the dominant form of trade unionism recognized the primacy of the liberal democratic state and accepted the capitalist organization of production and private property. The revolutionary Marxist claims of overthrowing the state through the destruction of the capitalist mode of production were replaced by efforts to generate a dialogue and social pact among labour, capital and the state [158]. To put it differently, the goal of trade-unions to mobilize working class power for revolutionary purposes was abandoned in exchange for the legal recognition of collective bargaining and thus the state of trade-unions became crystallized as that of political actors representing an organized interest group within liberal democracy. The internalization of the attitude of “peaceful accommodation with capitalist interests” caused a deradicalization and depoliticization of the trade union movement [158]. The effects of a paradigm shift from Keynesianism to neoliberalism, therefore, have deeply cut into both trade-union membership and political activism.

In the context of the accumulation process of capital (the reinvestment of the surplus produced by workers), some workers are thrown out of work (the unemployed, or what Marxian economists call the reserve army of labour), others are insecure in their work and some are more secure.

The end of the social pact among “labour, capital and the state [government]”–at least from the point of view of capital, and increasingly of the state or government–has left workers with less protection from the onslaught of the vicious nature of a society dominated by a class of employers and the associated economic, political and social relations. There has been an increase in inequality in terms of income and wealth in the neoliberal era of privatization, deregulation and trade liberalization (page 342):

The income gap between people living in the top fifth of the richest countries and those living in the bottom fifth was 30:1 in 1960, 60:1 in 1990, and 74:1 in 1997. In 2005, the Human Development Report stated “the world’s richest 500 individuals have a combined income greater than that of the poorest 416 million.” In the same year the 2.5 billion people, or 40% of the world’s population, that lived on less than two dollars a day accounted for 5% of global income while the richest 10%, almost all of whom lived in high income countries, accounted for 54% of global income [163]. According the World Institute for Economic Research [31], the richest two per cent of adults in the world owned
more than half of global household wealth while the poorer 50% of the world’s adults owned barely 1% of global wealth.

The increase in inequality in the neoliberal era has led to increased insecurity. You would think that with increased insecurity and inequality, there would be a need for more police, both private and public. However, what is interesting is how the presence of unions has generally not led to increases in the level of policing. Ironically, Mr. Rosenfeld, in his criticism of the idea of the abolition of the police, refers to the concept of “legitimation”:

In reality, though, bourgeois democratic institutions are not simply a façade for a bloody and murderous dictatorship over the poor and colonized. Yes, there are instances of state acts of murder and even terrorism. The liberal democratic state and institutions facilitate private capital accumulation and are structured in ways which seek to repress, diffuse and co-opt alternative political and social movements, but these are mediated by the necessities of legitimating capitalism. The relative power, political ideology and organization of the working class and colonized Indigenous peoples also affect the character of liberal democracy (and in the subordinate strata, there are forms of class differences and other contradictions that also matter).

Yes, the working class can modify or reform certain economic, political and social institutions through their strength. However, Mr. Rosenfeld does not look at the opposite process: how this modification leads to the modification of the demands of the working class, blunting their power to oppose the class of employers as an independent class.

This limitation of the potential power of the working class can be seen in the lack of the need for increased policing despite increased levels of insecurity–because most unions now serve at the macro level to legitimate the continued existence of the class of employers (page 354):

Union membership was unrelated to policing employment, whether public, private or
combined for all countries. But when post-USSR states were removed from the sample a
statistically significant inverse relationship between private security or total policing employment and unionization appeared. … This finding provides empirical evidence for the claim that unions may actually provide a surrogate policing function for capital in western nations. That is, a stronger union presence lessens the necessity for more policing. This is particularly evident among northern European (and Ghent countries [Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden) where the average unionization rate is 25.6%, the highest by far among all regions, but the average total policing rate is 453.4, the lowest among all regions.

The reason for excluding the former USSR countries is because in those countries there is indeed a positive relationship with high unionization and high levels of public policing–undoubtedly because of the centralized policing function of the former USSR-countries (page 354):

In former USSR countries, on the other hand, a high unionization rate (12.5%) coincides with more policing, particularly public policing (620.6) as the massive post-totalitarian apparatus has been largely maintained in the form of new protection rackets.

Should workers then not form or join unions? This is hardly what is being argued. It is vital for workers to protect themselves–but of course this protective function should be such that it does not legitimate the power of employers as a class. Furthermore, unions that rely on the organizational strength of their members rather than mainly on the power of the government or the state to enforce the protective function are superior.

At the macro level, modern unions often function to legitimate the class of employers, thereby serving a legitimating function for that class. At the micro level, however, they do serve as organizations of resistance (provided that they are indeed independent organizations at the micro level) (page 355):

What labour militancy does seem to provide, however, is a reduction in the rate of exploitation as measured by the extraction of surplus-value. Thus, surplus-value is inversely correlated to strikes and lock-outs)even when post-USSR states are omitted. There is no direct relationship, however, between policing employment and strikes and lock-outs. This suggests that while strikes and lock-outs may not directly threaten capitalist relations as measured by the necessity to employ more police and security, such work interruptions do have a statistically significant impact in reducing rates of exploitation. As Marxian political economy would indicate, the data also suggest unions are adept at checking exploitation by pushing for more favourable wage and hourly conditions but this does not translate into any direct threat to the established order of security as indicated by more policing.

In other words, unions are contradictory. On the one hand, they function to legitimate the power of the class of employers (even if that is not their intention), but simultaneously they function to limit the exploitation of workers.

Another way in which the legitimating function of unions can be seen is when mass movements that clash with the police arise. Unions often are aloof from such movements, or even engage in conservative attacks on such movements. For example, in France (page 358):

The 2006 youth protests occurred throughout the country as an opposition to the new labour law (First Employment Contract) whose goal was to reduce high youth unemployment through giving more flexibility to employers. In other words, the bill was to make it easier for employers to fire young workers without any compensation. Consequently, the youth responded to this bill by demonstrating on the streets, occupying universities, and blocking university activities including strikes. The insistence of youth in their opposition to the First Employment Contract eventually brought them support from unions. But why did the trade-unions not resist such a bill in the first place? How would the unions have acted had the youth not challenged the First Employment Contract? The unions’ (overly) cautious attitude in responding to issues concerning the labour market and the vested rights of workers is one of the most overt examples of their “policing” role in society. Perhaps the low employment and unionization rates among Parisien youth made them unrestrained by union membership, necessitating massive police intervention. …

It should come as no surprise by now that France and Greece have among the highest rates of total policing employment in Europe.

What should the radical left do? It depends, of course, in part on “where they are at.” They may be unemployed, retired or working (in unionized jobs, professional jobs, insecure jobs and so forth). What can generally be said is that the class issue, or the macro issue, needs to be addressed wherever possible. At the same time, it is of course necessary to engage in tasks that protect the immediate interests of workers.

What they should not do, though, is engage in legitimizing acts and rhetoric for the class of employers–which is what they also often do, in which case they need to be criticized.

The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part Two

The following is the second of a two-part series of posts, providing a critical assessment of some of the views expressed in the 2019 British Labour Party’s Manifesto, It’s Time For Real Change.

The section on public services is typical of the social-reformist or social-democratic left: what is needed is mainly a quantitative expansion of existing conditions rather than a qualitative change in such conditions. For example, in education it is proposed (page 38):

We will reverse cuts to Sure Start and create a new service, Sure Start Plus,
with enough centres to provide a genuinely universal service, available
in all communities, focused on the under-2s.

Labour will radically reform early years provision, with a two-term vision
to make high-quality early years education available for every child.

This is the dream of all social democrats–provision of equal opportunity (especially in education), so that all can compete on an even-level ground. Of course, such competition will lead to inequality, but such inequality, it is implied, is healthy and justified.

Nowhere does the Manifesto address the question of whether the education system itself is adequate to the task of providing quality education on a different basis than the typical academic curriculum. Indeed, in a typical reformist fashion, it proposes to merely add on to the existing curriculum arts and other programs to supplement the existing curriculum (page 39):

The narrowing curriculum is denying many children access to modern languages, arts and music, or technical and engineering skills that will be essential in a world shaped by climate change.

The proposed educational system might then look like what the Chicago Teachers’ Union proposed–an inadequate model for the educational needs of students (see my publication “A Deweyan Review of The Chicago Teachers’ Union’s Publication The Schools Chicago Students Deserve, found on the Publications and Writings link on this blog).

On the issue of social justice, the Manifesto is vague and contradictory. It states (page 64):

For Labour, the true measure of fairness is not social mobility but social justice.

Implicit in the notion of social mobility is the idea that poverty and inequality are acceptable provided some people can climb the social ladder.

Social justice, on the other hand, demands that we end poverty, reduce inequality and create a society in which the conditions for a fulfilling life are available to everyone.

It is claimed that it is possible to end poverty. What is meant by poverty remains unclear. It probably is measured by level of income, with those below a certain level of income being in a state of poverty and those above it not being in a state of poverty. Hence, if everyone had a certain level of income that was above a defined poverty line, then poverty could be eliminated–according to social democrats.

I criticized the adequacy of such a view before (see “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)), so I refer the reader to that post.

The issue of inequality, in all likelihood, also refers to level of income rather than the source of that income. The same problem arises with such a definition of inequality as the definition of poverty.

In addition to the problems with such a definition of poverty (and inequality) as pointed out in a previous post, the following demonstrates the limitations of the Manifesto (pages 60-61):

We will give working people a voice at the Cabinet table by establishing
a Ministry for Employment Rights.

We will start to roll out sectoral collective bargaining across the economy, bringing workers and employers together to agree legal minimum standards on a wide range of issues, such as pay and working hours, that every employer in the sector must follow. Sectoral collective bargaining will increase wages and reduce inequality. This will also stop good employers being undercut by bad employers.

This distinction between “good employers” and “bad employers” is a typical social-democratic tactic of avoiding to address the power of employers as a class. I have addressed this issue, briefly, in another post (see The Contradictions of Unions: Reformist and Radical Assessments), so I will not belabor the point here.

The Manifesto’s social-democratic message also becomes clearer when it refers to the police. On page 42, we read:

The primary duty of government is to keep people safe. Our communities were
endangered when the Conservatives took 21,000 police officers off our streets.

If the primary duty of government is indeed to keep people safe, the Canadian federal government should commit suicide–in 2010, there were about 550 murders and 1000 workers who died at work (in addition to over 600,000 injuries).

On page 43, we read:

A Labour government will invest in policing to prevent crime and make
our communities safer, and we will enforce the laws protecting police
and other emergency workers from violent assault.

We will rebuild the whole police workforce, recruiting more police officers, police community support officers and police staff. We will re-establish neighbourhood policing and recruit 2,000 more frontline officers than have been planned for by the Conservatives. We will work with police forces to invest in a modern workforce to tackle the rise in violent crime and cybercrime under the Tories.

There is little recognition that police themselves are sources of oppression and violence in the context of a society characterized by the dominance of a class of employers (see my post Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part One) for an elaboration of this point.

It is unnecessary to further analyze the Manifesto. The purpose of the Manifesto, evidently, was designed to gain votes by jumping on the bandwagon of climate change, anti-neoliberalism (not anti-capitalism) and the fear of personal crime and the idealization of the police.

Such are some of the limitations of the social-democratic left not only in the United Kingdom but in Canada, the United States and elsewhere.

What is needed–and what has been needed for a long time–is a political party whose aim is to free workers from the power of the class of employers. What is needed is a class party that addresses directly the power of the class of employers as a whole by challenging its power in its various forms, whether at work, in schools, in hospitals, at home, in the malls and in government.

What is not needed is just more of the same–the skirting of the power of employers as a class, the domination of that power in the associated economic, social and political structures, and the creation of solutions that never question the basic power of employers to dictate to workers what to do, how to do what they do, how much to produce and whether what they do is satisfactory or not.