Home > Uncategorized > Response to “Janus”: Take their intellectual “property”

Response to “Janus”: Take their intellectual “property”

from Dean Baker

For the last four decades, the right has been actively working to rig the rules to undermine progressives both politically and economically. They aren’t just interested in winning an election; they want to destroy any basis for progressive change.

This is why they have been so intent on attacking unions. Unlike many centrist Democrats, the right realizes that the labor movement has been at the center of most progressive change in the last century. This is why Reagan made it a priority to weaken labor at the beginning of his administration.

In his first three months in office, he picked a fight with the conservative air traffic controllers’ union (one of the few which supported his election) and set a new trend in which employers fired rather than negotiated with striking workers. He then created a logjam at the National Labor Relations Board that made it virtually useless as a mechanism for protecting workers’ right to organize.

These policies, along with anti-labor, trade and monetary policies, were a punch in the gut of private sector unions. Over the next three decades, the unionization rate in the private sector fell from almost 20 percent to just 7 percent.

Since unionization rates in the public sector were little changed over this period, it was inevitable that the right would turn their focus to this bastion of support for progressive policy change. When Republicans gained control of historically progressive states like Wisconsin and Michigan, they quickly moved to weaken the public sector unions. 

Now they are looking to do this on a national basis with the Janus ruling. Just to be clear, this has nothing to do with individual freedom. It is a question of whether workers can have a contract that imposes conditions on employment.

No one disputes that the employer can impose conditions on employment. For example, the court would have no problem if the state of California requires its employees to pay 5 percent of their wage to a health insurer of its choosing. If you don’t like that health insurer, the Republican justices say you should just work somewhere else.

What the Republican court said is that the workers can’t have a contract that puts a condition on employment by requiring a representation fee to the union that they have chosen to represent them. This has absolutely zero to do with individual rights; it is entirely about the court limiting the power of workers to sign effective contracts.

This is a big victory for the enemies of working people. We should certainly look to fight it directly, but we should also take a lesson from the bad guys: undermine their base of their power.

There are ways this can be done if we are creative. The Trump administration has given us a great opportunity with its trade war with China. One of the big issues it is fighting over is China’s alleged theft of US intellectual property.

While this is an area where the media have been chiming in support of the idea that we all have a stake in the intellectual property of Merck, Microsoft and Disney (go home team!), the reality is that the vast majority of us stand to benefit from China not respecting their claims. As any trade economist can tell you, if China doesn’t pay these companies what they think they are owed, American consumers will be able to save on goods and services produced in China. Why should US workers want to pay more money to make these huge companies richer?

Trump’s trade war gives workers a great opportunity to undermine one of the main mechanisms through which income has been redistributed upwards in the last four decades. Without patent and copyright protection on Microsoft’s software, Bill Gates would still be working for a living. Moreover, the rest of us would be saving hundreds of billions of dollars annually from cheap drugs, medical equipment and software. (Yes, we have to pay for innovation, but there are more efficient mechanisms that don’t redistribute as much money upwards, see Rigged, chapter 5.)

There are other ways in which we can look to weaken the economic power of labor’s enemies directly. For example, relatively progressive states can pass rules of corporate governance that make it more difficult for CEOs to take home paychecks in the tens of millions of dollars. They can also deny tax-exempt status to nonprofits that pay top management high six-figure or seven-figure salaries.

These and other proposals are discussed in more detail in my (free) book Rigged. The point is that we should be thinking of ways to take the battle to their home court and not continually playing defense. Reversing the ways in which they have rigged the market over the last four decades and taking away their money will not be easy, but it is the only reasonable route forward. If all our battles are defensive, then the only uncertainty is how much we lose.

  1. Blissex
    July 3, 2018 at 9:15 pm

    «This is why they have been so intent on attacking unions. Unlike many centrist Democrats, the right realizes that the labor movement has been at the center of most progressive change in the last century.»

    There are some important additional details here that D Baker skips over for brevity:

    * The main role of the unions that the right wants to suppress is the their ability to channel worker subs to buy congresspeople. That’s how progressive laws have happened: the unions have in the past bought blocks of politicians to counter the blocks of politicians bought by the various property lobbies. The USA political system is pay-per-play, and the property interests want to be the sole buyers.

    * Most large businesses hire and pay well lots of “labor” (that is an euphemism for “anti-union”) consultants. Anti-union consultants are very clever and have figured out that the second power of unions is strikes (the first is to buy politicians), and strikes only happen if they are supported by the wives of the strikers (yes, strikes are “sexist”). Whatever else is good about the massive entry of women in the workforce, that has also meant a huge surge in the availability of workers and a big decline in the ability of men to strike.

    * Most importantly the middle and upper-middle classes have not fought the decline of the unions and worsening pay and conditions because they have been getting since 1980 and in particular since 1995 enormous paper gains on their residential property speculation and in their pension account stock market speculation. The gains have turned them from workers into rentiers and they vote like rentiers. Many of them on retirement actually become pure rentiers, and voter for lower wages and higher unemployment, because workers are a pure cost to retired people. This is different from employers, to whom workers are also customers.

  2. Craig
    July 3, 2018 at 10:25 pm

    Integration of the truths in opposing perspectives, not merely reaction against them, has always been the way to thirdness greater oneness/wisdom. So it also is (thirdness greater oneness) with the integrative natural philosophical concept of grace and the historically decipherable fact that an aspect or aspects of that concept has always been the operant factor in every paradigm change.

    As important as it is to temporally confront the outness of domination it’s equally if not more important to cultivate the integrative mental ethic to actually progress. After all the Hegelian dialectic is: [ (thesis x antithesis) synthesis ]

    • charlie thomas
      July 4, 2018 at 12:08 am


  3. Helen Sakho
    July 4, 2018 at 12:12 am

    Very impressive indeed, one cannot refute the synthesis. Opposites attract. They stick together magnetically. For how long though? That is the real question.
    What brings people and their ideas together in the first instance, makes them stick together forever or deject each other exactly because of the phenomenon that brought them together originally.
    What lies in between is a process of either strengthening the link or weakening it, temporarily (for the right reasons to produce a more democratic “thirdness” or permanently because the original idea was genuinely faulty in some way. Economics does not have a historical basis as a science or a myth. It plucks ideas out of thin air, leaving the poor students hanging in the air wondering how to accept or refute the latest argument.

  4. July 19, 2018 at 11:17 am

    To paraphrase, one side in this fight want to limit the power of workers to sign effective contracts, using the courts as the tool to achieve this end. This argument in couched in terms of individual rights. No worker can be forced to pay a fee against her will. Workers want the right to agree to a contract that puts a condition on employment by requiring a representation fee to the union that they have chosen to represent them. This argument is couched in terms of labor law. Labor contracts often contain worker requirements that are not the result of a plebiscite of workers. This is a political decision. Interpreting the law to reach a certain political end-point. The end-points: 1) reduce the power (political, economic, and organizational) of public service worker unions; 2) remove political impediments to the representation of public service workers by the unions they choose. My question, which of these seems to fit more closely with the requirements of the Constitution? After all, interpreting disputes in terms of the requirements of the Constitution is supposedly the job of SCOTUS.

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