First up is Seth Ackerman’s excellent article on the Hostess bankruptcy and how the term “competitive” has been bastardized to mean something entirely different from its literal meaning when it comes to talking about companies being competitive. After noting that pay cuts, even in recessions, are quite rare due to employee morale issues, he then looks at the Hostess situation:
So let’s turn back to hapless Hostess. In a piece for Salon, Jake Blumgart quoted a bakery worker who had been at the company for 14 years. “In 2005, before concessions I made $48,000, last year I made $34,000…. I would make $25,000 in five years if I took their offer. It will be hard to replace the job I had, but it will be easy to replace the job they were trying to give me.”
What we have here is a situation where a company offered a wage in the marketplace and couldn’t get any workers to accept it. Consequently, it went out of business. The word “competitive” gets thrown around a lot, often with the murkiest of meanings, but in this case there can be no doubt at all that a company, Hostess, was unable to pay a competitive wage. Ninety-two percent of its workers voted to walk out on their jobs rather than accept its wage, and they stayed out even after they were told it was the company’s final offer.
By all the canons of competitiveness, it was the company that was deluded. Hey, it’s a tough labor market out there. Hostess just couldn’t compete.
But the union got blamed instead, and that points to a fascinating aporia in neoliberalism. The competitiveness ideology keeps a double set of books. On the surface, it celebrates free individuals making voluntary agreements on a footing of formal equality. But look just a little deeper and it turns out to be a musty, medieval system of morality that venerates human hierarchy and inequality. If taken literally, an accusation of insufficient “competitiveness” would refer to a failure to buy or sell on the terms objectively demanded by the dispersed actors of the marketplace. But nine times out of ten, this literal meaning is just a facade for the real underlying meaning, which is all about policing the socially accepted rules concerning who is a worthy human being and who is not. Workers at an industrial bakery are losers. They need to take a pay cut — not so much to make the numbers add up (that’s a secondary consideration for all the commentators and columnists) but as a ritual affirmation of their debased social status. The refusal to take the cut was shocking and revolting — an act of lèse-majesté. It’s in that sense that the union was uncompetitive. The workers didn’t know their place.
The part after what I’ve quoted above, where he quotes a summary of the book Belated Feudalism by Karen Orren is well worth your time as well. He ends the piece with a nod towards the worker protests to take place today at Wal-Marts across the country, and that’s where the next article comes in, Jordan Weissmann’s note that when it comes to placing blame for the labour practices of the big box retailers like Wal-Mart, the first place to look is the mirror.
Forget the stampeding shoppers, the half-priced waffle irons, or the pepper spray wielding wackos: barring a federal intervention, the main event this Black Friday could turn out to be a showdown between organized labor and its arch corporate nemesis, Wal-Mart.
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It would be a mistake, however, to think of this simply as a clash over one company. Rather, it's symptomatic of forces Wal-Mart helped set in motion and now shape our economy in fundamental way. It's about big box retail's refusal to pay a decent wage. It's about the way we've stacked the deck against unions. And it's about the choices we make as consumers.
Read, as they say, the whole thing. And then enjoy your weekend as best you can.