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Edmund Burke, Thoughts and Details on Scarcity:
When any commodity is carried to market, it is not the necessity of the vendor, but the necessity of the purchaser that raises the price….If the goods at market are beyond the demand, they fall in their value; if below it, they rise. The impossibility of the subsistence of a man, who carries his labour to a market, is totally beside the question in this way of viewing it. The only question is, what is it worth to the buyer? (pp. 68-69)
Carl Menger, Principles of Economics:
Neither the means of subsistence nor the minimum of subsistence of a laborer, therefore, can be the direct cause or determining principle of the price of labor services.
In reality, as we shall see, the prices of actual labor services are governed, like the prices of all other goods, by their values. But their values are governed, as was shown, by the magnitude of importance of the satisfactions that would have to remain unsatisfied if we were unable to command the labor services. (p. 171)
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow:
The value of work.—If we wanted to determine the value of work by how much time, effort, good or ill will, compulsion, inventiveness or laziness, honesty or deception has been expended on it, then the valuation can never be just; for we would have to be able to place the entire person on the scales, and that is impossible. Here the rule must be “judge not!” But it is precisely to justice that they appeal who nowadays are dissatisfied with the evaluation of work. If we reflect further we find that no personality can be held accountable for what it produces, that is to say its work: so that no merit can be derived from it; all work is as good or bad as it must be given this or that constellation of strengths and weaknesses, knowledge and desires. The worker is not free to choose whether he works, nor how he works. It is only from the standpoint of utility, narrower and wider, that work can be evaluated. (§286)
Yesterday, after a building housing garment factories collapsed in Bangladesh, killing
almost 200 more than 250 workers, Matt Yglesias wrote:
Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.
The reason is that while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary United States that’s primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working-class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum….
Bangladesh is a lot poorer than the United States, and there are very good reasons for Bangladeshi people to make different choices in this regard than Americans….The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine.
Today, after Matt Yglesias wrote these words, Agence France-Presse reported this:
Hundreds of thousands of garment workers walked out of their factories in Bangladesh Thursday, police said, to protest the deaths of 200 people in a building collapse, in the latest tragedy to hit the sector.
Grief turned to anger as the workers, some carrying sticks, blockaded key highways in at least three industrial areas just outside the capital Dhaka, forcing factory owners to declare a day’s holiday.
“There were hundreds of thousands of them,” said Abdul Baten, police chief of Gazipur district, where hundreds of large garment factories are based. “They occupied roads for a while and then dispersed.”
Police inspector Kamrul Islam said the workers had attacked several factories whose bosses had refused to give employees the day off.
Managers had allegedly ignored workers’ warnings that the building had become unstable.
Survivors say the building developed cracks on Tuesday evening, triggering an evacuation of the roughly 3,000 garment workers employed there, but that they had been ordered back to production lines.
Would it not be easier for Matt Yglesias to dissolve the Bangladeshi people and elect another?
Update (April 26, 9 am)
New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse: “With death toll at 300, Bangladesh factory collapse becomes worst tragedy in garment industry history.” Matt Yglesias: “The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine.”
For more information and responses:
- Greenhouse’s lengthy reporting in the Times on the fallout of the building collapse.
- Dylan Matthews’s informative interview in the Washington Post with an expert on international trade.
- Some righteous, hilarious, and info-rich indignation from Mobutu Sese Seko and his crowd.
- Scott Lemieux on Yglesias’s Lochner-era reasoning re “choice.”
- Justin Doolittle’s further considerations on the collision of theory and evidence.
Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human:
Culture and caste.—A higher culture can come into existence only when there are two different castes in society: that of the workers and that of the idle, of those capable of true leisure; or, expressed more vigorously: the caste compelled to work and the caste that works if it wants to….the caste of the idle is the more capable of suffering and suffers more, its enjoyment of existence is less, its task heavier. (§439)
My utopia.—In a better ordering of society the heavy work and exigencies of life will be apportioned to him who suffers least as a consequence of them, that is to say to the most insensible, and thus step by step up to him who is most sensitive to the most highly substantiated species of suffering and who therefore suffers even when life is alleviated to the greatest degree possible. (§462)
…the better, outwardly more favoured caste of society whose real task, the production of supreme cultural values, makes their inner life so much harder and more painful. (§480)
Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty:
Whoever desires the regular income for which he sells his labor must devote his working hours to the immediate tasks which are determined for him by others. To do the bidding of others is for the employed the condition of achieving his purpose. (186)
[The worker] has little knowledge of the responsibilities of those who control resources and who must concern themselves constantly with new arrangements and combinations; he is little acquainted with the attitudes and modes of life which the need for decisions concerning the use of property and income produces….While, for the employed, work is largely a matter of fitting himself into a given framework during a certain number of hours, for the independent it is a question of shaping and reshaping a plan of life, of finding solutions for ever new problems. (188)
There can be little doubt, at any rate, that employment has become not only the actual but the preferred position of the majority of the population, who find that it gives them what they mainly want: an assured fixed income available for current expenditure, more or less automatic raises, and provision for old age. They are thus relieved of some of the responsibilities of economic life… (189)
The man of independent means is an even more important figure in a free society when he is not occupied with using his capital in the pursuit of material gain but uses it in the service of aims which bring no material return. It is more in the support of aims which the mechanism of the market cannot adequately take care of than in preserving that market that the man of independent means has his indispensable role to play in any civilized society. (190)
There must be, in other words, a tolerance for the existence of a group of idle rich—idle not in the sense that they do nothing useful but in the sense that their aims are not entirely governed by considerations of material gain. (193)
However important the independent owner of property may be for the economic order of a free society, his importance is perhaps even greater in the fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs. There is something seriously lacking in a society in which all the intellectual, moral, and artistic leaders belong to the employed class. (193)
For earlier iterations of Nietzsche von Hayek, Nietzsche and the Marginals, and my ongoing effort to see the world of neoclassical and Austrian economics through the lens of philosophy and political theory, see…
Nietzsche and the Marginals, again (on the construction of utility)
Nietzsche and the Marginals (on the foundation of value)
Even More Nietzsche von Hayek (on the higher types and the determination of value)
Nietzsche von Hayek (on reward and happiness, power and force)
The Entrepreneur as Medieval Lord (Schumpeter, all too Schumpeter)
The Ding an Sich of Economics (Jevons on the inscrutability of hearts and minds)
And for some clarification, however imperfect and incomplete, of what I’m up to, see this comment here.
Falsely Shouting Fire in a Theater: How a Forgotten Labor Struggle Became a National Obsession and Emblem of Our Constitutional Faith
Did you ever wonder where the metaphor of falsely shouting fire in a theater comes from? Several years ago, I was co-writing a book about American political repression with Ellen Schrecker, the brilliant historian of McCarthyism. We came across a fantastic article by University of Texas legal scholar Lucas Powe that made a strong case for where Oliver Wendell Holmes, who came up with the metaphor, might have gotten the idea for it. Ellen followed up Powe’s hypothesis with some extensive sleuthing in the Michigan archives, and what follows is the result of her research and our writing.
Sadly, Ellen and I never finished that book. We did, however, write drafts of a few chapters, some prologues and preludes, and an introduction. What you’re about to read was meant to be a prologue to part 1 of the book, in which we were going to analyze the connection between political repression and national and domestic security (Part 2 was supposed to look at the role of violent and non-violent sanctions in repression; Part 3 would have examined the full array of legal, illegal, and extra-legal modes of repression). Security and repression is a subject I’ve written about at great length elsewhere, and some of the discussion below presumes the theory I have developed in those writings.
In any event, the possible true story of the false shout of fire in a theater is a great story on its own, and Ellen and I both wanted to make sure that it saw the light of the day. So with Ellen’s permission I’m posting our piece here.
For the sake of readability, I have eliminated all of our footnotes. But for those who want to follow up the sources, I’ve added a bibliography here that lists all the sources we cite and consulted in writing this piece, and I’ve posted a pdf of the original text, which contains all the footnotes.
• • • • •
All public facts are to be individualized, all private facts are to be generalized.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “History“
Charles T. Schenck is remembered today less for what he did than for the image he helped inspire: that of a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. That image was first offered by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as an illustration of what Schenck did during the First World War, and it has since become a fixture of our discussions about the delicate balance between freedom and security, liberty and order, particularly though not exclusively in times of war.
It’s a pity that we remember the metaphor rather than the man, however, for the gap between what Schenck did and what Holmes said he did is considerable—and instructive.
Schenck was the general secretary of the Socialist Party in Philadelphia during the First World War. Unlike their sister parties in Western Europe, America’s Socialists firmly opposed the war, even after the United States entered it in April 1917. That summer, Schenck and his Philadelphia comrades launched a campaign against the draft. They composed a two-sided leaflet that attacked the draft as unconstitutional and called for people to join the Socialist Party and persuade their representatives in Congress to repeal it. If the leaflet’s language was strong—“a conscript is little better than a convict…deprived of his liberty and of his right to think and act as a free man”—it was also conventional, couched in a vernacular many would have found familiar. One side proclaimed “Long Live the Constitution of the United States.” The other urged people to “Assert Your Rights!”
Schenck and his comrades made 15,000 leaflets and mailed most of them to men in Philadelphia who had passed their draft board physicals. It’s unclear how many actually received the leaflet—hundreds were intercepted by the government—and no one produced evidence of anyone falling under its influence. Even so, Schenck and four others were arrested and charged with “causing and attempting to cause insubordination…in the military and naval forces of the United States, and to obstruct the recruiting and enlistment services of the United States.” Two of the defendants—Schenck and another party leader—were found guilty. Schenck’s case was argued before the Supreme Court in January 1919, and the Court’s unanimous decision to uphold the conviction, written by Holmes, was delivered in March.
Holmes’s opinion was a mere six paragraphs. But in one sentence he managed to formulate a test for freedom of speech that would endure on the Court in some form until 1968—“[The] question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent”—and in another to draw an illustration of the test that remains burned in the public consciousness to this day: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”
With his disdain for socialists and rabble-rousers, Holmes would not have been pleased to see his name posthumously linked to Schenck’s. But with his equally powerful sense of realism, he undoubtedly would have conceded the truth of Harry Kalven’s observation, in 1988, that “Schenck—and perhaps even Holmes himself—are best remembered for the example of the man ‘falsely shouting fire’ in a crowded theater.” It was that kind of metaphor: vivid, pungent, and profoundly misleading.
Drawing on nearly forty years of his own scholarship and jurisprudence, Holmes viewed Schenck’s leaflet not as an instance of political speech but as a criminal attempt to inflict harm. In the same way that a person’s shout of fire in a theater would cause a stampede and threaten the audience with death so would Schenck’s leaflet cause insubordination in the military, hamper the war effort, and threaten the United States and its people with destruction.
Holmes knew that words were not always words: sometimes they ignited fires—and not just the metaphorical kind. In 1901, as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Holmes had upheld the conviction of a man who tried to persuade his servant to set fire to his own home in order to collect on the insurance. Just as that man’s words threatened the safety and well being of his neighbors so did Schenck’s threaten the safety and well being of his, or so Holmes believed.
Whenever the government suppresses opinions or beliefs like Schenck’s, it claims to be acting on behalf of values—national security, law and order, public safety—that are neutral and universal: neutral because they don’t favor one person or group over another, universal because they are shared by everyone and defined by everyone in the same way. Whatever a person may believe, whatever her party or profession, race or religion, may be, she will need to be safe and secure in order to live the life she wishes to live. If she is to be safe and secure, society must be safe and secure: free of crime and violent threats at home or abroad. The government must be safe and secure as well, if for no other reason than to provide her and society with the safety and security they need. She and society are like that audience in Holmes’s theater: whether some are black and others white, some rich and others poor, everyone needs to be and to feel safe and secure in order to enjoy the show. And anyone who jeopardizes that security, or the ability of the government to provide it, is like the man who falsely shouts fire in the theater. He is a criminal, the enemy of everyone. Not because he has a controversial view or takes unorthodox actions, but because he makes society—and each person’s pursuits in society—impossible.
But Americans always have been divided—and always have argued—about war and peace, what is or is not in the national interest. What is security, people have asked? How do we provide it? Pay for it? Who gets how much of it? The personal differences that are irrelevant in Holmes’s theater—race, class, gender, ethnicity, residence, and so on—have had a great influence in the theater of war and peace. During the First World War, Wall Street thought security lay with supporting the British, German-Americans with supporting the Kaiser, Socialists with supporting the international working class. And while the presence or absence of fire in Holmes’s theater is a question of objective and settled fact, in politics it is a question of judgment and interpretation. During the war, Americans could never decide whether or not there was a fire, and if there was, where it was—on the Somme, the Atlantic, in the factories, the family, the draft—and who had set it: the Kaiser, Wilson, J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, the Socialists, the unions, the anarchists. Without agreement on these questions, it wasn’t clear if Schenck was the shouter, the fire, or the fireman.
There are fires in politics, but where and what they are, who set them, how they can be put out, and who will put them out—these are political questions, the subjects of controversy and debate. How we answer these questions—and whether they become questions at all (for not all threats and dangers become items of public discussion)—will reflect in part who has power and who does not, whose ideas are influential and whose marginal, whose interests are salient and whose negligible.
In politics, we’re never in Holmes’s theater, enjoying the show until someone comes along and ruins the evening.
Or maybe we are.
On Christmas Eve in 1913, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners local in Calumet, Michigan, held a party for the children of copper miners who had been on strike against their employer, the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, since July. About 500 children and 175 adults packed the second-floor auditorium of the Italian Hall in Red Jacket, a small mining town on the Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts out onto Lake Superior. The miners were mostly immigrants from the peripheries of Europe—Finland, Italy, and the Balkans—but their children were one in their quest for the nuts, candy, and presents from Santa that the Ladies Auxiliary had provided.
As the children lined up in the front of the large room, someone shouted “Fire.” Nobody smelled smoke or saw flames, but the panicked children and adults rushed to the main exit at the back of the hall. They raced down the stairway, a few stumbled on the steep steps, others piled on top of them, and still others, unable to stop the onrush behind them, piled on top of the pile.
The stampede was over in minutes. The tangle of bodies in the stairway was so dense that rescuers out on the street could not pull any victims out from the bottom. They had to go through the hall and lift them from the top. Seventy-four people died, most of them children, some still clutching their Christmas presents.
To this day, no one knows who, if anyone, shouted fire. One possible explanation is that a child had fainted and that someone cried for water. Water—or its Finnish equivalent vettä—sounds like watra, which means fire in Serbo-Croatian. Many witnesses, however, claim that they saw a man with a Citizens’ Alliance—a local anti-union group of businessmen—button on his lapel enter the hall, shout “fire,” and run down the stairs. To their dying day, survivors claimed that the stampede was the work of a company man.
That was the version of the story that Woodie Guthrie immortalized in his 1939 ballad “The 1913 Massacre”:
The copper-boss thugs stuck their heads in the door
One of them yelled and he screamed, ‘There’s a fire!’
A lady, she hollered, ‘There’s no such a thing!
Keep on with your party, there’s no such a thing.’
A few people rushed, and it was only a few
‘It’s only the thugs and the scabs fooling you.’
A man grabbed his daughter and carried her down
But the thugs held the door and he could not get out.
And then others followed, a hundred ore more
But most everybody remained on the floor.
The gun-thugs they laughed at their murderous joke,
While the children were smothered on the stair by the door.
And it might well have been the version Holmes would have read about. The Calumet fire was widely reported throughout the country—Congress held hearings about it and the copper strike in 1914—and Holmes was an avid reader of newspapers. He also loved the theater and had a passion for fires. He told a friend “that whenever there was a fire in any direction he would be glad to go to it with me even if he had to be routed of bed.” His friend added that “it would not have surprised me had he left the Bench to witness a fire while the Court was in session.”
We’ll never know for sure if Holmes knew about the Calumet tragedy and whether it inspired his metaphor, though University of Texas legal scholar Lucas Powe has made a strong case for that claim.
Yet even in Calumet, in a crowded hall on Christmas Eve with children unwrapping their presents in peacetime, the metaphor fails. The strikers in the Italian Hall and their families were united, but what brought them together was a bitter standoff with Calumet and Hecla about wages, safety in the mines, the introduction of new machinery, the pace of work, and, most of all, whether the workers would have a union or not.
For decades, Alexander Agassiz, the Boston Brahmin who ran the company, had refused to negotiate with the miners, declaring in 1874, “We cannot be dictated to by anyone….Wages will be raised whenever we see fit and at no other time.” Forty years later, Calumet and Hecla was still refusing to negotiate: as the chair of a congressional committee said, “There is little we can do to end the strike. The operators will not employ a single union man. The remaining strikers can go back to work if they surrender their union cards, otherwise they will be compelled to some other part of the country to earn a livelihood.”
Set aside the controversy about whether or not there was a shout of fire and who the shouter was (though the fact that there was a controversy indicates how difficult it is to apply Holmes’s metaphor—in which there is not supposed to be any controversy—to politics). If there was a shout of fire, and if the shouter was indeed a member of the Citizens’ Alliance, he would hardly have been the universal enemy of Holmes’s metaphor; he would have been more like John Brown, a terrorist to some, a hero to others.
Rather than unite a divided Keweenaw Peninsula, the tragedy at the Italian Hall divided it even further. After the stampede, the wives of the Citizens’ Alliance went house to house to dispense to the survivors the $25,000 the anti-union group had raised; doors were slammed in their faces. “The Western Federation of Miners will bury its own dead,” declared union president Charles Moyer, who had been in the region since September to monitor the strike’s progress. “The American labor movement will take care of the relatives of the deceased. No aid will be accepted from any of these citizens who a short time ago denounced these people as undesirable citizens.”
On December 26, a group of fifteen men burst into Moyer’s hotel room. The men “piled on me like a pack of wolves,” he later testified, “kicking and striking and cursing.” A revolver accidentally went off, hitting Moyer in the back and shoulder. The men grabbed Moyer and another union official, dragged them through town to the railroad station, put them on board a train for Chicago, and warned Moyer “if you ever come back to this district again we will hang you.”
The following day, local authorities arrested the editor and several employees of the local radical Finnish newspaper Tyomies, which first publicized the accusation that the Citizens’ Alliance had caused the stampede, and charged them with “conspiracy to publish mis-statements calculated to incite riot.” Two weeks later, on January 15, 1914, the Houghton County Grand Jury indicted Moyer and 37 other unionists for participating in a conspiracy that “instituted a general strike…with the purpose and intent of causing and compelling the employees of the companies…to cease work and to shut down and prevent the operation of the mines.” Nine days after that, the same grand jury refused to indict Moyer’s attackers.
Holmes’s metaphor was supposed to illustrate the unity of society in the face of an alien danger and the right of the government, grounded in neutral and universal principles, to suppress that danger. But Calumet, like Schenck, reveals the opposite: a society divided—not just in the face of danger but over the face of danger—and a government selectively deciding whom to protect and from what to protect them.
While Holmes’s metaphor obfuscates the realities of Calumet and Schenck, it also reveals a deeper nexus between them. Why, after all, might Holmes have remembered and reached back to an incident from the nation’s bitter labor history to describe an equally bitter conflict over war and peace?
Perhaps it is because there is an intimate connection between public safety and private authority. A safe and secure nation, many believe, is publicly united—and privately obedient. Workers submit to employers, wives to husbands, slaves to masters, the powerless to the powerful. A safe and secure nation is built on these ladders of obedience, in its families, factories, and fields. Shake those ladders and you threaten the nation. Stop people from shaking them and you protect it.
In Billy Budd, Herman Melville tells the story of the Bellipotent, a British naval ship on her way to the Mediterranean to fight the French. The year is 1797, and the French enemy is in possession of—or possessed by—a revolutionary ideology of freedom and equality. The British navy is writhing with discontent, most notably over the impressments of its sailors. Thanks to the “live cinders blown across the Channel” from revolutionary France, writes Melville, that discontent has “been ignited into irrational combustion.” Mutiny, and the threat of mutiny, is everywhere. One in particular, the Nore Mutiny of May 1797, is “a demonstration more menacing to England than the contemporary manifestoes and conquering and proselyting armies of the French Directory.”
Disorder at home and danger abroad, domestic obedience and international security, safety and submission, insecurity and revolt—all are seamlessly intertwined in this tale about the British navy during the French Revolution that is also a tale about the American struggle over slavery and perhaps about the labor movement as well. (Melville began Billy Budd in 1886, nine years after the Great Upheaval. 1886 saw a massive strike wave—1400 strikes—that culminated in the Haymarket tragedy. Melville was still working on Billy Budd in 1891, when he died, just one year shy of the showdown at Homestead.)
Like the plantation and the factory, the navy, in Melville’s telling, is a labor-intensive operation: the “innumerable sails and thousands of cannon” of the ship “worked by muscle alone.” Like the Nore Mutiny, slave rebellions throughout the Americas were sparked by the French Revolution, an influence Melville took up more directly in Benito Cereno. And like the rhetoricians of both slavery and abolition, Melville resorted to the language of fire to describe the all-encompassing threat of a conflict over power and authority: the Nore Mutiny was to the British Empire, he wrote, “what a strike in the fire brigade would be to London threatened by general arson.”
“Men feared witches and burned women,” wrote Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California. That’s true, but men also feared women and burned witches. It is that traffic—between the uppity and the unsafe, the insurgent and the insecure, the immoral and the dangerous—and the alchemy by which a challenge to a particular social order becomes a general threat to the whole, that is the real story of how a fire in a theater, which may or may not have happened in the way various men and women think it happened, became a national obsession and an emblem of our constitutional faith.
William Beck, “Law and Order During the 1913 Copper Strike.” Michigan History LIV (Winter 1970).
Jeremy Brecher, Strike! Cambridge: South End Press, 1997.
Michael Kent Curtis, Free Speech, “The People’s Darling Privilege”: Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.
The Finnish Experience in the Western Great Lakes Region: New Perspectives, ed. Michael G. Karni, Matti E. Kaups, and Douglas J. Ollila, Jr. Turku, Finland: Institute for Migration, 1975.
William B. Gates, Jr., Michigan Cooper and Boston Dollars: An Economic History of the Michigan Cooper Industry. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951.
House of Representatives Subcommittee of the Committee on Mines and Mining, Hearings on “Conditions in the Copper Mines of Michigan,” 63rd Congress, 2nd session (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1914).
Michael H. Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven: Yale University, 1987.
Vernon H. Jensen, Heritage of Conflict: Labor Relations in the Nonferrous Metals Industry Up to 1930. New York: Greenwood, 1968.
Larry Lankton, Cradle to Grave: Life, Work, and Death at the Lake Superior Copper Mines. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, in Melville’s Short Novels, ed. Dan McCall. New York: Norton, 2002.
Stephen H. Norwood, Strike-breaking & Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
H.C. Peterson and Gilbert C. Fite, Opponents of War, 1917-1918. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1957.
Richard Polenberg, Fighting Faiths: The Abrams Case, the Supreme Court, and Free Speech. New York: Viking, 1987.
L.A. Powe, Jr., “Searching for the False Shout of ‘Fire.’” Constitutional Commentary 19 (Summer 2002).
David M. Rabban, Free Speech in Its Forgotten Years. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Yosal Rogat and James O’Fallon, “Mr. Justice Holmes: A Dissenting Opinion—The Speech Cases.” Stanford Law Review 36 (July 1984).
Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919)
Arthur W. Thurner, Rebels on the Range: The Michigan Copper Miners’ Strike of 1913-1914. Lake Linden, Michigan: John H. Forster Press, 1984.
Peter Trubowitz, Defining the National Interest: Conflict and Change in American Foreign Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)
Last month, I debated Mark Blitz, a Straussian neocon and former Reagan Administration official, and now professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, about the politics of freedom. Throughout the debate, Blitz expressed some skepticism about my account of coercion in the workplace.
At one slightly tense moment, I confronted Blitz directly about the situation of the workers at his college (1:08:35 in the video).
Robin: Let me ask you another question. You teach at Claremont McKenna College. Are the staff there—and by that I mean the custodial workers, the clerical workers—are they unionized?
Blitz: I would say that most people who are familiar with colleges everywhere recognize that they’re good places to work. They’re very good places to work if you’re tenured faculty, of course. But a lot of that carries on down through so that most people in my college and I believe other colleges have fairly wide protections. I would also say that most people in my colleges and other colleges would face a situation in which it would be extraordinary if the kinds of thing you’re talking about as reasons for firing actually occurred and even more extraordinary if they came to light and the managers who were involved in them were not themselves let go or fired. Again, it could turn out that if one had the vision which would enable one to see precisely what’s happening in each place, what I’m saying is wrong. But it’s my experience of any college actually that I’ve worked in, and it’s my experience working in government as well, of course.
Robin: Let me just add one thing. I’ve noticed this among many college professors, whether they’re on the left or the right, that they actually oftentimes don’t know the conditions of employment of the staff that works at their institutions. They oftentimes conflate their own working conditions—which if you’re a professor with tenure are quite good; you have a tremendous amount of protections—with those of the people who empty the garbage cans, who clean the dining halls, who serve the food, who really make up a large part of the staff. I oftentimes am shocked, to be honest with you, at how little familiarity—again, this is not a left or right thing—professors have about those working conditions. And I would submit that unless those workers have a union or are government workers, the facts are that they have extremely few protections on their job.
Blitz: My experience, having actually been involved in management of my own college, is that that’s not the case. Perhaps you’re right about professors generally who are ignorant of all sorts of things. But not in this case on this issue.
Claremont McKenna is part of a consortium of colleges called the “Claremont Colleges.” All seven of its campuses are adjoining and are modeled, according to the consortium’s website, on the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. In other words, each college is part of a cozy little whole. In fact, Blitz at one point in the above exchange refers to “my colleges,” perhaps for this very reason.
One of the Claremont Colleges is Pomona College. And it just so happens that there is indeed, right under Professor Blitz’s nose, a rather nasty instance of workplace coercion going on there.
In 2010, the dining hall workers at Pomona began to organize a union. Many had been working at the college for years. In 2011 the administration suddenly decided to undertake a review of the immigration status of its workers. It found problems in the files of 84 employees. Seventeen were ultimately fired; 16 of those fired worked in the dining halls, including many leading union activists. Remember: many of these men and women had been working at the College for years. Only now, in the midst of a union drive, did their immigration status become a problem that was held against them.
This was hardly the first time the college had acted against the union drive. In the summer of 2011 the administration instituted a gag rule preventing dining hall workers and students from talking to each other during the workers’ break time. That order was ultimately rescinded in the face of a pending government action against the college.
These events were hardly a state secret. They were reported in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. I had heard about them in far-off Brooklyn. Yet Professor Blitz didn’t seem to know about them at all.
Needless to say, in a climate of fear and intimidation such as this, it’s awfully difficult for workers to have a full and free debate on the merits of unionization. The dining hall workers have therefore asked the administration to sign a neutrality agreement, allowing the workers to debate this issue for themselves. Other universities, including Georgetown and Northeastern, have signed such agreements.
The workers are circulating a petition among academics calling on the administration to sign the agreement. If you want to sign the petition so that the Pomona workers can engage in this debate without fear of recrimination and retaliation, please do so here.
If you want further documentation of just how difficult it is to organize a union in the United States, and how the union election process is stacked against unions, check out this landmark study from Human Rights Watch. Additional studies can be found here, and here, and here. These will give some context for why unions are increasingly asking employers to sign neutrality agreements in advance of organizing drives.