Is Labor a Commodity in Wisconsin?

Is Labor a Commodity in Wisconsin?

A recent decision by a Wisconsin judge should help unions by asserting that “labor is a commodity,” an argument that marks a U-turn for labor’s advocates.

Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker (Michael Vadon / Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes one needs a sense of humor to appreciate important turns of law and public policy—a bit of historical consciousness helps too.

A recent decision by a Dane County Wisconsin judge should help the labor movement in that state and perhaps beyond, by asserting that “labor is a commodity.”

At issue in the case was Wisconsin’s “right-to-work” law. This law, as in twenty-four other states, prohibits unions which have been voted in by a majority of the members of a bargaining unit from collecting dues (thus in some sense requiring membership) from those in the minority who choose not to join the union. Before Governor Scott Walker and his Republican legislature changed the rules, unions were allowed to collect “agency fees” from that minority. This was justified because the unions are compelled to perform services—bargaining and representation—even for those who choose not to join.

Judge C. William Foust, in a decision so clearly written a non-lawyer could understand it, argued that the work that a union does is labor. Because labor is a commodity owned by those who perform it, he reasoned, Wisconsin’s right-to-work law denied the property rights of Wisconsin unions, rights which would allow them to collect fees from nonmembers.

Arguing that “labor is a commodity” marked something of a U-turn for unions and their advocates. In 1944, meeting as the Second World War was grinding toward an end, the UN-sponsored International Labor Organization met in Philadelphia. Originally built parallel to the League of Nations, the ILO became (and still is) the UN’s specialized labor standards organization. It began its “Declaration of Philadelphia” most elegantly: “Labor is not a commodity.”

Today the International Labor Rights Forum (of which I am a member of the Board of Directors) hosts a blog with the resonant title, “Labor is Not a Commodity.” The blog is concerned with the ways U.S. policy, such as trade treaties, affects the rights of workers around the world—particularly their rights to form unions and bargain collectively.

The phrase itself is a small declaration of resistance. Theorists of capitalism have agreed for over a century that one of the defining characteristics of capitalism is that it is a system of production of commodities (that is, things produced for sale not just for use) in which labor (technically “labor-power”) is a commodity. To assert the negative is to declare that one does not accept the moral or technical boundary of capitalism as a way of evaluating the human condition.

How funny then, that a legal decision which advances the cause of the labor movement should be so resoundingly based on a doctrine of property rights. One wonders if the lawyers toiling for the plaintiffs Machinists Local Lodge 1061, United Steelworkers District 2 and the Wisconsin AFL-CIO took a moment to ponder the broader history and import of their claims.

Surely if labor (or labor power) is a commodity, it is as Marx and many others have noted a peculiar one. It has sentience, feelings, ideas and the capacity for resistance. It’s not just another bar of soap.

The paradox—the technical usage is often stated as “contradiction”—is part of a larger one also anticipated by Marx. To defend oneself within the capitalist rules of the game, one often finds oneself succumbing to them. Workers, for example, clamor for policies that produce jobs, Marxist theorists note, even as those jobs expropriate their labor and alienate them from their work.

Republicans in Wisconsin say, according to the New York Times, that they are confident they will overturn the decision on appeal. Will they assert that “labor is not a commodity”? Would they contribute to the International Labor Rights Forum? Not likely, but a sense of humor will serve as we wait to see.

Robert J. S. Ross is a Research Professor of Sociology and the  Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise at Clark University and the author of Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops.