Thursday, April 29, 2010

Lefty's Exclusive Interview: Professor Dan Graff

Dan Graff
Daniel Graff is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. He is the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of History and the Associate Director of the Higgins Labor Studies Program. Dan specializes in general US labor history, 19th century US history, and race and gender in the US.

We would like to thank Professor Graff for his time and wisdom. The following interview has been condensed and edited for your reading pleasure.

Henry Vasquez: Professor Graff, we have talked extensively in your course about the frameworks used to discuss the labor question. What are some of the obvious assumptions we tend to make when discussing the labor question that are problematic?

Dan Graff: There are two assumptions that are widespread and problematic. First, is that the rights employers enjoy/assume are both natural and inevitable. A great example is the phrasing "giving someone a job." Second, is the mentality that unions were only necessary before. I hear many people, including liberals, saying [more or less] "people are more enlightened. Government does the job unions once filled." This is a linear view of unions as a product of a bygone era.

Henry Vasquez: Opponents of unions often use the zero-sum model to argue that unions take wages and/or jobs away from other workers. How do you unions contribute to a net higher standard of living for everyone?

Dan Graff: Within the zero-sum model, it is more likely that unions are taking wealth from management and capital and not from other workers. In general, a system by which workers can claim a greater portion of the surplus wealth is more desirable. It is about giving people ownership over their work. It isn't only about wages. Unions are important in building space for social movements and civic engagement.

Henry Vasquez: Broadly, what are the prospects for the US labor movement in the next 20 years?

Dan Graff: Honestly, I can't see the rate of private sector unionism going any lower. It is already extremely low. I am concerned about the continuing inability of the union movement to mobilize for itself when it has so effectively mobilized for others, namely–the Democratic Party. On the positive side, your generation (Generation Y) seems significantly more interested in unionism than my generation.

Henry Vasquez: Noam Chomsky and others have pointed out that in a pure market society, labor must be allowed to move like capital, goods, and the means of production. How is this current incongruence problematic? How can it be resolved?

Dan Graff: The point Chomsky and others are making is intended to show the hypocrisy of the "free market" mentality. Clearly, most liberals don't actually want this outcome. Instead of making labor more mobile, why not use regulation to make capital a little less mobile? Completely fluid movement of labor, beyond the difficulties presented by nationalism and security, means that people will have a lesser sense of place and commitment to where they reside.


Anonymous said...

Hell yeah DG!

Sarah Furman said...

CLAP loves Dan Graff =)

Sarah Furman said...

This is so great. There are a lot of false ideas about unions spread around, and Dan Graff has so much education/wisdom to share on this issue.

Sarah Furman said...

Oh, that last comment was by me on Sarah's computer.
-Liz :)

Anonymous said...

"Within the zero-sum model, it is more likely that unions are taking wealth from management and capital and not from other workers. In general, a system by which workers can claim a greater portion of the surplus wealth is more desirable."

I'm open to being persuaded these statements are correct, but I'd still like to see some evidence. Mr. Summers actually has hard data showing that unions tend to raise the unemployment rate:

Graff's second statement is also dubious. What might be good for the worker in the short run (taking more of the "surplus"), may not be good for workers in the long-run. If the profits are low, the investor might find investing less attractive. Ergo: less investment and so less labor to do.

I can see more of a case for unions in some competitive parts of the economy (where there is more "surplus"). But in highly competitive parts of the economy, there is unlikely to be much "surplus". And in those parts of the economy the unions will either be driving the business into the ground or they'll be raising prices for consumers.

I'd like to know more aobut this non-zero sum system that Graff and Henry are hinting at. In this world, presumably, unionization raises productivity, thus leading to an overall bigger pie. In fact, I think if you talk to most economists they'll say that usually unions aren't a zero-sum effect. It's negative. The pie actually shrinks (lower labor supply --> less production --> lower average standard of living).

To me, the main justification for the union would be that it could, in theory, reduce inequality (though this actually needn't happen: see "Capitalism and Freedom"). But if it means a smaller pie in the long-run (and so smaller pieces for almost everyone eventually), it is hard to see unionization as a net benefit.

Anonymous said...

Btw, unions needn't be only for the working class. College professors are in effect unionized in some sense. From what I can tell this is one of the reasons that the job market in academia is perenially awful. Professors don't want there to be tons of professors, so they restrict supply. This helps their wages, at least in the short run, but it makes it incredibly difficult to ever become a full professor, even if you are quite talented. So, a small number of people (professors) win out, but quite a few other would-be professors lose out, and go into some other area of work or languish in academia waiting for that dream job to finally appear.

ShamRockNRoll said...

I know you think Friedman is God, and "Capitalism & Freedom" is the Bible, but maybe you should actually get a blue collar job for a few years and see how all that right wing koolaid still tastes. I don't even know where to begin at 1:00am to address all the ridiculous assumptions you make here.

Henry Vasquez said...

If everything you've said is true, G Barr, then clearly the thousands of other academics who share Graff's perspective are all deluded or just being disingenuous. Let's be careful about elevating this Friedman arrivalist mentality apart from competing views.

Anonymous said...

Well, someone's gotta be wrong, whether it be Graff, Friedman, or both. And I'm not just relying on Friedman. I mentioned Larry Summers as well.

What I need are some facts, not merely assertions. You guys seem to think that these issues are all about ideology and preference. They are primarily about facts. Where are your facts? Some progressive causes have some facts on their side. I could see myself supporting catastrophic national health insurance. I could support government stimuli in some situations. But where is the evidence supporting the idea that unionization is good for the economy as a whole or for most of the population?

And if academic studies by Democratic advisors are right-wing koolaid, then serve me another tall glass.

It seems that you guys are moralizing, rather than making real arguments. I'm not saying the free enterprise system is fun. Or that life is fair. Most of the jobs I've had sucked, and none were particularly high-paying. I'm not saying all this stuff because I'm a "winner" in the capitalist system. If I were a steelworker I'd probably join a union. I understand there are benefits. But I wouldn't join with the delusion that I was actually helping society as a whole. I'd be doing it out of concern for my well-being and the well-being of my family.


Anonymous said...

One of the best profs at ND. Love this guy.