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Author: Brishen Rogers

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Billy Hunter and the Absurdities of U.S. Labor Law

(A guest post — with apologies for the lack of embedded links … I’m having internet issues).

As a former union organizer and labor lawyer, the nepotism allegations against Billy Hunter strike me as simultaneously depressing and absurd. Depressing because they remind me once again of the sad persistence of corruption within U.S. unions. Absurd because they highlight how today’s labor law seems like just another strategic resource in battles over product market rents, rather than a foundation for a more just economy and society.

A quick primer: Hunter, the Executive Director of the National Basketball Players’ Association (“NBPA”), allegedly employed family members directly, steered lucrative business to Steptoe & Johnson just as they hired his daughter as special counsel, and sought to have the NBPA invest millions in a failing bank where his son was a board member. Hunter himself is fantastically well paid by the NBPA, pulling down around $2.4 million per year. “There’s nothing illegal” has been Hunter’s less-than-compelling defense so far. He may be correct, though if such conflicts were not properly disclosed then he may be in violation of his fiduciary duties to the players and the union.

We’ll have to await more details — perhaps to be uncovered by the U.S. Attorney’s investigation — to understand why nobody called foul. Perhaps the NBPA Executive Board is captive to Hunter; perhaps they didn’t fully understand the transactions, either due to obfuscation or through their own lack of due diligence; or perhaps they understood fully but felt that such costs were worth bearing so long as Hunter delivered a strong contract.

While the NBPA is no ordinary union there may be some broader lessons here regarding union corruption.

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Occupy Wall Street and Neoliberal Governmentality

First off, a big thanks to Dave Hoffman and the Co-Op crew for having me over for the month. I’ve really, really enjoyed blogging, and hope to continue doing so in the future.

For this final post, I’d like to reflect a bit on the Occupy movement.  As someone who writes about social movements and inequality, and as a former community and union organizer, I’ve been both thrilled by Occupy’s emergence and a bit puzzled by its structure, its strategy, and its place within domestic and global politics. There is of course a strong re-regulatory trend among the Occupy protesters, as is clear from the demands for student debt relief, for the overturn of Citizens’ United, and for stronger banking regulations. There is also a more small-scale communitarian impulse within Occupy, a desire for less alienating and more human-focused forms of social organization. Both impulses seem evident on the pages of The Occupy Wall Street Journal.

Yet neither quite captures the whole story. Occupy, I believe, reflects in large part a reaction against and rejection of neoliberal governmentality.

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Labor law in the age of social media

Over seventy-five years ago Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, which granted an administrative agency the powers to determine whether workers desired union representation and, if so, to hold employers to a duty to bargain. Part of the theory behind the Act was that bestowing legal legitimacy upon unions would end our long history of violent battles over union recognition. Yet today organizing a union remains very, very hard. For one thing, employers have both economic incentives and legal powers to resist unionization. For another, lower-skilled workers who stand to benefit the most from unionization face some of the most intractable collective action problems, and the most powerful incentives to avoid employers’ ire. The difficulty of organizing has various social costs, including increased inequality and few guarantees of due process on the job, and has sparked recurring debates over whether to change union certification procedures. Such questions dominate both academic and political debate within labor law.

I’m beginning to wonder whether an alternative reform would be more politically palatable, and almost as fruitful, particularly in the age of social media. As I suggest at the end of a forthcoming article entitled “Passion and Reason in Labor Law,” some of the normative goods associated with labor law can be achieved, not just through union certification and collective bargaining, but also through workers’ collective action on its own. Read More

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How and why to boycott Apple

In the wake of two Times articles and an episode of This American Life exposing working conditions among Apple’s suppliers, various bloggers and commentators have called for a consumer boycott. One respected tech blogger even called the conditions “barbaric,” arguing that “the blame lies not with Apple and other electronics companies—but with us, the consumers.”

I find the argument that Western consumers owe a moral duty to overseas workers quite compelling, particularly with regard to luxury goods such as Apple’s. See Iris Marion Young on that point. Yet I don’t think a traditional boycott is a good idea, for two basic reasons. First, it is self-defeating. Putting aside the irony that such a boycott cannot be organized without using Apple products, the collective action problem is huge. Eventually an iPhone will break, or get dropped in the bathtub, or a new app or album will be needed, and the best-intentioned consumers will defect.

Second, what exactly is the ask? Should Apple leave China? That would be bad for the workers. Should Apple demand higher labor standards? Sure … but what would they be? Apart from egregious safety violations or forced labor, someone needs to articulate demands, and define success, or the boycott will just drag on, and on, and on.

But here’s an idea worth considering: a one-day boycott in which people refuse to purchase anything from Apple, iTunes, or the App Store. The demand would be that Apple commit to rigorous, external monitoring of its suppliers. More after the jump…

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Who’s afraid of job training?

First off, a big thanks to my colleague Dave Hoffman and the other editors for the invitation to guest blog this month. I’m planning to post about my own research as well as other interests, including law and social movements, the meaning of and significance of the Occupy protests, and the complicated role of class in U.S. law and politics.

For now, though, a more topical post: the unemployment numbers are out today, and things are looking up: 243,000 new jobs created in January, lowering the national unemployment rate to 8.3%. Granted, the top-line number lacks granularity, and tends to understate the extent of un- and under-employment. But lower unemployment is a good thing. As the post-Keynesian Joan Robinson once quipped, “The only thing worse than being exploited by capitalism is not being exploited by capitalism.”

What’s intriguing to me is that while Obama, Romney and Gingrich’s proposals regarding unemployment differ in many ways, each has endorsed job training as an anti-unemployment strategy. Obama stirred controversy last year when he praised a Georgia program in which firms could “hire” and train unemployment recipients but not pay them for the first eight weeks.  Less controversially, the DOL recently granted $500 million to community colleges to help retrain and place the unemployed.

There’s just one problem: it’s not at all clear that job training does much good, particularly in a down economy.

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