The Wayfair walkouts show us the potential power of labor

Christian Patterson
2019-07-15
Underground Mall

Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum asked what is there to support about the Wayfair Walkouts. I try to answer.

Recently, I saw liberal blogger Kevin Drum make a blog post for Mother Jones about the Wayfair walkout. It was short and inquisitive (to put it nicely). It didn’t make an argument, but instead asked a rhetorical question. So in this post, I will answer that question, even if it is rhetorical.

To summarize about the Wayfair walkout, here’s an article from NPR:

Wayfair employees walked out of the Boston-based furniture company’s Copley Square headquarters Wednesday over executives’ refusal to back out of a sale to a government contractor furnishing a federal detention center for migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border. […]

Hundreds of employees signed a letter that said Wayfair has a contract for $200,000 worth of bedroom furniture with BCFS Health and Human Services that would be distributed to a facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas.

Given that context, here’s what Kevin Drum wrote. Also, this is the entire post. I actually thought the rest of the post was behind a paywall, but nope, this is it:

Somebody help me out here. This is a genuine question, not snark.

Wayfair, the online furniture giant, has apparently been selling beds to the government for use in immigrant detention centers. Its employees are unhappy about this and they want Wayfair to stop sales to ICE or CBP or any other agency involved with keeping kids in cages. Wayfair’s management has not agreed to this, so today its employees staged a walkout.

But isn’t our whole complaint that these kids are being treated badly? Shouldn’t we want companies to sell the government toothpaste and soap and beds and so forth? What am I missing here?

I will explain why walkouts are one of the best and most effective ways workers can exert political and economic power, and also why this is a bizarre stance for a Mother Jones writer to take.

First, we have to find where economic value comes from, before we can see how labor effects things socially. All economic value can be reduced to a combination of natural material, and labor performed on it. First you have trees that lumberjacks cut down. Then you have planks of wood that wood workers craft into chairs.

Even if you don’t prescribe to Marx’s labor theory of value (LTOV)—the idea that value is determined by “socially necessary abstract labor”—this is still true.

In other words, Marx’s LTOV argues that if it takes an hour to build a chair, then the value of the chair is the equivalent of one hour of labor. But if it took an hour to harvest the raw material for the chair, then the value of the chair is actually two hours. This is incredibly simplified, but you get the idea.

If you believe there’s more to economic value than the “socially necessary labor”, then you could (and should) still acknowledge that labor is the root of economic value. Something needs to be made first before it can be circulated. Easy enough.

So, we understand that labor lays the foundation of an economy. But how does it connect to the US concentration camps, and the Wayfair walkouts?

For one, the US concentration camps depend on labor. The buildings, walls, border checkpoints, cells etc were all built / made at some point. They require a ton of labor to upkeep. Because of this, the camps are as integrated into the American, and global, economy just as anything else like it.

The US government dictates that the labor to maintain the concentration camps is performed. Many of it’s performed by government employees, but many of that work is through contracted companies, like Wayfair.

Ultimately, the core of what governments do is dictate how labor is organized in the economy (ie what jobs there are and generally who works them), and how material wealth is distributed amongst that workforce.

This means there are several “inputs” into the equation of concentration camps. For us, the common people, the people who own no property, we have two potential inputs: we could either vote to have this government policy changed, or, we could stop our labor from supporting this system.

Unfortunately, none of us actually voted for these concentration camps, and as republicans gladly point out, these policies existed to some extent before Trump. They say that as a “gotcha” moment, except either way, none of us voted for this, then or now. So who’s the winner?

The other option to stop these concentration camps is to disrupt the commodity supply chain, and consequently the capitalist enterprise invested in these camps.

This is a foundational idea to general and industrial unionism. General unions are ones formed across all industries and companies. Industrial unions are ones with mandatory membership, no matter what your job is within a specific industry. There are also craft unions, another type of unions. They represent workers who do specific types of duties, sometimes at the detriment of other workers.

If someone wants labor to have political leverage and power, then an ideal union formation would be a general, industrial union. The Union would represent all workers and industries, with mandatory membership. The closer a work force is to general, universal representation, the more power it gains along the way.

The Wayfair walkouts were effective because they demonstrate the power of labor. They show a small portion of what labor can do when it’s organized. Imagine everyone who contributed labor to the building and maintenance of the concentration camp were not only unionized, but in the same union. This would give the union much more power to organize itself, and exert its control over the flow of labor.

Another example of the power of organized labor comes form Italy a couple months ago. From Reuters:

Italian unions refused on Monday to load electricity generators onto a Saudi Arabian ship with weapons on board in a protest against the war in Yemen. […]

Unions in Genoa had tried to have the boat banned from Italy, but the ship docked just after dawn, met by a handful of protesters who gathered on the quay.

“No to war” read one of their banners.

Union workers refused to load two generators aboard the boat, saying that although they were registered for civilian use, they could be instead directed to the Yemen war effort.

This is a more direct example of the political power of labor. The Italian unions refused to load things that could potentially be used against Yemenis. The Wayfair employees were briefly refusing to build certain furniture. In itself, that brief refusal doesn’t do anything, except maybe, temporarily decrease the amount of furniture at the concentration camps.

But the Wayfair walkout does gesture towards the broader potential of organized labor. This potential has to start somewhere, considering how weak the US labor movement is, and the Wayfair walkouts contribute to laying this foundation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s