All the legislative measures in labor law refer to and organize a conflict of interests between employees and employers. The employer’s interest is the profit that he can attain with his business. The interest of the employees – pleasant working conditions and wages with which to meet their needs – is to the employer a deduction from his profit. In business calculations, wages and decreases in the harmfulness of work are only costs.
This conflict makes the intervention of the state necessary.
The right to strike
In order to assert their interest against that of the employer, the employees unite in unions. This enables them to turn the employer’s dependence on them against him. This dependence exists to the extent that his ambition is to make more capital out of his utilized capital; this is the goal of using the labor power of others. With work stoppages, the production of profit stops, and in extreme cases even depreciates the utilized capital. Strikes are therefore the means by which employees implement their interests. However, strikes disrupt the smooth functioning of the national economy and therefore endanger its competitive power. In the early period of bourgeois rule in the 19th century, when the state still denied the right to vote to the lower strata, strikes were usually considered anarchy, and forbidden and smashed by means of state violence. It is different nowadays. Strikes are permitted. However, they are posed under conditions. This is the most important content of the right to strike.
The legal regulations indicate what steps must be taken leading up to a strike (negotiations, mediation, etc.), when a strike can begin, who may proclaim one, formulates requirements for the objective (“socially responsible,” not set on the destruction of the social partner, i.e. his property) and under what circumstances and how it is to end.
The problem is not the prohibition of strikes, but their permission. Permission is equivalent to control because it sets the possibility of prohibition in advance. The permission that regulates the union struggle serves to make it innocuous for the national economy.
The injuries to employees that happen as part of the normal labor process (by accidents or unhealthy working conditions) endanger the overall continuity of the economy. The extensive body of law issued to prevent this defines the normal working day and the normal workweek (and the circumstances under which they may be exceeded), rules for the prevention of accidents, and limit values for different harmful substances in the workplace.
These regulations are not intended to prevent hazards – they have no effect on the reason for them, the clash of interests described above. They lower the damage to a degree that makes the continued usefulness of the employees possible so as to permit further profitable business with them. (This is the content, for example, of limit values for hazardous materials in the workplace. They by no means prevent a slow, creeping poisoning, but only define its magnitude.) Despite the positive consequences of this legislation for the employer, it contradicts their immediate interest. So it is appropriate that again and again there are well known cases in which these regulations were disregarded. Industrial safety regulations are not evidence of a reconciliation between the opposing interests; on the contrary: “What could possibly show better the character of the capitalist mode of production, than the necessity that exists for forcing upon it, by Acts of Parliament, the simplest appliances for maintaining cleanliness and health?” (A quote from Karl Marx: Capital Vol. 1, Ch. 15).
Separation of the company’s interest / the employer’s interest
Whether a company goes into business is decided by whether an owner of capital sees a promise for his money to increase. Whether jobs are created depends on this calculation; the workers’ representatives in the trade unions do not consider this something to criticize, but take it for granted. They see the fact that jobs are also eliminated (by rationalizations) for the success of this calculation, and that this calculation pays off even better if the workers can be hired more cheaply, as a result of the intense competition the company is in out of its own free will. Here a trade union likes to follow the logic that even if a lot of jobs are eliminated, the others are all thereby “secured” (at least until the next round of rationalization). However, in agreeing in principle with the capitalist’s way of calculating, one must be very sharp-eyed to see a limit to fair profit. The question becomes how much rationalization must take place in order to be more competitive, how much wage sacrifice is necessary in order to be able to keep up with the unit cost prices of the competitors, and in the long run, how high must the profit rise to be successful? Here a rather skillful and extraordinarily moral disconnection between the interest of the entrepreneur and that of the company is carried out. However, this disconnection is absurd precisely because the company only comes into being and exists to the extent that the employer increases his capital. It is impossible to determine a fair amount of profit, as every participant in the capitalistic competition, including its victims, advances the competition and forces the others to also cut costs. So everybody is directed to let the profit become as large as possible in order to challenge the next round of rationalization ahead of the competitors and to even be winners of the competition and not the loser.
What to do?
This description of the unpleasant consequences that labor law has for the wage-earning part of the population isn’t a call to not make use of that which allows them to pursue their own interests. It is a call to discover that laws have nothing to do with a benefit that one gets from them. Rights are not a means for people to pursue their interests, but a means of the state for making them innocuous.