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Socialist in Seattle

Earlier this month, multinational aerospace corporation Boeing threatened to relocate production of its 777X commercial jets away from the Seattle area if the union that represents its workers did not agree to its provisions for an eight-year contract extension. The proposed contract would have included a $10,000 signing bonus and replaced pensions with higher matches for 401(k) savings plans, but the local branch of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers expressed concerns over high health insurance costs and limits on pay raises to 1 percent every other year. Local IAM president Tom Wroblewski went so far as to physically tear up a copy of the contract at a union meeting, later explaining that by rejecting the deal he had “preserved something sacred.” In response, Boeing immediately began soliciting bids from other regions of the country interested in providing a home for 777X production and is expected to announce its decision at some point in early 2014.

Boeing’s actions have not gone unnoticed. Kshama Sawant, a Seattle Central Community College economics teacher who was recently elected to the Seattle City Council, spoke out sharply against Boeing, arguing that their threats amounted to “economic terrorism” and encouraging local machinists to simply seize the plant and take control over production themselves. “The only response we can have if Boeing executives do not agree to keep the plant here is for the machinists to say the machines are here, the workers are here, we will do the job, we don’t need the executives,” Sawant explained to an enthusiastic crowd of union supporters. “The executives don’t do the work, the machinists do. The workers should take over the factories and shut down Boeing’s profit-making machine.” Sawant, who identifies as a socialist and whose website advertises popular slogans like “free-market failure,” “capitalism in crisis” and “human needs, not corporate greed,” suggested that the machinists could put the seized capital equipment toward the production of buses rather than drones or “destructive, you know, war machines.”

Although Sawant also rightly points out that Boeing has grown big off of government privileges such as tax incentives and defense contracts, her endorsement of an unlawful seizure of property and the socialist economics from which it stems are drawing sharp criticism from all quarters. At Slate, for instance, Matthew Yglesias writes that machinists with one very specific set of skills are not likely to be successful at orchestrating a complete overhaul of an entire manufacturing center and coordinating all of the higher-level execution it would entail. “Can Boeing’s front-line workers actually retool an airplane factory and turn it to bus production and win contracts to sell buses that raise enough revenue to keep everyone employed?” he asks, noting that things like plant overhaul, supplier and customer relations and forecasting the demand for buses all fall under a legitimate role for executives. “Only time will tell for sure, but the real world answer is ‘no.’”

Yglesias is right. If laborers were generally capable of running factories and satisfying consumer needs better than capitalist executives—even accounting for the fact that a number of natural-born, state-imposed or sociologically rigid factors might be working against them—we would expect to see at least some real world evidence of this. Although it is true that state regulations generally favor existing corporations at the expense of newcomers and smaller competitors, Sawant and the machinists are still to some extent free to pool their resources together, invest in capital equipment and collectively own and operate a bus production facility. So why don’t they?

What Sawant and her supporters overlook is that collectively owning a bus production plant places a greater burden on the machinists than the current voluntary hierarchical structure, which means that a takeover of the plant might hurt the machinists more than it would help them. For one thing, there are obvious costs associated with violently seizing somebody else’s property, especially if you believe—as Sawant does—that government regularly bestows favor upon business over labor. The machinists would be risking punishment, injury and even death to seize the plant in the first place.

Past that, though, operating the plant on a collectively owned basis exposes each machinist to a larger degree of risk and responsibility. The reason wage-labor tends to prevail has less to do with exploitation and structural violence than it does with the practical concerns of the laborer. Most individuals have it within their power to restrict their consumption, invest in capital equipment and produce goods to sell on the market. But restricting consumption can be undesirable, especially when there is no guarantee that anyone will buy what you’ve been making. And this is where the capitalists come in: By providing the machines and raw materials workers need, and by assuming any risk that the goods simply won’t sell, the capitalist makes it possible for the laborer to draw a discounted wage and forego ownership of what he produces in exchange for a steady, reliable and predictable return on the labor he undertakes. This is an admittedly oversimplified description of an incredibly complex process, but then, so is Sawant’s.

Kshama Sawant is right when she says that nobody needs executives. She might be more helpful to her constituents, however, if she abandoned her rhetoric, put people over her own politics and asked why it is that so many of us want them.

Chris Bassil, Trinity ’12, is currently working in Boston, Mass. His column runs every other Tuesday. Send Chris a message on Twitter @HamsterdamEcon.

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