Friday, March 11, 2011

The Attack on Unions in Selig Perlman's Wisconsin

The Wisconsin attack on unions is sadly ironic, given the progressive tradition of the state. One of the progressives who whom I have not seen mentioned was Selig Perlman (1888-1959). He was an important economist at the University of Wisconsin and teacher of the son of Robert La Follette, who was, like his father a governor of the state. Later, I had the privilege of knowing his son Mark, I wonderful man with an amazing breadth of economic knowledge and experience. Putting information together from Mark and my father, our families came from nearby each other. I always addressed him as Cousin Mark.

In an undergraduate class, we read Perlman's book, A Theory of the Labor Movement. I remember my teachers' explanation of the book more than the book itself, which I have not read in the last 50 years. Perlman was a former Marxist, who saw the unions as a bulwark against communism. I don't know whether he influenced later scholars' ideas that, by giving workers a voice, unions dampened their revolutionary spirit. I suspect that his analysis had some influence on Jay Lovestone's CIA-sponsored project to encourage (capitalist-friendly) trade unionism around the world.

Obviously, Perlman was not radical, but he still was sympathetic to the working class. Now that the Soviet Union is gone, unions no longer serve such a purpose. Instead, they are treated as a parasitic force that eats into the profit rate. Hopefully, this nonsense will cause a strong enough reaction to ensure that nothing like this happens again.

1 comment:

Barkley Rosser said...

Total agreement. Two additions. Selig's great successor was Jack Barbash, the last dept member not to have a PhD, who had worked with the AFL-CIO, but who was an old Lovestonite. He was also the final hard core defender of institutionalism within the UW econ dept as it was taken over by econometrics, with that influence coming out of the Ag school and statistics from Sewall Wright and R. Fisher's son-in-law, George Box.

The second point is the peculiar irony of Selig being the great sponsor and defender of Milton Friedman at UW, hired in as a stat teacher for one year in 1940 and not renewed, largely on anti-Semitic grounds (Selig being the only Jew at that time in a full-time position at UW, a view supported by "Cousin Mark"). While part of it was anti-Semitism, the other part was Uncle Miltie's positon as a statistics teacher, the premonitor of Art Goldberger who would defeat Jack Barbash in the internal dept struggles in the 60s.