/* */

15 October 2008

Once and future intelligence challenges: labor

As we contemplate the prospect of a sustained global downturn – be it recession or even depression – there are a number of issues which will raise their ugly heads in an environment where the forward press of globalization may no longer obscure underlying tensions of instability. These are by no means new issues – although they will play out in new ways among the changed technologies and altered relationships of this new century. In the best tradition of unevenly distributed futures, many are already here with us, although they often go unremarked or unrecognized.

Among the issues that may re-emerge as profoundly important to senior decisionmakers – be they in Cabinets or boardrooms – is the age old question of control between those that work within the enterprise, and those that manage the industry and its capital. The end of history was thought to have changed this with the rise of the creative class, the global middle class, the universal investor class… or whichever other descriptor one would apply to a post-Marxist analytic framework that recognizes the fundamental irrelevancy of old rhetoric in an age of unprecedented opportunity. However, the old lies still seem to have their appeal, as one might now witness in the offshore financial centers of the world, or the major infotech hubs of the emerging markets as Marxists and Maoists and other charlatans of all stripes begin to gain ground.

Even the United States itself is not immune from the renewed tensions between the workers and the structure which provides them their employment. It would have been hard if not impossible to predict, even a few short years ago, that the question of whether or not to eliminate the secret ballot for unionization votes could ever be taken seriously in a free and democratic society. And that such a question is now a linchpin of a Presidential election – albeit one of many, and a poorly understood linchpin at that, even among the chattering salons who routinely comment on such matters – is in its own way almost as baffling.

Unfortunately, this also a subject which has been taboo for generations, at least so far as the intelligence field has been concerned. In the domestic context, from the perspective of national intelligence, this is certainly proper. From the perspective of law enforcement and homeland security agencies that must grappling with the kind of convulsive protest and sustained low level kinetic conflict that marks the most severe of union difficulties (to say nothing of their radical anti-globalization counterparts further to the left along that single issue spectrum), this is perhaps something that might require revisiting in an atmosphere of informed debate. (Regrettably, we fear that such issues may be too rapidly politicized, particularly given the current tenor of the times, for an objective and cool headed debate to flourish before a major crisis might erupt). From the perspective of the corporate entity, it is certainly a topic that ought never have been forgotten – but history seems very long when one’s future is measured in quarterly earnings reports. We note anecdotally that the unions themselves have certainly not forgotten these lessons, as one of the best intel gigs we have ever been aware of was once bankrolled by a particular union’s leadership in order to attract the best and the brightest it might find for its own research and analysis.

For those that have forgotten, a small dose of history to refresh the institutional memory, this time drawn from the writings of the International Labour Office in 1922 (itself certainly no bastion of the bias of industrialists’ privilege): “The attention of the Industrial Intelligence Officer during the last 18 months has been occupied almost entirely with the widespread unrest in the labour.” So too may we as a profession find demands on our collective attention in the coming months of this newly uncertain time, in support of a wide range of clients.

Be it the labor violence of the developing world, the politically convenient rhetoric of entitlement, or the industry destroying burdens of legacy pension obligations, labor issues are a once and future intelligence challenge.

Labels: , , , , , ,