We greet this Labor Day with anxiety about the possibility of a double-dip recession, persistently high unemployment that never significantly ebbed after the depths of the 2008 downturn, and austerity budgets at the local, state, and federal levels. While many observers have drawn parallels to the Great Depression, one key difference stands out for American workers: Labor is not on the march.
In a perverse irony, the current economic crisis has been cruel to Labor. Rather than rallying workers to the union cause even though Labor did much to elect him, the Obama Administration has shown tepid support for unions after talking big about the value of Labor in his campaign. Hence the Obama era has been a kind of anti-New Deal period with the administration spending more time attacking teachers’ unions than helping American workers of any stripe in any significant way.
In the meantime, national union leaders have stood idly by and watched in befuddlement as Obama bailed out the banks and Wall Street, courted the corporate world, and did virtually nothing for the average American worker. Just as Obama is no FDR, Labor today is a ghost of its thirties glory. In sum, Labor voted for hope and got nope and has been left utterly flat-footed in response, unaccustomed to operating independently of the Democratic Party, even though it’s been years since the old New Deal Labor-Democratic coalition has meant anything (Hence our local Labor Council’s recent decision to stop funding the San Diego Democratic Party and support candidates on a case by case basis instead is welcome news).
…the best the mainstream of the Democratic Party has to offer is austerity lite…
The post 2010 landscape has been an even bigger nightmare for organized labor with emboldened Republican Governors from Wisconsin to Wyoming enacting draconian union-busting legislation. The Democrats’ response? Outside of the heroic efforts of some in Wisconsin and Indiana, it has largely been a shrug. Indeed, some Democrats in the states have joined with the Right in undermining collective bargaining and labor rights in both the public and private sector in order show themselves as fiscally conservative budget hawks. Rather than contesting the Right’s assumptions about the role of government, debt, and economics, many Democrats have happily played on their turf, seeking to triangulate and win independents while getting their hats handed to them in the process.
With both parties embracing a neo-liberal economic worldview, the best the mainstream of the Democratic Party has to offer is austerity lite—a foul tasting brew of unprincipled compromise and political miscalculation that ignores their base ingredients and leaves a bad aftertaste in the mouths of all who sample it. Even more dismaying are the motions being made in some quarters of the house of Labor to support “moderate” Republicans in hopes that the party will change its stripes. Good luck with that one.
And while the ground would seem to be fertile for a third party, no viable organizing on that front has been or is being done. Hence, the landscape has never been bleaker for Labor in the post-New Deal era but a vital labor movement that can challenge the neoliberal monologue has never been more needed. Even flat on its back, the American Labor movement is the only serious organized entity that can challenge the corporate hegemony that dominates our politics and offer a counter-narrative that speaks for the interests of American workers as opposed to the interests of the plutocracy that has hijacked and undermined our democracy.
The union counter-narrative is not just a matter of philosophy; it is about real economic power for ordinary people. Without a viable union movement, the American middle class is in trouble and working people will have very little voice in the economic realities that go a long way to determining the quality of their lives. How so?
The decline in union density in America has gone hand in hand with the decline of the middle class and the expansion of the gap between the rich and the poor. Last April in a Center for American Progress report, “Unions Make the Middle Class
,” the authors show that “the percentage of unionized workers tracks very closely with the share of the nation’s income going to the middle class.” They continue, “Indeed it is hard to imagine a middle-class society without a strong union movement… The 10 states with the lowest percentage of workers in unions all have a relatively weak middle class, with the share of total state income going to households in the middle three-fifths of income earners in these states below the average for all states.”
They further note that: “[The] relationship between the decline in union density and stagnant wages can also be seen by looking across states. In states that have passed laws restricting workers’ ability to organize unions we see that workers’ wages are lower. State right-to-work laws severely restrict worker organizing by prohibiting collective bargaining agreements from requiring everyone who benefits from a union contract to pay their fair share of the costs of providing those benefits. Studies consistently find that these laws are associated with decreases in per capita personal income, and decreases in wages and salaries. Claims that right-to-work laws help spur employment growth are overblown. States with these laws have not experienced higher job growth than other states once other economic factors are considered. Instead, these laws tend to boost incomes for those at the very top, while undercutting the middle class.” Conversely, the report observes that a ten percentage increase in union density would increase the wages of all workers—5.3 % for union workers and 1.2 % for non-union workers.
Beyond the scope of income, the Center for American Progress report shows that unions increase the number of all workers with benefits, increase voter participation (particularly for people of color), and “strong labor unions are closely associated with low levels of inequality and more generous social programs that benefit the middle class.” The decline of unions, on the other hand, “explains one third of the growth in inequality—an effect equal to the growing stratification of earnings by education.” Indeed, the report surprisingly reveals that union density is slightly more important to the strength of the middle class than education.
…McCaskill opined, “I think it’s very doubtful [Congress] will do anything that spends money.”
These findings were backed up by a July study put out by the American Sociological Association, which found that, “Union membership in America has declined significantly since the early 1970s, and that plunge explains approximately a fifth of the increase in hourly wage inequality among women and about a third among men.” Co-author Drew Westin of Harvard argues that most studies of wage-inequality have emphasized education as the central factor and “generally under-emphasized the impact of unions.”
Most specifically they show how “From 1973 to 2007, wage inequality in the private sector increased by more than 40 percent among men, and by about 50 percent among women… Part of the reason for this gender discrepancy is that men have experienced a much larger decline in private sector union membership–from 34 percent in 1973 to 8 percent in 2007–than women (who went from 16 percent to 6 percent during the same period).”
Importantly, the authors note that the decline in unionization has hurt non-union workers as well as workers who have lost their unions because “even nonunion workers, if they’re in highly unionized industries, tend to have fairly equal wages, partly because nonunion employers will raise wages to the union level to discourage unionization.”
And, the authors argue, it is not just wages which have been effected by de-unionization but our politics as a whole: “In the early 1970s, unions were important for delivering middle class incomes to working class families, and they enlivened politics by speaking out against inequality… These days, there just aren’t big institutional actors who are making the case for greater economic equality in America.”
Thus the Democrats take their base for granted. As one Democratic party pollster put it in a recent New York Times piece on Obama’s rightward tilt, “Whatever qualms or questions they may have about this policy or that policy, at the end of the day the one thing they’re absolutely certain of — they’re going to hate these Republican candidates… So I’m not honestly all that worried about a solid or enthusiastic base.” In terms of policy this means no jobs program or anything else even remotely resembling a progressive response to the right-wing assault on unions, government services, and the American middle class.
When asked what kind of jobs agenda we could expect from the Democrats in Congress in the coming year, Senator Clare McCaskill opined, “I think it’s very doubtful [Congress] will do anything that spends money.” The Daily Kos reported that McCaskill went on to outline an alternative strategy taken straight out of the GOP playbook: “McCaskill, who emphasized job creation while touring three companies in her home state, said Congress might instead look at patent reform, trade agreements and regulations that are getting in the way of business growth… This is perfectly emblematic of the trap Democrats fell into when accepting the right’s narrative that the deficit rules all in an economy that has been carrying high unemployment for far too long.”
Long story short: with friends like these, who needs enemies? So, as we slouch toward 2012 and beyond, with ever-deepening economic inequality and diminished expectations all around us, we need more than false hope. Only vital labor-community alliances grown outside of the confines of the Democratic Party will be able to speak the truth to power and put the issues of working Americans back onto center stage. The plan recently offered by Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky that would create 2.2 million new jobs by hiring workers into newly created job corps focused on construction, education, health care, and public works (funded by taxing millionaires and closing corporate tax loopholes) is a hopeful sign that there are a few good Labor Democrats left, but such ideas will go nowhere without a social movement behind them.
Sound impossible? It’s been done before. Remember the folks who brought you the weekend. Back in the 1880s, with the Robber Barons wielding unprecedented economic and political power, the Knights of Labor sought to form just such and alliance of labor and community. How did they frame the problem? In their Declaration of Principles they proclaimed that, “The alarming development and aggressiveness of the great capitalists and corporations unless checked will inevitably lead to the pauperization and hopeless degradation of the toiling masses. It is imperative, if we are to enjoy the full blessings of life, that a check be placed upon the unjust accumulation, and the power for evil of aggregated wealth. This can be accomplished only by the united efforts of those who obey the divine injunction, ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt though eat bread.’”
Or, as Mother Jones put it more simply, “This earth was made for you, was it not?”
Read more of Jim Miller’s column, “Under the Perfect Sun”