Monday, September 3, 2012
"A rising tide lifts all boats"
-John F. Kennedy, 1963
Today is labor day. This should be a day of celebrating the achievements of the labor movement in providing dignity and a voice for all workers, yet this year I am filled with a sense of both urgency and alarm. Workers in this nation are in real trouble, and many don't even know it.
There are few areas of the Republican agenda that have received as much effort and attention as the GOP attack on organized labor. We are seeing unprecedented anti-union sentiment sweeping the country at the hand of GOP governors and legislators. The GOP propaganda machine I described in my post The Weapon of Words, carefully crafted and delivered with precision by men like Frank Luntz, has set its sights squarely on labor. This was actually initiated years ago, but many in labor failed to recognize it as a clear and present danger. As of the writing of this piece, twenty three states have passed anti-union legislation that has dramatically curtailed the ability of workers in those states to organize. In an effort to avoid using the doublespeak created by those like Luntz, I prefer to call this legislation as "No rights at work."
Most Americans on some theoretical level understand what organized labor has done for the workers in the nation. This list of dignities organized labor won through blood and sweat is impressive: a weekend to spend with family, paid vacation, sick time, worker's compensation for those injured on the job, health insurance, and the minimum wage. A workplace that adheres to reasonable safety practices, thereby minimizing the risk of injury and death to employees. Allowing our children to enjoy real childhoods instead of living short, grim lives in coal mines or factories. It is difficult to imagine life in this nation without these things.
Yet, on this Labor Day of 2012, organized labor is fighting for its life.
Union workers, particularly public sector workers, have been relentlessly demonized in states such as Wisconsin and Ohio and Indiana. They have been portrayed as lazy, parasitic, and corrupt. Republican politicians across the nation have convinced working people that unions are irrelevant at best, and utterly destructive at worst. Some of these politicians blame union wages and benefits for this nation's current economic woes, intentionally obscuring the fact that an unregulated financial industry, crazed with greed, caused trillions of dollars of damage to our economy. As of this date, not a single banker occupies a prison cell for the destruction they caused. Right wing legislators in statehouses across the country are openly hostile to organized labor, and talk freely about its destruction. Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin utilized the GOP doublespeak with gusto, referring incessantly to "big government union bosses" in his speeches and appearances. This phrase is utterly nonsensical, yet Walker was able to foment utter hatred for public employee unions among a significant number of Wisconsinites as he launched his attack in 2011.
This nationwide attack is most certainly having the desired effect. Last year, union membership in this country fell to 11.8 percent of the workforce, a 70 year low. If you take public sector workers out of the equation, that number drops to below 8 percent. Contrast that number with statistics in 1945, where 35% of non-agricultural workers were unionized.
The sad aspect of these statistics is that a vibrant labor movement was one of the main engines that produced the middle class in this country. Lost, or should I say intentionally obscured, in the debate about unions in this country is the fact that unions benefit all workers, unionized or not. This is perhaps the most serious casualty of the GOP propaganda, because workers who are anti-union are clearly voting against their own interests, and they don't even know it.
You see, almost all non-union workers enjoy at least some of the benefits secured by unions, including some sort of "weekend," sick time, and worker's compensation insurance. Additionally, the existence of a unionized workforce helps set the bar as far as wages and benefits are concerned. When non-unionized employers have to compete with unionized shops for workers, they are forced to provide wages and benefits that are at least competitive, and workers win as a result. This is not just theory. A study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute found that workers in No Rights at Work states make 3.2% less than their counterparts in states that don't have the anti-union legislation. Even more telling is that this reduction in wages applied to both unionized and non-unionized workers. Workers in anti-union states also have smaller retirement benefits and inferior health insurance than their counterparts in states without this legislation. A rising tide truly lifts all boats. If the GOP gets its wish and organized labor dies in this country, the floor will promptly fall out from under the feet of the American workforce.
The effect unions have had on the health of the middle class in this country can't be overestimated. Consider the following graph that shows union membership and the middle class share of our nation's income over the past 45 years:
This graph is what the corporate right doesn't want people to see. One doesn't have to be a statistician to see that the two lines are almost identical. Once I saw this graph, I understood why the corporate right has invested so much energy and money trying to kill the labor movement. The picture becomes complete when one considers that this nation has the worst income inequality and wealth concentration in the industrialized world. Four hundred people in this nation control more wealth than the bottom 150 million. Corporate profits are at record levels, even on the heels of the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression. The working and middle class wages have been squeezed over 30 years, yet the richest in our nation have seen their wealth triple, yes triple, over the same time period. It is no wonder they don't like unions. Unions were one of the main forces pushing back against the flow of money out of the middle class and into the coffers of the corporate elite.
The corporate right in this nation has promoted the idea that American business cannot survive in harmony with labor unions. With the help of the main stream media, the forces that control our political system have convinced Americans that the only way to survive in a global economy is to participate in the race to the bottom. That world view leaves little room for organized labor.
Yet the world is replete with examples that show us the opposite is true. One such example is Germany, as I wrote about in Trading the Soul of a Nation. Germany has fared much better than many Western nations through the current economic downturn. Germany also has a significantly higher trade union membership than the United States, and that number was even higher prior to reunification with East Germany. Germany, through strong trade policies, actually has a trade surplus with China. The German auto industry is very profitable, yet German auto workers make almost twice what American auto workers make. Because trade unions are protected in the German constitution, there is a good working relationship between auto makers and labor.
Given that this model works well in Germany, it is troubling to consider what happens when German auto makers open plants in the United States. When setting up shop on our soil, these companies abandon the model of shared prosperity and cooperation that occurs in their home nation. Instead, they gravitate to "right to work" states in order to pay low wages and curtail the ability of workers to organize. Workers earn much less than other auto workers in this country, and the companies are often intensely anti-union. Why do these companies operate such a different model than they do at home? Simply, because they can. Our government allows it, even rewards it, and it is the American worker that suffers.
Apart from the ability to depress wages and maximize profits, there is a more crass reason for the attack on labor unions in America: the weakening of the Democratic Party. Since most of the corporate wealthy in this country have placed their bets with the GOP, the Democratic Party has few large donors available to keep the playing field level. One of the primary goals in the GOP attack on unions is the defunding of the Democratic party. This goal was actually articulated by Wisconsin State Senator Scott Fitzgerald on Fox News during the 2011 attack on unions. Fitzgerald remarked to Megyn Kelly that if the GOP can defund labor unions, it would make it much more difficult for President Obama to get re-elected. All Americans, no matter how they feel about our President, should find the stripping of rights in order to win a political victory reprehensible.
I believe with that the fate of the American middle class is inextricably tied to the fate of organized labor. The graph outlined above provides stark evidence to support this assertion. The irony in all of this is the fact that once the middle class collapses in the country, the corporate elite will be in for a very rough ride.
To those readers that subscribe to the anti-union platform of the GOP, on this Labor Day I ask you to at least consider whether or not this belief is grounded in reality. Have unions really made your life worse, or are you getting your information from media outlets that have a stake in promoting this message? Consider the possibility that you are acting against your own interests by holding these views and bringing them to the ballot box.
I often hear small business owners make statements such as "I don't have a pension, so why should you;" or "I own a business, I don't get paid vacation or sick time." My response to this argument is that your business will die without a healthy middle class. The United States is primarily a consumer economy, and you need people who can afford to buy your goods and services. Businesses in Wisconsin are starting to feel the pain of the loss customers' disposable income at the hands of Scott Walker. Tens of thousands of Wisconsinites now have to forgo purchases of goods, trips to restaurants and bars, and many of the small luxuries that support countless businesses in this state. The effect of this has only begun to be felt, and there is much more pain to come.
To our Democratic politicians, I say this: It is time to start supporting organized labor without apology. Stop using the right wing talking points of union abuses. Unions made the middle class, and if you are truly an advocate of the middle class, you should stand with labor, period. Those politicians that have distanced themselves from this issue have done a tremendous disservice to the nation.
To those in organized labor: we have a lot of rebuilding to do. We may not have children working in coal mines, or workers living in servitude on company grounds. However, American workers are suffering, and it is that very suffering which, by necessity, will fuel a renaissance of labor unions. We must commit ourselves to a very long fight of once again giving workers a voice in this nation. We must work on our message, and articulate that message clearly and proudly to the American people. This rebuilding won't occur overnight, but the very survival of our nation depends on it.
Happy Labor Day.