By Wes Rackley
“I seek to rise with workers, not rise from them.” – Eugene Debs
Union participation has declined steadily since the 1960’s thanks to the recent prevailing small-government, big-business deregulation, hands off approach to free-market economics. And as it turns out, when they said smaller government, what the GOP really meant was, personal government, they wanted you and I to play no part at all in deciding how they redistributed our tax dollars to the top of the income pyramid.
When the GOP consolidated their majority at the turn of the century through hot button, wedge issue politics they finally won the opportunity to return to the trickle-down “a rising tide lifts all boats” Reaganomics of the 1980’s. “Get big government bureaucracy off of businesses back” they said. “Big government is problem not the solution” they said. Well the GOP’s radical, anti-progressive policy on that particular swing of the partisan pendulum took us from a $236 billion surplus when President Bush first set up shop to a $1.3 trillion deficit, unpaid-for tax cuts for the super rich, two wars and a Medicare prescription drug program that all together tallied up to an $8 trillion projected 10 year deficit, a shattered and scattered workforce and a country relegated to debtors serfdom at the mercy of a vengeful, corporate oligarchy.
The deregulated “conservative” spending spree had spiraled out of control. Our tax dollars ended up funding corrosive upside down economic policy that hurt unions and the middle class. Eroding the base of our economy while wealth pooled at the top. Feeding a system destined to eventually clash violently with our democratic values.
Piketty and Saez’s unique data series on income inequality, published at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, based on IRS files, is particularly valuable because it provides information on income gains at the top of the income scale and extends back to 1913.
The last time such a large share of the income gain during an expansion went to the top 1% of households – and such a small share went to the bottom 90% – was in the 1920’s.
Ever since Atlas began shrugging off fact based economic policy and Republicans pledged their allegiance at the omniscient free-market alter, union participation has plummeted while the ever increasing worker productivity engine still churned out profit growth for business. But the income gap widened to its greatest margins since the 1920’s with stagnated wages and weak benefits. Shaping the contours of the economic ditch the middle class finds itself trying climb out of today.
Steven Pearlstein, of the Washington Post, wrote that “over the years, [the right to form unions and bargain collectively] has been whittled away by legislation, poked with holes by appeals courts, and reduced to irrelevancy by a well meaning bureaucracy that has let itself be intimidated by political and legal thuggery” (Pearlstein 2004, E01). And for those workers who happen to win a union, he continued, “any company willing to use intimidation and delaying tactics will never have to sign a first contract with a union, even if employees really want one” (Pearlstein 2004, E01).
“ The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor” – Thomas Donahue
Solidarity is the key to successfully using collective bargaining to get out of this economic quagmire and staying out. The potential power of a unionized workforce as a way to revitalize and strengthen the real economy on Main Street is lost when we throw up our hands in frustration and let the Wall Street radicals have the floor exclusively for their sleazy fear mongering, mud slinging, strike breaking ways. It’s critical to the health of our democracy that regular folks stand strong, side-by-side for policies that work for them and never walk away, no matter what.
The Republican perpetuated, pro-business propaganda, that union participation means insolvency, is obviously not true and the type of hyperbole that fed the radicalism, that allowed union wages to escape use by families and businesses on Main Street to begin with. Contrary to the claims of hired lobbying firms, the Chamber of Commerce, and Wall Street radicals still holding office on the hill, union participation in fact does not correlate at all with insolvency. If your blaming union participation for bankruptcy, the data says that you are most likely misplacing blame. The Economic Policy Institute substantiates this in a recent report.
Still Open for Business
B y J o h n D i N a r d o:
John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), who challenged Gompers for Leadership of the AFL in 1921 made the following remarks after his union signed its first industry-wide contract:
“…[with this contract] the industry can apply itself —both management and labor, to the problem of producing coal in quantity…at the lowest cost possible by modern techniques. The Mine Workers stand for the investors in the industry and for a return on capital. They stand for the public to have coal at the lowest possible price consistent with the Mine Workers having a decent life…”
There is a growing body of economic evidence that suggests Lewis’ remarks have more than a grain of truth in them, at least as a depiction of U.S. unionism in the post- World War II era. The obvious fact that unions have no stake in driving employers out of business is reinforced by this evidence. It seems clear that American employers as a group need not fear firm insolvency as a result of granting workers rights to collective bargaining.
Instead of more of the value made on Main Street staying on Main Street it was sent careening recklessly to the top where it fed exorbitant salaries, perks ten times the average workers yearly income, and extravagant bonuses that deepened the pockets of pro-business campaign support in turn, financing the political will to deregulate. Enabling out-of-control quant schemes that trashed fiscal wisdom and sound economic principles. Ultimately leaving working families and the real economy out of the loop, high and dry in an ever deepening rut. And left Washington legislators (Democrat and Republican) with a Pavlovian connection to Wall Street lobbyist so engrained that it will likely take many election cycles to “unwind.”
The political environment that enabled the Wall Street speculator’s bandwagon of irresponsibility that drove our over-leveraged assets off the fiscal cliff was the same anti-Progressive partisan fervor that turned the idea of an organized labor into something to fear.
While disbelief of the depths that our politics had sunk to was still ringing in our ears, the Wall Street radicals in Washington handed our politics over to greed and division. Without so much as a flinch of regret the Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Frank Luntz mindset, shredded the fabric of our democracy one outrageous slash-and-burn campaign at a time. They carved our political system into a farce of authenticity and a mockery of our heritage. Their disingenuous cynical tactics stand as a monument to the worst attributes of representative democracy.
While the current economic crisis begins to show signs that the new administrations policies are having a positive impact. And the strong mandate for change expressed by voters in the 2008 and in the recent election (of the as yet unproven independent claims) of Scott Brown, becomes muffled by competing interest in Washington. Progressives must stay focused on strengthening the middle class by getting Health Care Reform, Financial Reform and the Employee Free Choice Act put into place to help effectively capture as much of the coming growth for the middle class as possible. Getting America on stable economic footing that works for us all over the long haul and insures labor’s effort’s wont be squandered by an add-hock greed driven health care system and a unregulated banking system that exploits every last dollar of the working families productivity. Not taken these steps will assure a return to depression economics.
EFCA will restore the rights of workers to form unions and bargain with their employers for a better life. The data (and common sense) tells us that good union jobs raise the quality of life across the board by being the standard bearer for wage expectations in a community. Providing a more robust resource for purchasing homes, furnishings, vehicles, college tuition and other big ticket items without burying families in perpetual debt. Union participation will expand trade and related tax revenues available for schools, roads, parks, libraries, community hospitals, etc… Increasing funding available for all the things that go into building a successful community. I assume everyone would agree this would be a more sensible model for growing the real middle class economy and state revenues than say… a lottery.
“ We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few; but we can’t have both” -Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies
After years of being told to believe in the free-market’s ability to self-regulate, and the promise that with hard work could reach the American dream, the free-market intead has crumbled under our feet. We can see now with 20/20 hindsight that the fiscal policies of Reaganomics were radically irresponsible and geared from the beginning to create a race to the bottom for the middle class. The deregulated, over-leveraged, exploitation of the real economy on Main Street by a financial scheme that demanded it’s players value short term gains over long term economic soundness. And if you didn’t you could be sure the next speculator to come along would. And all the average hard working American family was left with was a upside down, broken economy and a valuable lesson; unregulated, exploitation of Main street’s productivity is a recipe for economic collapse.
“ The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor” – Thomas Donahue
We see even now, the behavior of financiers unable to curb their appetite in the face of evidence condemning the reckless behavior. Bankers setting aside a stunning $48 billion for bonuses to “retain talent” based not on any real value created, or contribution made, but on the wealth generated from the cheap TARP funds we provided!
Unions are the one tool at hand, that we have, to pry resource out of Wall Street’s exploitative, fiscal death grip. Through collective bargaining we can put that money to work on Main Street where it can expand the middle class and develop economic stability to better weather the next inevitable economic blunder on Wall Street. Transcending the partisan, political pendulum of the election cycle.
“ With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men and women that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for developing education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men and women than any other association.” – Clarence Darrow
Each dollar pried from from profits and put into the worker’s pockets is not a dollar lost but a dollar invested. That dollar will help create a reservoir of resources that can be tapped by both employee and employer for skilled workers and high quality apprentice training. It will respect a worker’s contribution as a finite resource and it will respect the worker’s livelihood as the basic building block in our communities. It won’t be easy to get. The forces opposing labor are deeply entrenched, very resourceful, very sophisticated, and stingy as hell. They won’t loosen their grip without a fight.
The battle line between Main Street and Wall Street has been written into the history books not by Progressives but by a partisan SCOTUS. The radically biased 5/4 decision of activist judges like Alito have opened the flood gates of corporate campaign money supporting anti-union candidates and in doing so they have forfeited the moral high ground. The need for solidarity in the labor movement has never been more clear or more critical. No longer is organizing just an avenue to a decent living wage, respect, economic security and professionalism or expanding the middle class. Today the battle to earn the right for collective bargaining is a defining battle for our democratic process.
This is the second article in a new daily series on News Junkie Post known as the Progressive Unity Project. Each day, there will be a new article published from the perspective of the environment, labor, LGBT, immigration, science, legalization, or secularity. About the weekly contributor on Union Tuesday:
Wes Rackley spent thirty plus years working in Arkansas’ air-conditioning and energy management industries as a blue collar worker, corporate officer, and small business owner, but was forced into early retirement by a ‘pre-existing’ medical condition in 2001. As I imagine was the case for most progressive democrats during that period, politics went from a compelling hobby to an all-consuming compulsion as we watched the GOP shred the very fiber of our country. Over the intervening years he narrowed his focus from the general economy and despising the GOP to just specifically strengthening labor, through Universal Health Care the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), and Campaign Finance Reform, and despising the GOP.
Editor’s Note: Please follow Wes Rackley on Twitter.
Feller, Avi, and Chad Stone. 2009. “Top 1 Percent of Americans Reaped Two-Thirds of Income Gains in Last Economic Expansion
Income Concentration in 2007 Was at Highest Level Since 1928, New Analysis Shows.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. http://www.cbpp.org/.
Shaiken, Harley. 2007a. “Unions, the economy, and employee free choice.” http://www.sharedprosperity.org/bp181.html.
U.S. Goverment. 2010. “Union Members 2009.” http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm.
Weissman, Robert et al. 2009. “Sold Out: How Wall Street and Washington Betrayed America.” http://www.wallstreetwatch.org/reports/sold_out.pdf.