The American economy is still, by most measures, deeply depressed. But corporate profits are at a record high. How is that possible? It’s simple: profits have surged as a share of national income, while wages and other labor compensation are down. The pie isn’t growing the way it should — but capital is doing fine by grabbing an ever-larger slice, at labor’s expense.
Wait — are we really back to talking about capital versus labor? Isn’t that an old-fashioned, almost Marxist sort of discussion, out of date in our modern information economy? Well, that’s what many people thought; for the past generation discussions of inequality have focused overwhelmingly not on capital versus labor but on distributional issues between workers, either on the gap between more- and less-educated workers or on the soaring incomes of a handful of superstars in finance and other fields. But that may be yesterday’s story.
More specifically, while it’s true that the finance guys are still making out like bandits — in part because, as we now know, some of them actually are bandits — the wage gap between workers with a college education and those without, which grew a lot in the 1980s and early 1990s, hasn’t changed much since then. Indeed, recent college graduates had stagnant incomes even before the financial crisis struck. Increasingly, profits have been rising at the expense of workers in general, including workers with the skills that were supposed to lead to success in today’s economy.
Why is this happening? As best as I can tell, there are two plausible explanations, both of which could be true to some extent. One is that technology has taken a turn that places labor at a disadvantage; the other is that we’re looking at the effects of a sharp increase in monopoly power. Think of these two stories as emphasizing robots on one side, robber barons on the other.
About the robots: there’s no question that in some high-profile industries, technology is displacing workers of all, or almost all, kinds. For example, one of the reasons some high-technology manufacturing has lately been moving back to the United States is that these days the most valuable piece of a computer, the motherboard, is basically made by robots, so cheap Asian labor is no longer a reason to produce them abroad.
In a recent book, “Race Against the Machine,” M.I.T.’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that similar stories are playing out in many fields, including services like translation and legal research. What’s striking about their examples is that many of the jobs being displaced are high-skill and high-wage; the downside of technology isn’t limited to menial workers.
Still, can innovation and progress really hurt large numbers of workers, maybe even workers in general? I often encounter assertions that this can’t happen. But the truth is that it can, and serious economists have been aware of this possibility for almost two centuries. The early-19th-century economist David Ricardo is best known for the theory of comparative advantage, which makes the case for free trade; but the same 1817 book in which he presented that theory also included a chapter on how the new, capital-intensive technologies of the Industrial Revolution could actually make workers worse off, at least for a while — which modern scholarship suggests may indeed have happened for several decades.
What about robber barons? We don’t talk much about monopoly power these days; antitrust enforcement largely collapsed during the Reagan years and has never really recovered. Yet Barry Lynn and Phillip Longman of the New America Foundation argue, persuasively in my view, that increasing business concentration could be an important factor in stagnating demand for labor, as corporations use their growing monopoly power to raise prices without passing the gains on to their employees.
I don’t know how much of the devaluation of labor either technology or monopoly explains, in part because there has been so little discussion of what’s going on. I think it’s fair to say that the shift of income from labor to capital has not yet made it into our national discourse.
Yet that shift is happening — and it has major implications. For example, there is a big, lavishly financed push to reduce corporate tax rates; is this really what we want to be doing at a time when profits are surging at workers’ expense? Or what about the push to reduce or eliminate inheritance taxes; if we’re moving back to a world in which financial capital, not skill or education, determines income, do we really want to make it even easier to inherit wealth?
As I said, this is a discussion that has barely begun — but it’s time to get started, before the robots and the robber barons turn our society into something unrecognizable.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 9, 2012
Reading about the historic Johnstown flood of 1889 brought to mind the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy—and why the president must rid us of them now as the nation starts a new season, thankful yet sober.
The 1 percent of that era were the robber barons of the Gilded Age, with great steel, coke, and railroad wealth concentrated in Pittsburgh. They started an exclusive club, several industrial barons, including Andrew Carnegie, devoted to fishing and hunting, by the South Fork Dam. The dam the club constructed nearby overlooked several towns and villages in the rugged incline and valley below. On a terribly rainy spring day when the dam broke, an entire lake drowned those towns in torrents of water, debris and floating trees, and houses. Because the fancy club’s earthen dam was shoddy, roughly 2,200 people died in the worst natural disaster to befall an American town up to that point.
The robber barons’ summer recreation endangered the whole community’s safety and livelihood. People talked about the dam breaking all the time before it did. And that’s what I’m talking about. For too long we have lived under the yoke, under the treacherous dam of putting really rich people first. To recover from our own economic calamity, those tax cuts must be scrubbed, along with everything with George W. Bush’s name on it. Let it not be forgot, he’s the guy that took peace and prosperity and turned it all into desert dust and debt.
Taking that turkey off the table would not upset most wealthy people, who were content to live under the Clinton tax code. That is what President Obama wishes to do, but he has been thwarted once before by stubborn Republicans. This time around, he seems to have more mettle about getting rid of the significant tax break the rich have received, just for being rich. It will also bring substantial revenue badly needed by the Treasury. I grant you, there are hedge fund managers out there who see it differently than you and me.
As we mark the autumn harvest in a collective ritual that brings comfort, let’s resolve to rid ourselves of the most divisive policy remaining from the Bush years. A policy that is, in the end, unfair and un-American. And life will start looking up.
By: Jamie Stiehm, U. S. News and World Report, Washington Whispers, November 20, 2012
In 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the United Auto Workers about what the civil rights movement had learned from the labor movement. He said that, in the 1930s, “you creatively stood up for your rights by sitting down at your machines, just as our courageous students are sitting down at lunch counters across the South.”
When King was describing the “kinship” between the two movements, organized labor was strong, representing about a third of the non-agricultural private-sector workforce. The civil rights movement was still a fledgling campaign, not yet having won passage of the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act.
This Labor Day, the roles have reversed. The civil rights movement is the nation’s iconic cause. The gay rights movement, hardly a blip on the radar screen a half-century ago, is winning meaningful victories in the courts and in legislatures. But unions are on the road to virtual extinction.
Even public-sector unions, now a majority of the labor movement, are on the defensive. A new movie, “Won’t Back Down,” unfairly paints teachers unions as impediments to quality education for students of color. One character asks, “When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?”
To revive itself, labor must rediscover its roots as an early civil rights movement for workers. In some places, this is already starting to happen. On Aug. 11, the AFL-CIO held a massive rally in Philadelphia demanding a “Second Bill of Rights,” including the right to organize and bargain collectively. This summer, the UAW has been trying to organize a Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., where 70 percent of the workforce is African American, using a civil rights frame.
“The civil rights experience was fought on that very ground,” the UAW’s Gary Casteel told Reuters. “We’ve been saying that worker rights is the civil rights battle of the 21st century.”
In particular, unions should emulate three strategies of the civil rights movement.
First, labor must make clear, in word and deed, that it is part of a broader movement for social justice and against concentrated wealth and power, not just a special interest concerned only with its membership. The civil rights movement has succeeded when it has made a pitch for ending discrimination universally, and it has struggled when focusing on narrow, race-specific preferences. Labor has a good case to make: When union wages increase, nonunion employers respond by raising pay, too, to attract workers. And each percentage-point decline in the U.S. unionization rate has been accompanied by a comparable fall in the proportion of income going to the middle class.
Second, unions need to show that they are a vehicle for vindicating the individual rights that Americans hold dear against the power of large employers and the government. Just as King fought for individual civil rights as a fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence’s promise of equal opportunity, so the labor movement should fight for individuals’ First Amendment right to engage in the freedom of association, including the right to form a union.
Third, like the civil rights movement, labor needs to codify its notion of rights through strong federal legislation. The crowning glory of the civil rights movement is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which through the force of law and sanctions helped delegitimize racial bias. Organized labor has the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which institutionalizes the right to organize, but its sanctions are so weak that employers routinely flout the law and pay the penalties. In part because employers frequently fire or demote employees for trying to unionize, the watchdog group Freedom House rates the United States as less free for labor than 41 other nations.
The Civil Rights Act should be amended to outlaw employment discrimination not only on the basis of race and sex, but also for exercising the right to join a union. Doing so would allow employees to sue in federal court and to receive compensatory and punitive damages from employers. It would stigmatize employers who broke the law as civil rights violators. Without employers trying to block organization, polls suggest that many American workers would join unions, if given a free choice.
Organized labor has been written off before. But if a civil rights approach succeeds in strengthening the movement, more people will join it. And if part of the reason the gay rights movement is succeeding is that more people know someone who is gay, the growth of the labor movement could generate a similar virtuous cycle for American unions.
By: Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit
On Labor Day 2012, U.S. workers are in dire straits, and an increasing share of elite opinion says it’s their own damned fault.
Not quite so bluntly, of course. But it’s impossible to read the business press and the editorial pages without encountering the argument that the economy hasn’t perked up because of the “skills gap.” U.S. workers, this thinking goes, just don’t have the skills required by our advanced economy. If only our workers and schools were better, if only teachers unions ceased to exist, all would be well.
There are indeed some skills-gap problems plaguing the economy, but the downward mobility of U.S. workers results far more from their lack of power than their lack of skills.
Since the recession bottomed out in June 2009, median household income has fallen by $2,544, to $50,964 — a 5 percent drop — according to a new report by Sentier Research. It’s no mystery why wages are falling even during the recovery. In a study released last week, the National Employment Law Project found that 58 percent of the jobs created since 2010 pay between $7.69 and $13.83 an hour. New jobs in the mid-range of the wage distribution, paying $13.84 to $21.13, account for just 22 percent of the positions created since the recovery began, though they constituted 60 percent of the jobs lost in the downturn. Higher-wage jobs are just 20 percent of the newly created positions. The biggest increase in jobs has come in food preparation and retail sales.
These numbers underscore the question of whether our primary problem is the lack of skills or, rather, the lack of good jobs. And the problem isn’t just that mid-range jobs were offshored or fell prey to the construction bust. It’s also the declining or stagnating wages and benefits in a far wider range of sectors — even where U.S. workers have the skills they need and then some.
Is it really insufficient education that’s dragging down Americans? Since 1979, the share of U.S. workers with college degrees has increased from 19.7 percent to 34.3 percent, the Center for Economic and Policy Research found this summer. Yet the percentage of college graduates with good jobs — which the center defines as jobs paying at least $37,000 and providing health insurance and some kind of retirement plan — had declined from 43 percent in 1979 to 40 percent in 2010.
Are American workers becoming less productive? On the contrary, a Wall Street Journal survey of the Standard & Poor’s 500, the nation’s largest publicly traded companies, found that their revenue per worker increased from $378,000 in 2007 to $420,000 in 2010. The problem is that workers get none of that increase. As economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon have shown, all productivity gains in recent decades have gone to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, in sharp contrast to the three decades following World War II, when Americans at all income levels shared in the productivity increases.
The primary plight of U.S. workers isn’t their lack of skills. It’s their lack of power. With the collapse of unions, which represented a third of the private-sector workforce in the mid-20th century but just 7 percent today, workers simply have no capacity to bargain for their share of the revenue they produce.
This is not to say that there is no skills gap or that U.S. schools don’t need improvement. But the decline of unions has both weakened workers’ bargaining power and diminished the kind of apprenticeship programs that the building trades unions have long (and ably) provided. Under increasing right-wing pressure to justify their very existence, however, some unions in other sectors are embarking on skills training or professional development programs.
The most notable is that of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which has created an interactive professional development Web site for teachers called Share My Lesson in response to school districts cutting back on their ongoing teacher education. “Teachers want and need to share best practices with each other,” AFT President Randi Weingarten told me, so her union is rolling out this site as the school year begins.
Unions can address the skills gap just as, in the days when they were larger, they could address the economic power gap. But if the war that business and Republicans are waging on labor isn’t defeated, good jobs will continue to dwindle and work in America will grow steadily less rewarding.
And a happy Labor Day to you.
By: Harold Meyerson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 2, 2012
Are American unions history?
In the wake of labor’s defeated effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) last week, both pro- and anti-union pundits have opined that unions are in an all-but-irreversible decline. Privately, a number of my friends and acquaintances in the labor movement have voiced similar sentiments. Most don’t think that decline is irreversible but few have any idea how labor would come back.
What would America look like without a union movement? That’s not a hard question to answer, because we’re almost at that point. The rate of private-sector unionization has fallen below 7 percent, from a post-World War II high of roughly 40 percent. Already, the economic effects of a union-free America are glaringly apparent: an economically stagnant or downwardly mobile middle class, a steady clawing-back of job-related health and retirement benefits and ever-rising economic inequality.
In the three decades after World War II the United States dominated the global economy, but that’s only one of the two reasons our country became the first to have a middle-class majority. The other is that this was the only time in our history when we had a high degree of unionization. From 1947 through 1972 — the peak years of unionization — productivity increased by 102 percent, and median household income also increased by 102 percent. Thereafter, as the rate of unionization relentlessly fell, a gap opened between the economic benefits flowing from a more productive economy and the incomes of ordinary Americans, so much so that in recent decades, all the gains in productivity — as economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon have shown — have gone to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans. When labor was at its numerical apogee in 1955, the wealthiest 10 percent claimed just 33 percent of the nation’s income. By 2007, with the labor movement greatly diminished, the wealthiest 10 percent claimed 50 percent of the nation’s income.
Today, wages account for the lowest share of both gross domestic product and corporate revenue since World War II ended — and that share continues to shrink. An International Monetary Fund study released in April shows that the portion of GDP going to wages and benefits has declined from 64 percent in 2001 to 58 percent this year. The survey compared the United States with Europe, where the only other nations in which labor’s share declined were Greece, Spain and Ireland — countries whose economies are at death’s door. Our economy is nowhere near so weak, but as Americans’ ability to collectively bargain has waned, so has their power to keep all corporate revenue from going to top executives and shareholders.
When unions are powerful, they boost the incomes of not only their members but also of nonunion workers in their sector or region. Princeton economist Henry Farber has shown that the wages of a nonunion worker in an industry that is 25 percent unionized are 7.5 percent higher because of that unionization. Today, however, few industries have so high a rate of unionization, and a consequence is that unions can no longer win the kinds of wages and benefits they used to.
Deunionization is just one reason Americans’ incomes have declined, of course; globalization has taken its toll as well. But the declining share of pretax income going to wages is chiefly the result of the weakening of unions, which is the main reason American managers now routinely seek to thwart their workers’ attempts to unionize through legally questionable but economically rewarding tactics (rewarding, that is, for the managers).
The weakening of unions has had a huge political effect as well: the realignment of the white working class. Since the ’60s, exit polls have shown that unionized blue-collar whites vote Democratic at a rate 20 to 30 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts. The decline in union membership has weakened Democrats in such heavily white, increasingly deunionized states as West Virginia and Wisconsin — the main reason Republicans such as Walker have sought to reduce labor’s numbers. Liberals who have been indifferent to unions’ decline will find it difficult to enact progressive legislation in their absence.
Understandably, some liberals are searching for ways to arrest the economic decline of the majority of their fellow Americans in a post-union environment. I fear they’re bound to be frustrated. If workers can’t bargain with their employers, it can’t be done. If and when Big Labor dies — it’s on life support now — America’s big middle class dies with it.
By: Harold Meyerson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, June 12, 2012