A common refrain among union critics is that Americans no longer need unions—that unions were well and good for the exploited sweatshop workers of a century ago, but today’s empowered Americans need no such crutch.
With workers’ incomes falling, and with the United States leading all industrial nations in the percentage of its workers in low-wage jobs, it’s increasingly clear that today, we need unions for many of the same reasons that the workers of 1912 did: They’re exploited and underpaid. But if it’s only the nation’s most exploited workers who need to band together, why have America’s most talented employees formed unions of their own?
Actors, writers, directors, and cinematographers all have unions. Baseball, football, and basketball players have unions. And now, ESPN.com reports, America’s track and field athletes want a union of their own as well.
The immediate grievance that has spurred the athletes to action is Rule 40 of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which prohibits Olympic athletes from advertising for non-Olympic sponsors in the days leading up to and then during the Olympic games—that is, when they are most marketable. Rather than just trying to get the IOC to change this one provision, however, the athletes have decided to form a union to win more power for themselves with the IOC on a host of issues.
Among the leaders of this effort is Olympics star Sanya Richards-Ross, who told ESPN:
I’ve seen my husband [Aaron Ross, a cornerback for the Jacksonville Jaguars], who has been in the NFL for six years, an I’ve seen what a strong players’ union does, not only for the benefit of the players but the benefit of the sport. … There are unions in every industry because they need to have that voce, not just for financial reasons but for consideration of other things.
Scott Blackmun, the CEO of the United States Olympic Committee, expressed openness to the athletes’ initiative. While declining to comment on their specific proposal, he told ESPN, “I understand the desire and need on the part of the athletes to try and create some real estate they can sell during the 16 days they’re really at the peak of their careers, so I am sympathetic to the need and desire to do that.”
Not exactly a union-busting tirade. But then, Blackmun can’t parrot the standard talking points of most American CEOs. He can’t go after Richards-Ross and the other athletes leading the union initiative as outside agitators or cynical union bosses. He can’t because the athletes are irreplaceable. And in American labor relations today, it’s only the irreplaceable workers, paradoxically, who can unionize.
As a stream of studies has demonstrated, most organizing drives founder because management fires a number of the workers involved. (It’s illegal to fire them, but the penalties are negligible.) Just about the only workers who can unionize without fear of being fired are workers whom management can’t replace—the famous, the highly skilled. That’s why athletes and entertainers can organize and strike. Airline pilots can be replaced, but not immediately, not in large numbers. If they strike, they wreak havoc on the nation’s travel.
American management’s war on unions has already helped reduce the percentage of unionized private-sector workers from 35 percent in the middle of the last century to less than 7 percent today. One day soon, the only remaining unionized workers may be America’s most celebrated and talented employees. And the fact that even they need a union to win better compensation and safer working conditions makes it pretty clear that every other employee needs one, too.
By: Harold Meyerson, Editor-at-Large, The American Prospect, September 25, 2012
By now everyone knows how Mitt Romney, speaking to donors in Boca Raton, washed his hands of almost half the country — the 47 percent who don’t pay income taxes — declaring, “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” By now, also, many people are aware that the great bulk of the 47 percent are hardly moochers; most are working families who pay payroll taxes, and elderly or disabled Americans make up a majority of the rest.
But here’s the question: Should we imagine that Mr. Romney and his party would think better of the 47 percent on learning that the great majority of them actually are or were hard workers, who very much have taken personal responsibility for their lives? And the answer is no.
For the fact is that the modern Republican Party just doesn’t have much respect for people who work for other people, no matter how faithfully and well they do their jobs. All the party’s affection is reserved for “job creators,” a k a employers and investors. Leading figures in the party find it hard even to pretend to have any regard for ordinary working families — who, it goes without saying, make up the vast majority of Americans.
Am I exaggerating? Consider the Twitter message sent out by Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader, on Labor Day — a holiday that specifically celebrates America’s workers. Here’s what it said, in its entirety: “Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.” Yes, on a day set aside to honor workers, all Mr. Cantor could bring himself to do was praise their bosses.
Lest you think that this was just a personal slip, consider Mr. Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. What did he have to say about American workers? Actually, nothing: the words “worker” or “workers” never passed his lips. This was in strong contrast to President Obama’s convention speech a week later, which put a lot of emphasis on workers — especially, of course, but not only, workers who benefited from the auto bailout.
And when Mr. Romney waxed rhapsodic about the opportunities America offered to immigrants, he declared that they came in pursuit of “freedom to build a business.” What about those who came here not to found businesses, but simply to make an honest living? Not worth mentioning.
Needless to say, the G.O.P.’s disdain for workers goes deeper than rhetoric. It’s deeply embedded in the party’s policy priorities. Mr. Romney’s remarks spoke to a widespread belief on the right that taxes on working Americans are, if anything, too low. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal famously described low-income workers whose wages fall below the income-tax threshold as “lucky duckies.”
What really needs cutting, the right believes, are taxes on corporate profits, capital gains, dividends, and very high salaries — that is, taxes that fall on investors and executives, not ordinary workers. This despite the fact that people who derive their income from investments, not wages — people like, say, Willard Mitt Romney — already pay remarkably little in taxes.
Where does this disdain for workers come from? Some of it, obviously, reflects the influence of money in politics: big-money donors, like the ones Mr. Romney was speaking to when he went off on half the nation, don’t live paycheck to paycheck. But it also reflects the extent to which the G.O.P. has been taken over by an Ayn Rand-type vision of society, in which a handful of heroic businessmen are responsible for all economic good, while the rest of us are just along for the ride.
In the eyes of those who share this vision, the wealthy deserve special treatment, and not just in the form of low taxes. They must also receive respect, indeed deference, at all times. That’s why even the slightest hint from the president that the rich might not be all that — that, say, some bankers may have behaved badly, or that even “job creators” depend on government-built infrastructure — elicits frantic cries that Mr. Obama is a socialist.
Now, such sentiments aren’t new; “Atlas Shrugged” was, after all, published in 1957. In the past, however, even Republican politicians who privately shared the elite’s contempt for the masses knew enough to keep it to themselves and managed to fake some appreciation for ordinary workers. At this point, however, the party’s contempt for the working class is apparently too complete, too pervasive to hide.
The point is that what people are now calling the Boca Moment wasn’t some trivial gaffe. It was a window into the true attitudes of what has become a party of the wealthy, by the wealthy, and for the wealthy, a party that considers the rest of us unworthy of even a pretense of respect.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 20, 2012
Bill Clinton is typically described as the empathetic, feel-your-pain guy. But his greatest political skill may be as a formulator of arguments — the explainer in chief. And it’s no accident that the former president’s role in this year’s Democratic convention is very nearly as important as President Obama’s. What’s most striking about this conclave is that it bids to be a three-day tutorial session aimed at aggressively defending a view of government and the economy for which, over most of the past 40 years, Democrats have usually apologized.
It’s ironic that the 42nd president plays the co-professor with Obama in this advanced government class, for Clinton is associated with a determined effort to distance his party from its past. When Clinton pronounced in 1996 that “the era of big government is over,” it was taken as a concession to the new conservatism that swept to control of Congress just over a year earlier.
But Clinton’s rhetorical move was more tactical than fundamental. He never stopped believing in the power of government. And now that Republicans are putting forward the most emphatically pro-business, anti-government agenda on offer since the Gilded Age, he and his fellow Democrats now feel an urgency to assert the state’s positive role. The economic market, they insist, cannot deliver what the nation needs all by itself.
Thus, one of the most applauded lines of the convention’s first night came from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick: “It’s time for Democrats to grow a backbone, and stand up for what we believe.” Rarely has a party so fully embraced a declaration that implied its own past spinelessness. Speaker after speaker answered Patrick’s call.
While Michelle Obama’s speech,the performance of her life, was apolitical on the surface, it regularly came back to arguing, subtly and implicitly, that hardworking Americans who start out on the social ladder’s lower rungs can be assisted in their struggles by the e
empowering hand of government.In his keynote address, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was explicit about this: “We know that you can’t be pro-business unless you’re pro-education,” he said. “We know that pre-K and student loans aren’t charity.”
Over and over, government was presented not as an officious intermeddler in people’s lives but as an ally of families determined to help their children to rise.And there lay the other stark contrast between the Tampa Republicans and the Charlotte Democrats. The Republicans built their whole convention around an out-of-context quotation from the president (“You didn’t build that”) and offered as their counter-theme, “We built it.”But so often, as a friend pointed out, the message of Tampa came off more as: “We own it.” Working people and the dignity of labor receded almost entirely at a gathering whose real stars were investors, entrepreneurs and business leaders on whom others are dependent for employment. Pride arose less from hard work than from the ability to deploy capital.
Democrats are no less committed to the American dream, but their dream is built on individual and family struggle. While Republicans cast themselves as the party of “family values,” Democrats here spoke far more about upward mobility as a family enterprise.
Thus Michelle Obama’s description of her father as a man whose “measure of his success in life” came from “being able to earn a decent living that allowed him to support his family.”
Thus Castro’s definition of the American dream as “not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay.” He explained that “each generation passes on to the next the fruits of their labor.”
Democrats know that even if they convince a majority that Barack Obama’s approach to government is closer than Romney’s to their own, they still carry the burden of high unemployment. That’s the value of Bill Clinton’s witness. Many wavering voters remember the Clinton years as an all-too-brief journey through the economic promised land and will pay close attention to his stamp of approval on Obama’s way forward.
But Democrats are also aware that victory depends on encouraging voters to see Romney’s policies as a throwback — not only to the George W. Bush years but also to the rough-and-tumble economics of the pre-New Deal Era, to a time when capital decisively held the upper hand over labor. Their three-day seminar was designed to show, as Lilly Ledbetter of Fair Pay Act fame suggested, that Obama understands why an extra 23 cents an hour in a paycheck matters more to most voters than does a capital gains tax cut.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 5, 2012
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