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“A New Kind of Union”: Best Hope For Restoring Political Equality Is For The Poor And Middle Class To Organize Politically

The financial challenges low- and middle-income Americans face are daunting. But the poor and middle class are in an equally serious, if less well recognized, political predicament: the government has become almost entirely unresponsive to them.

This a profound political failure. A democracy in which government policy responds to the rich and not to the poor or the middle class is a democracy unworthy of the name.

For several decades now, we have tried to deal with the problem of money in politics with campaign finance regulation, but reform has failed. Political actors, enabled by the Supreme Court, have responded to regulations simply by redirecting their spending in unregulated directions.

The end of campaign-finance reform, however, is not the end of the line. Although we pay too little attention to this fact, there are still sources of power in American politics that are not dependent on wealth. Primary among these is political organization. In fact, the best hope for restoring political equality is to make it easier for the poor and middle class to organize politically.

Throughout much of the 20th century, we had a legal system in the United States that was remarkably successful at promoting just this kind of political organizing. That legal system was labor law, and it is not a coincidence that during these same decades the labor union was able to serve as a highly successful political voice for the lower and middle classes.

Unions, after all, represent workers, nearly all of whom are in the income classes currently lacking effective political representation. Unions turned out their members to vote and consolidated millions of modest contributions into powerful campaign and lobbying operations. Sometimes, unions pushed for politically liberal causes, and sometimes for conservative ones. But when they were powerful, unions were able to insist that government policy respond to the views of the poor and the middle class.

In contemporary America, however, there is a nearly insurmountable impediment to unions’ ability to serve as a collective political voice for workers. It stems from the legal requirement that unions bundle political organization with collective bargaining, which means that in order to take advantage of the union as a form of political organization, workers must organize economically for collective bargaining purposes.

This bundling of functions, an artifact of how unions formed historically, is a major problem for political organizing today. This is true most obviously because managerial opposition to collective bargaining has become pervasive. It is also true because changes in markets have made the practice of collective bargaining difficult. And because substantial numbers of American workers say they do not want to collectively bargain with their employers, traditional unions are not an attractive form of political organization for many.

All of this has contributed to a dramatic decrease in unionization rates, which has in turn played a central role in the declining responsiveness of government.

But what if we unbundle the union and allow workers to organize politically without also organizing for collective bargaining? If we shift our aim away from reviving collective bargaining and toward enabling political organizing by underrepresented groups, we would allow workers to organize “political unions” even when they don’t want to organize collective bargaining ones.

It’s more straightforward than it sounds. The key is that we would make the workplace available as a site for political organization. While the law would continue to protect workers’ right to organize traditional unions, it would also protect workers’ right to organize strictly political ones. Workers would have the right to talk about politics with one another at work, as long as they did so during nonworking time.

Employers would be prohibited from retaliating against their employees who organized politically, and if the workers did form a political union, they would be entitled — as traditional unions are — to use voluntary payroll deductions to finance their activities. But these political unions would be prohibited from collective bargaining, and no worker would ever be required to pay dues to a political union — or to be represented by one — unless she chose to be.

The types of policies that political unions chose to pursue would be entirely up to their members. Some might fight for bread-and-butter issues like a higher minimum wage, but others might concentrate on social issues or even foreign policy. But whatever issues they chose to pursue, these unions would give a political voice to those in America who currently lack one.

Campaign-finance reform has failed because it does nothing to address the underlying disparities in wealth distribution that produce political inequality in the first place. Legal reforms that enable political organizing are fundamentally different because organization, like wealth, is its own source of political power.

Allowing workers to organize for politics, even when they decide not to organize for collective bargaining, would help restore balance to a democracy that wealth has so badly skewed.


By: Benjamin I. Sachs, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, September 1, 2013

September 2, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Unions | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Love For Labor Is Lost”: Politicians Today Can’t Even Bring Themselves To Fake Respect For Ordinary Workers

It wasn’t always about the hot dogs. Originally, believe it or not, Labor Day actually had something to do with showing respect for labor.

Here’s how it happened: In 1894 Pullman workers, facing wage cuts in the wake of a financial crisis, went on strike — and Grover Cleveland deployed 12,000 soldiers to break the union. He succeeded, but using armed force to protect the interests of property was so blatant that even the Gilded Age was shocked. So Congress, in a lame attempt at appeasement, unanimously passed legislation symbolically honoring the nation’s workers.

It’s all hard to imagine now. Not the bit about financial crisis and wage cuts — that’s going on all around us. Not the bit about the state serving the interests of the wealthy — look at who got bailed out, and who didn’t, after our latter-day version of the Panic of 1893. No, what’s unimaginable now is that Congress would unanimously offer even an empty gesture of support for workers’ dignity. For the fact is that many of today’s politicians can’t even bring themselves to fake respect for ordinary working Americans.

Consider, for example, how Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, marked Labor Day last year: with a Twitter post declaring “Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.” Yep, he saw Labor Day as an occasion to honor business owners.

More broadly, consider the ever-widening definition of those whom conservatives consider parasites. Time was when their ire was directed at bums on welfare. But even at the program’s peak, the number of Americans on “welfare” — Aid to Families With Dependent Children — never exceeded about 5 percent of the population. And that program’s far less generous successor, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, reaches less than 2 percent of Americans.

Yet even as the number of Americans on what we used to consider welfare has declined, the number of citizens the right considers “takers” rather than “makers” — people of whom Mitt Romney complained, “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives” — has exploded, to encompass almost half the population. And the great majority of this newly defined army of moochers consists of working families that don’t pay income taxes but do pay payroll taxes (most of the rest are elderly).

How can someone who works for a living be considered the moral equivalent of a bum on welfare? Well, part of the answer is that many people on the right engage in word games: they talk about how someone doesn’t pay income taxes, and hope that their listeners fail to notice the word “income” and forget about all the other taxes lower-income working Americans pay.

But it is also true that modern America, while it has pretty much eliminated traditional welfare, does have other programs designed to help the less well-off — notably the earned-income tax credit, food stamps and Medicaid. The majority of these programs’ beneficiaries are either children, the elderly or working adults — this is true by definition for the tax credit, which only supplements earned income, and turns out in practice to be true of the other programs. So if you consider someone who works hard trying to make ends meet, but also gets some help from the government, a “taker,” you’re going to have contempt for a very large number of American workers and their families.

Oh, and just wait until Obamacare kicks in, and millions more working Americans start receiving subsidies to help them purchase health insurance.

You might ask why we should provide any aid to working Americans — after all, they aren’t completely destitute. But the fact is that economic inequality has soared over the past few decades, and while a handful of people have stratospheric incomes, a far larger number of Americans find that no matter how hard they work, they can’t afford the basics of a middle-class existence — health insurance in particular, but even putting food on the table can be a problem. Saying that they can use some help shouldn’t make us think any less of them, and it certainly shouldn’t reduce the respect we grant to anyone who works hard and plays by the rules.

But obviously that’s not the way everyone sees it. In particular, there are evidently a lot of wealthy people in America who consider anyone who isn’t wealthy a loser — an attitude that has clearly gotten stronger as the gap between the 1 percent and everyone else has widened. And such people have a lot of friends in Washington.

So, this time around will we be hearing anything from Mr. Cantor and his colleagues suggesting that they actually do respect people who work for a living? Maybe. But the one thing we’ll know for sure is that they don’t mean it.


By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 1, 2013

September 2, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A World Without Labor Day”: The GOP “Union Free Paradise” Of The Future

I’ve mentioned here before that I spent most of my childhood in LaGrange, Georgia, a town that was dominated in a profoundly feudal sense by Callaway Mills, one of the stalwarts in the fight against unionization of the southern textile industry. In the public schools there, we began classes each year on Labor Day, an impressive gesture of contempt for the American labor tradition.

We are not that far from a major lurch in that direction on a national level. It received little national attention during the Republican National Convention, but South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s speech presenting her backward, poverty-stricken state as a union-free paradise of happy workers seemed very much the wave of the GOP future. With the exception of a handful of self-styled “progressives” or “liberals”–or such savvy pols as Richard Nixon who cut deals for political support with particular unions–Republicans have always been considered the “anti-labor” party. But they use to pay automatic respect to the basic legitimacy of unions and collective bargaining, certainly in the private sector. Not any more. Republicans used to hide their anti-union bias and when in power sought to roll back labor rights quietly through control of regulatory bodies like the National Labor Relations Board. There is every indication that if Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan win on November 6, the kind of loud-and-proud in-your-face hostility to unions that I grew up with will become national policy instantly.

Does that matter to Americans who aren’t union members, or are working in industries with little or no union presence to begin with? Of course it does. Unions greatly affect labor markets, and act to create upward pressure on wages and benefits–not to mention public safety net programs–affecting conditions of employment far from their specific bargaining units. And as Harold Meyerson points out in his Labor Day column today, the weakening of union power has played a big role in steadily eroding ability of wage earners to secure improvement in living standards despite rising skill levels and productivity:

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.

The implicit message of some business leaders and their political allies these days seems to be: you should count yourselves lucky for having any jobs at all, so shut up about your eroding wages and disappearing benefits and non-existent job security and under-seige public safety net!

And an even more offensive implicit message is coming from the “we built that” rhetoric of the GOP, which doesn’t just deny government’s role in making individual business success possible, but that of workers as well, who are viewed as interchangeable, expendable material shaped and deployed by heroic “job creator” capitalists, to whom all glory, laud, honor and profits must accrue to keep the American economy moving.

It’s a way of thinking and living that takes me back to the LaGrange, Georgia of the early 1960s. Better take advantage of this and every ensuing Labor Day. There’s no guarantee it won’t be, in some respect or another, the last. 


BY: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, September 3, 2012

September 3, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, Labor | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Combating Concentrated Wealth And Power”: The Right To Form A Union Should Be A Civil Right

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

September 3, 2012 Posted by | Civil Rights, Unions | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Republican War On Labor”: Workers Face An Economic Power Gap

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

September 3, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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