Wednesday, May 09, 2018

People forget why we have unions.

Last Friday the Labor Department announced that the unemployment rate dropped to 3.9%–the lowest rate since the 1990s.  If the unemployment rate is so low why have wages for most Americans failed to go up very much recently? Why?  The simple answer is for the very same reasons why economic inequality and social mobility in America has largely ground to a halt in the last 40 years–the decline and war on labor unions.

The New York Times’ Paul Krugman, hypothesize that employers are reluctant to raise wages for fear they cannot cut them in the future. Others contend that we have not fully recovered from the recession or that the actual labor force participation rates are still high, making wage increases sticky.  All of these explanations miss the point.  Employers are not raising wages because they do not have to.  The reason is that labor unions are so weak now that they cannot do what they historically have done which is to pressure employers to increase wages.

he last 150 years of American history is the battle of workers and unions against corporations. America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the country of trusts.  It was the emergence of the railroads, steel, big oil, and monopolies.  It was also the era of sweatshops, child labor, adulterated and unsafe foods, and the six-day, 70 hour-plus work weeks.  It was also the era of piecemeal below subsistence wages, poor working conditions and high injury rates, no health benefits, no retirement benefits, and no protections against discrimination and harassment. Unions were illegal, and workers who stood up for their rights were beaten up by the Pinkerton thugs–or arrested by the police forces which were created to control and break unions.

 Unionization in America dramatically increased in the United States, peaking in 1954 with over 35% of the workforce collectively bargained.  But what did unions accomplish?  There is powerful evidence first that they brought tremendous economic benefits to American workers and the economy.  They produced the minimum wage, the eight hours, five day work week.  They improved workplace safety, gave us health insurance, retirements, and workers compensation.  They raised the standard of living of most Americans, often even those not in unions. They also helped bring more economic equality to the economy, significantly erasing the disparities of the Gilded and Robber Baron eras.  Unions grew and flourished at a time of significant economic growth, and there is little hard data to show that they caused rises in unemployment.  America’s post-WW II affluence is tied in with unions.

But many employers hate unions. The found ways to fire striking workers and replace them.  They harassed and fired organizers, they found ways in court to delay or challenge elections.  They claimed unions hurt the economy or restricted individual freedom and passed right-to-work legislation. Reagan became president and signaled with the firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 that it was okay to go to war against the unions.  The Reagan era war against unions was part of a strategy along with deregulation and tax cuts to restructure the economy.

Overall, less than 12% of all workers are now in unions in the United States, with only 7% of the private labor force collectively bargained. The decline of the American income in the last 40 years goes part and parcel with the decline of unions. In the last thirty years the American economy has seen a dramatic increase in the gap between the rich and poor such that it now mirrors that of the 1920s.  According to the United States Census Bureau in 2010 the richest five percent of the population accounted for 21% of the income, with the top 20% receiving over 50% of the total income in the country.  This compares to the bottom quintile accounting for about 3% of the total income. A second study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in 2010, drawing upon Congressional Budget Office research, found that income gap between the top one-percent of the population and everyone else more than tripled since 1973.  After-tax income for the top one-percent increased by 281% between 1973 and 2007, while for middle class or middle quintile it increased by 25%, for the bottom quintile it was merely 16%.  Looking beyond income to wealth, the maldistribution has not been this bad since the 1920s.  According to the Institute for Policy Studies, in 2007 the top one-percent controls almost 34% of the wealth in the country, with half of the population possessing less than 3%.  Since the Great Recession, the numbers have accelerated.

Opposing unions and workers costs families money.  There is a significant difference in median family incomes in states that are right to work (RTW) versus those that are not.  RTW states have a median family income of $46,919, non RTW it is $53,418–a difference of $6,499 or 13.9% per year.  Testing for the statistical impact of RTW on median family incomes, the relationship is -0.4.  This means there is statistical evidence that RTW is associated with lower incomes.  RTW depresses wages.  If all of this does not demonstrate a war against unions it definitely does reveal an attack on workers.

Americans have been convinced unions and workers’ rights are bad. Americans continue to believe that they are better off without unions and worker protections. Some claim that unions are no longer relevant or that their corruption has led to their own demise. They resent successful unions that pay better wages than they receive instead of organizing to bring themselves up to that level. But there is mounting evidence that many people do want to organize and want representation in a union.

It’s been a long while since anyone alive has seen working people successfully fight back against capitalist cruelty with winning class-struggle strategies and tactics. Today, teachers, and their allies among state workers and working-class families in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Colorado have set an inspiring example for the entire U.S. labor movement. Their example goes far beyond the organized sectors. The ongoing wave of unprecedented statewide teacher strikes has demonstrated in real time that working people retain the power to change the course of history and win major gains for themselves and worker class allies in their state.

The accumulated frustrations, anger, and resentment over this seemingly unending across-the-board assault on working people found its initial and confused expression in the 2016 election of “outsider” Donald Trump. Corporate America’s Hillary Clinton was the obvious target to express the mass hatred generated by the Democratic Party. It didn’t take long, however, for the reactionary “moron” Trump, whose poll ratings have dropped to historic lows, to show the mass of working people, teachers in the Republican “Red States” included, that there are no saviors in either of the twin parties of capitalism.

The striking teachers and their allies have shaken ruling-class institutions and emboldened workers everywhere.  Their example has opened the door to a resurgence of labor in every arena of social life. For decades, local school boards have cried poverty in the face of teachers’ union contract proposals for fully justified pay increases and maintenance of pension and medical benefits, as well as remedies for ever-increasing class size limits and every other aspect of public education. The teachers have shattered the ruling-class-created lie that there are no funds available for public education, related social services, teacher pensions, affordable medical coverage, and adequate salaries to live a decent life. 

Teachers confronted state legislators directly and immediately in the form of coordinated and democratically planned statewide strikes and massive mobilizations in state capitals, which drew tens and hundreds of thousands. Labor’s most powerful weapon - the strike -  was deployed in the interests of all working people. The striking teachers have opened a new battlefront in the class war. The teachers’ “all or nothing” demands sent a shock wave through the ruling-class. When West Virginia teachers said “20 percent and nothing less” to the state legislature and courageously stuck to this demand, they trumpeted a new beginning for the entire labor movement. The striking teachers in many respects forced their complacent “leaders” to pose as champions of their cause or be seen as sellouts. The level of spontaneity and independent power that teachers unleashed was decisive to overcoming their unions’ bureaucracy. In place of these “leaders” a self-acting, open, inclusive system of organization emerged, in which rank-and-filers took the initiative in sounding out the mood of their co-workers, including in mass decision-making and in imposing wide open methods of teacher-controlled voting systems to register and democratically mobilize the mass support that was heightened with their every move to make their cause the cause of every worker – teacher or not.

Teachers openly defied every anti-union law on the books. They struck in the face of laws that banned teacher strikes as illegal, that mandated jail sentences and massive fines for striking teachers and their unions, and that threatened to void striking teachers’ certification credentials so as to ban them from working as teachers in the future. No politician dared to place a single teacher in jail or to remove a single credential. Bluster and threats aside, no laws were hurried to the floor of state legislatures to punish or infringe on what teachers had accomplished in the streets; no court injunctions were issued or implemented to uphold state laws banning teacher strikes. Workers' solidarity proved its worth

Other state employees joined their picket lines along with students and working-class parents. Labor’s historic maxim, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” became the guiding principle in the hearts and minds of millions across the country as hundreds of thousands of the nation’s teachers and hundreds of thousands of their supporters mobilized in unprecedented numbers to give birth to a new and vital unionism.

Mass and independent rank-and-file explosions of worker militancy and union organizing in the face of ruling-class arrogance, exploitation, and violence has always been key to taking the next giant step forward for all workers and for all struggling humanity.

Taken from here

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