Post-New Deal America Needs Unions

 

One of the unfortunate consequences of the still more unfortunate failure of the unions’ effort to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker earlier this month is the gloating and schadenfreude that’s come forth from labor’s enemies. Some comes straight up, as in this column from Charles Krauthammer. Some comes with the caveat that private sector unions are fine in their place, but public sector unions have no place at all, an opinion expressed in this blog post from Chuck Lane. (I confine myself here to offerings from my Washington Post colleagues, but they’re representative of the breed.)  As I noted in my response to Lane, it would be nice if these defenders of private-sector unions had bestirred themselves to join the battle for labor law reform in 2010, since under the current labor law, workers effectively have no protection from being fired when they seek to join a union. As it is, Lane, Mickey Kaus and their fellow union critics endorse private-sector unions in the abstract, but actual unions invariably draw their condemnation. 

One of the most common arguments against unions is that they were necessary in the bad old days, when sweatshops abounded, wages were low, and the wage-and-hour legislation of the New Deal was yet to be enacted. They were needed in the pre-New Deal economy, but have been superfluous since. What the argument misses is that we’re now deep into a post-New Deal economy, and the low-wage work, wage theft, unpaid overtime and job insecurity—in the technical parlance of economists, the shit jobs—that abounded before the New Deal have returned in full force. Among the occupations that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says will have the most job growth between 2010 and 2020 are cashiers (median annual wage as of 2010, $18,500; projected growth 250,000 new jobs), childcare workers ($19,300; 262,000 new jobs), home health and personal care aides (roughly $20,000; 1.3 million new jobs), food prep and fast-food workers ($17,950; 398,000 new jobs), and retail sales workers ($20,670; 707,000 new jobs). According to a paper from the National Employment Law Project [April 2012 Issue Brief, “Slower Real Growth, Declining Real Wages Undermine Recovery], 30 percent of this decade’s job openings will have a median wage around $20,000. According to a report issued earlier this month by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a survey of food workers—from farm workers to processing workers to kitchen workers to servers—found that just 13.5 percent made a wage that was at least 150 percent of the regional poverty threshold. And need I point out that the nation’s largest private-sector employer, with more than 1.4 million workers (excuse me, associates) based in the United States, is WalMart? And that many thousands more work in Wal-Mart’s low-wage supply chain, among them port truckers who struggle to break even and warehouse workers who make just over the minimum wage?

In short, shit jobs abound. The shit jobs that are often the only jobs that workers who’ve lost decent-paying jobs as American manufacturing can find. And for all we hear about American wages having to come down as a result of globalization and low-wage foreign competition, none of the jobs I’ve mentioned are subject to foreign competition. Alan Blinder, the Princeton economist who was deputy Chairman of the Federal Reserve during Bill Clinton’s presidency, has set the number of American jobs that can be offshored at a little over 40 million – meaning, roughly twice that number of jobs cannot. That’s one thing that happens when you shift from a manufacturing-dominated economy to a service-dominated one.

Have there been efforts to unionize these jobs? Many—and yet the vast majority have failed due to the dysfunctionality of the laws that nominally protect workers’ right to organize. Port truckers, for instance, lost their employee status and were rendered “independent contractors” by the deregulation of the trucking industry. Absent an employer of record, they barely get by. Wal-Mart has many thousands of warehouse workers who take the products off those trucks, sort and  stack them on pallets bound for WalMarts all over the nation, but WalMart has arranged a system by which those workers are employed by a bewildering array of temporary employment agencies. Unions have been trying to organize the port truckers and the warehouse workers for years – in the case of the truckers, for decades – but the byzantine employment arrangements have proved too steep a climb. 

When unions representing home care and nursing home workerss, hotel and restaurant employees, supermarket employees, truckers and laborers left the AFL-CIO in 2005 to found a consortium of their own, Change To Win, they had one thing that united them: they all represented and sought to represent workers in industries that were not part of a globalized labor market. To date, however, none of Change To Win’s organizing campaigns has succeeded, because the odds against unionization remain so steep. The organization’s paramount objective remains WalMart – a company so anti-union that when butchers at one store in Texas voted to unionize, WalMart shuttered its fresh meat department not only at that store but at every store in Texas and the five surrounding states. 

Tens of millions of Americans work in WalMart’s America—in a low-wage labor market not subject to foreign competition. That’s a primary reason why economic inequality has soared in recent decades, why intergenerational economic mobility has fallen behind the levels in presumably sclerotic Europe, why wages are at their lowest share of both GDP and corporate revenues since the end of World War II. The shift in income from wages to profits is above all the result of the weakening of unions. Anyone who says that America needed unions once but doesn’t today is willfully blind. Those who defend the right of private-sector workers to unionize—in theory, anyway—should open their eyes and look around them. There’s a nation out there in desperate need of unionization. 

Comments

I am a guy who jumped up and down with glee the moment Walker's victory was announced. Not because I am against unions. My parents were union members. I am against unions taking too big of a piece of the economic pie. Everyone knows that public and private salaries are on par with one another. Make up all the numbers you want, but they are. However, the private sector is funding benefits that far outweigh their own, taking risks on their own, while the public sector flourishes (not to mention bankrupts the States), America got to see what the unions are like when they throw their toys out of the sandbox when they don't get their way. And they don't like it. Wisconsin, certainly no red state, saw it. They began to understand the math. And they didn't like it. Walker is my hero now. It is about time more politicians step up to the plate. Mitch Daniels did this years ago. These guys are very good governors. And the unions were just whiners. In the meantime, I will never forgot the day I opened up my own company in New York City. The entrance off the elevator was a big glass window and door. I went and bought two stickers for my company's logo. One on the back, and one on the front of the window. I had this made at Kinko's for less than $40. I was then told by the building that was a union job, and I had to take it down. I was then promptly charged .... drum roll please.... $550. That is correct. So when unions start playing fair, maybe the country will get behind them again.

You know I'm fairly right of center and staunchly anti-public union; and I clicked on this column with the expectation to scoff at this article, but in a way, what the author is saying makes some sense. Unions do become corrupt, over-bloated, and ultimately seek to perpetuate their own existence at the expense of the industry they run. However, there does need to be some balance in the system so companies like WalMart don't abuse the crap out of their people with the shit jobs. I'm not saying they should be paid $42/hour to turn a bolt, with full pension and medical benefits at $50 or anything, but such jobs should in theory provide a wage that would allow a full-time employee access to the lower middle class, and not force an existence barely above poverty level. The problem with what happened in UAW and Detroit is that the car companies became so arrogant that they were willing to sign off on any deal the unions demanded. The key for a mutually beneficial co-existence, I would think, would be for both sides to negotiate contracts with the mutual understanding that fair and reasonable contracts would guarantee success for both sides. We're now at a point in history where we've seen the pendulum too far to either side, and neither vision is pretty.

Rhadagastt,

I agree with most of your comment - however coming from the auto industry myself - your idea that the auto companies simply signed off on whatever the unions wanted does not paint an accurate picture. The problem is that the system under our current union laws tilted the scales too far towards the unions. For example - vertical integration was once a strength for U.S. auto companies, particularly GM and Ford. AC, Delco, Rochester Carb, Harrison Radiator, Guide Lamp, etc, all these GM divisions gave them the ability to control costs and add margins on multiple levels. Same thing for several parts making divisions at Ford. The problem is that the unions were allowed the ability to legally hold "wildcat" strikes at a single supplier plant, which could potenitally shut down multiple assemply operations. This gave these supplier divisions too much leverage - and eventually turned what had been a asset into a liability. Better to have 2 or 3 supplier companies bidding for your business, with the understanding by their employees that if they strike - their plant likely will close down. The 1970 strike at GM, which cost the company billions at a time when GM still "owned" the U.S. auto market was probably the turning point. A lot of what GM "gave away" during some of their agreements, such as full healthcare benefits for retirees was simply a mistake, and the same mistake that thousands of other companies also made - they just didn't have 500,000 employees (or now - 500,000 retirees) to support. The decline in market share from their once dominant position made all these expenses literally twice as bad - on a "per car" basis.

I'm undecided whether private sector unions are beneficial.

When it comes to public sector unions, in my view they are clearly contrary to the public interest.

You are not the only one, I'm undecided as well..... at least there are 2 of us, right? :)

No one has considered that in the public sector there is no recourse to managemment abuse and/or fraud , nor is there a contrill over the elected officials. We talk a lot about "internal controls" and corporate governance but when it comes down to it, who enforces it if noone reports it. This is an environment ripe for abuse. Any employee can be fired without cause (except for some public safety functions which still have unions).

First of all public sector union employees are subjected to the same work issues as private sector employees. It is hypocritical to deny them the same protections that private union employees have won. Without collective bargaining rights, employment conditions are rigged for corporations and governmental bureaucrats. Collective bargaining is democracy. It is recognized as a human right in international conventions, constitutions, and courts. The Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act of 1932 was the primary statute that declared the right of collective bargaining. This was followed by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Both confirmed that right.

According to a report issued earlier this month by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a survey of food workers—from farm workers to processing workers to kitchen workers to servers—found that just 13.5 percent made a wage that was at least 150 percent of the regional poverty threshold. genericviagratab.com

In accordance to a report issued before this thirty day period by the Meals Chain Staff Alliance, a survey of meals workers €”from farm personnel to processing staff to kitchen area workers to servers €”found that just 13.5 % produced a wage that was at least a hundred and fifty percent of the regional poverty threshold. generalization.com click to visit

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