Put the Labor Back into Labor Day (concluded)

          My grandfather was a member of a union. So were my fellow factory workers during my college vacations. (As a summer worker, I was not asked to join.) Since I barely spoke with my grandfather, I never heard from him what he thought of his union, but that he joined the strike and stayed out for its duration indicates a good deal of loyalty. Mostly I heard about the union from my grandfather’s son, and this talk was not so much about the union and wages, but about the union and working conditions. My father told me stories about how management would order workers to do unnecessarily dangerous things that the union would prevent and that the union forced the company to reduce the risks of silicosis, measures that would not have occurred without union bargaining and pressures.

          I did hear the union workers at the factory talk about their union. This came up frequently at the lunch break and before and after work (I carpooled with workers to get to the factory a few miles out of town) because bargaining was going on with a strike date looming in the middle of summer. (The potential strike presented an existential dilemma for me. My family supported union causes, and I did know Solidarity Forever. On the other hand, I was dating one of the management’s daughters. I was saved from resolving the conflict between principles and sex when at the last minute the company and the union signed a new contract. Years later, I was represented by a union when I was an attorney for the New York City Legal Aid Society, and strikes again posed dilemmas for me, but that is a story for another time.)

          The factory workers were not dissatisfied with their working conditions, but they saw the union as essential for getting fair wages. Without the collective action of a union, they knew that they would get paid less and simply have no alternative but to accept whatever the company offered to pay them. They knew that if the company were to make the choice of more money for the owners and higher wages for the worker, the result would not be more money in their paychecks. Individual workers had no leverage, no bargaining power.

          Those days, however, are now distant. Unions have much less authority than they did back then and in other countries now. Unions have been denigrated since the beginning of the organized labor movement, but that denigration took especial hold over the last forty or fifty years. How often have you heard something positive about unions? On the other hand, you probably did hear about featherbedding and union corruption. Of course, many unions have had a corruption problem, but if you pay the least little attention, you know that many corporations have had and continue to have corruption issues and the equivalent of management featherbedding in the form of lavish pay and perks. Corporate corruption, however, does not mean we think that all corporations are bad for the country. In contrast, a corrupt union bleeds over to other unions. A corrupt union tends to make us think that unionization is generally a bad thing.

          Ofttimes unions have been a scapegoat for various economic woes. At the time that Japanese car companies were first making major inroads into the American market and American automobile makers started to decline, I was at a party where I met Tina who worked for a major investment house. She railed against the auto unions and blamed them for the problems of General Motors and their brethren. I found this strange. The Japanese car companies were then known to take much better care of their workers than their American counterparts. That didn’t seem to indicate that the unions were the real cause of the problems. On the other hand, Japan car companies had devised a superior just-in-time system of assembly line production that the Americans did not have. The Japanese were simply more efficient. The foreign companies were better managed, but for Tina, and many others, it was easier to blame unions than to criticize the American corporate structure.

          It is not just narratives like Tina’s that has made the American corporate war on unions successful. It has been aided by laws passed by conservative states and legal decisions by conservative courts. It has also been furthered by our immigration laws and enforcement. Periodically, ICE raids a plant and arrests hundreds of undocumented aliens working there. Gee, how does it happen that those large numbers were at the same workplace? Did management not know they were there? Perhaps such a raid seems to harm the companies because they lose a workforce, but instead the raids aid the owners. The workers are soon replaced, and a message is sent out to them and to others in different companies: Don’t draw attention to yourselves by unionizing or complaining about wages or unsafe and other working conditions. Such attention can lead to your deportation. Until such raids have serious consequences for the companies and management, the raids just nurture low wages and dangerous work environments.

The number of unionized private sector jobs is about one-fifth of what it once was, well under ten percent. The consequences for the country have been immense. Studies have concluded that a major cause of our rising income inequality has been the decline of unions. It is not just that the wages in what were unionized jobs have not kept pace, but also that when unions were strong, companies often increased wages to stave off unionization efforts. (For an informative discussion of the causes of this inequality, see Kurt Andersen, Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, A Recent History.)

          There has also been a political fallout. Who you hang out with affects your views. Politicians no longer seek out union support as they once did. They hang out with corporate and other business leaders. That is where the money is, and money increasingly controls our political process. In a recent election cycle, business outspent labor by sixteen to one, with businesses spending $3 billion on lobbying and unions spending $48 million.

          Unions in the past worked for laws that helped all working people, but now they have little effect. This is part of the reason that, unlike in other developed countries, we do not have guaranteed paid parental leave, paid vacations or sick days, and the minimum wage as a percentage of the overall median wage is lower than in other developed countries. Instead, we have seen the rise of unpaid interns in the work force and workers forced into arbitration systems that favor corporations. We have also seen a major shift to temporary and contract workers.

            This is not to suggest that everything unions might advocate for is necessarily a good thing, but as the union voice is increasingly drowned out by the big money coming from a relative handful of rich people something important has been lost in our country. (If you want to be depressed, read Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.)Unions may still be in the dining room, but they are at the kids table and seldom heard.

On Labor Day we can have picnics and hit the back-to-school sales, but the day was meant to be a commemoration of organized labor. We have politicians who proclaim a concern for blue collar workers, but our present political system is rigged so that labor can be largely ignored, and corporations can be served. Without a strong labor movement, the country is not as well off as it ought to be. Let’s put Labor back into Labor Day.

And I will think of my Grandfather.

Musings on Conservative “Populism”

Trump and the Trumpistas have lost lawsuit after lawsuit, but still they have won. A goal of the conservatives has been to plant distrust of the government with their talk of the Deep State, QAnon conspiracies, stolen elections, and fake news. Of course, like many of Trump’s actions and policies, he is not their sole inventor. Instead, the present trend comes out of traditional Republican rhetoric and politics. Probably the two most famous anti-government statements came from Ronald Reagan, who said: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

Generations of such diatribes have had an effect, even on many who consider themselves liberal. Think back a few days ago to when the Supreme Court struck down the ludicrous lawsuit the Texas Attorney General filed to overturn various state elections. What was your reaction to the Court’s action? Was part of it relief? Doesn’t that indicate that you don’t fully trust the government? The conservatives are winning.

The roots of the “Deep State” go back well before Reagan at least to Joe McCarthy. The Senator’s unsupported cry that there were Communists in the State Department controlling our foreign policy is almost the same as today’s rant that there is a Deep State in the State Department and elsewhere controlling the functioning of government.

Anti-government feelings have been part of the American makeup probably forever, but the populist movements of yore also had an anti-corporate component that is absent now. Those on the little guy’s side were fighting not just the government but also the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, and other plutocrats. Part of the reason to fight the government was because it was allied with the rich to further the interests of the powerful often at the expense of everyone else. Today the populists do not perceive the government as captured by the corporations or other powerful institutions. Instead, they feel that the government has been co-opted by a lower strata of society – a strata of people who are challenging them for their own place in our already unequal society. Corporations, then, evade opprobrium while the middle and lower classes fight among themselves. With this shift in populism, the traditional rich and powerful conservatives win again.

Our country has abandoned a longstanding tenet of our governance. As Jane Mayer says in Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right: “From the Republic’s earliest days, the wealthy had always dominated politics, but at least from the Progressive Era the public, through its elected representatives, had devised rules to keep the influence in check. By 2015, however, conservative legal advocates, underwritten by wealthy benefactors and aided by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, had led a successful drive to gut most of those rules. . . . As America grew more economically unequal, those at the top were purchasing the power needed to stay there.”

One of the people Arlie Russell Hochschild talked to for her book Stranger in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right said something that captured the new populism. She lived in a region whose lakes and streams and wetlands and forests had been ravaged by corporate toxic wastes, but she was resigned to the devastation. “With a small, sad shake of her head, Jackie says, ‘Pollution is the sacrifice we pay for capitalism.’” She is conceding defeat, and the traditional rich and powerful conservatives win yet again.

The new populist conservatives do not seek to fight the large corporate food processors who have taken over the local packing plants, pay lower wages and have reduced or have non-existent health benefits. They don’t fight the national trucking companies who pay lower wages than were paid a decade ago. They don’t fight the oil and gas companies who have made landscapes uninhabitable. Instead, these populists rail against internet and social media corporations even though these entities have had little effect on the populists’ economic well-being and even though the Right has used them effectively to strengthen their message.

It is discouraging, nay frightening, for the future of our governing system that over 100 Representatives signed on to the Texas Attorney General’s lawsuit. It is perhaps at least as disheartening that three-quarters of Republican voters believe that the election was stolen. This is so even though the supposed “proof” of widespread fraud has been debunked and rebutted convincingly many times and has been examined by courts repeatedly and rejected by judges around the country. When I watch, listen, or read right-wing media, I understand why the populist conservatives cling to a discredited belief. These media outlets repeat again and again the claims of fraud even after the assertions have been shown to be false. They don’t offer the counter proof; they don’t show why the rebuttals are wrong. These media outlets disregard and fail to mention the countervailing evidence. The consumers of their “information” never get the chance to evaluate the rebutting proof. Distrust is sown and Democracy is the loser.

Put Labor Back into Labor Day (concluded)

          Ofttimes unions have been a scapegoat for various economic woes. At the time that Japanese car companies were first making major inroads into the American market and American automobile makers started to decline, I was at a party where I met Tina who worked for a major investment house. She railed against the auto unions and blamed them for the problems of General Motors and their brethren. I found this strange. The Japanese car companies were then known to take much better care of their workers than their American counterparts. That didn’t seem to indicate that the unions were the real cause of the problems. On the other hand, Japan car companies had devised a superior just-in-time system of assembly line production that the Americans did not have. The Japanese were simply more efficient. The foreign companies were simply better managed, but for Tina, and many others, it was easier to blame unions than to criticize the American corporate structure.

          It is not just narratives like Tina’s that has made the American corporate war on unions successful. It has been aided by laws passed by conservative states and legal decisions by conservative courts. It has also been furthered by our immigration laws and enforcement. Periodically, as happened recently, ICE raids a plant and arrests hundreds of undocumented aliens working there. Gee, how does it happen that those large numbers were at the same workplace? Did management not know they were there? Perhaps such a raid seems to harm the companies because they lose a workforce, but instead they aid the owners. The workers are soon replaced, and a message is sent out to them and to others in different companies: Don’t draw attention to yourselves by unionizing or complaining about wages or unsafe and other working conditions. Such attention can lead to your deportation. Until such raids have serious consequences for the companies and management, the raids just nurture low wages and dangerous work environments.

The number of unionized private sector jobs is about one-fifth of what it once was, well under ten percent. The consequences for the country have been immense. A study concluded that a major cause of our rising income inequality has been the decline of unions.  See https://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/04/labors-decline-and-wage-inequality/. It is not just that the wages in what were unionized jobs have not kept pace, but also that when unions were strong, companies often increased wages to stave off unionization efforts.

          There has also been a political fallout. Who you hang out with affects your views. Politicians no longer seek out union support as they once did. They hang out with corporate and other business leaders. That is where the money is, and money increasingly controls our political process. In the 2016 election cycle, business outspent labor by sixteen to one, with businesses spending $3 billion on lobbying and unions spending $48 million.

          Unions in the past worked for laws that helped all working people, but now they have little effect. This is part of the reason that, unlike in other developed countries, we do not have guaranteed paid parental leave, paid vacations or sick days, and the minimum wage as a percentage of the median wage is lower than in other developed countries. Instead, we have seen the rise of unpaid interns in the work force and workers forced into arbitration systems that favor corporations. We have also seen a major shift to temporary and contract workers. Google, for example, has more temporary and contract workers than full-time employees.

            This is not to suggest that everything unions might advocate for is necessarily a good thing, but as the union voice is increasingly drowned out by the big money coming from a relative handful of rich people something important has been lost in our country. (If you want to be depressed, read Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.)Unions may still be in the dining room, but they are at the kids table and seldom heard.

On Labor Day we can have picnics and hit the back-to-school sales, but the day was meant to be a commemoration of organized labor. We have politicians who proclaim a concern for blue collar workers, but our present political system is rigged so that labor can be largely ignored, and corporations can be served.  Without a strong labor movement, the country is not as well off as it ought to be. Let’s put Labor back into Labor Day.