Monday, February 23, 2009

Indications are that Americans are now paying a steep price for our shocking national disdain for labor unions


Have you seen this Brave New Films video (brought to us here by A sustained campaign built around it has won some still-too-limited concessions from Burger King -- see below.

"When I mentioned the word 'union,' I was told never, never mention that word again if I want to keep my job."
-- Burger King worker-turned-executive Gene Franques, in the video

"Suppose that China and the United States did have powerful unions. In China, such unions might have pushed for higher wages, social insurance and more domestic consumption. Here, such unions would have preserved more of a manufacturing sector and boosted wages in the service and retail sectors, so that American consumers could have relied more on income than on credit to make their purchases. The two nations would have had more sustainable economic strategies. And the world economy might not now be plunging into what, so far, appears to be a bottomless pit."
-- Harold Meyerson, in his Wednesday Washington Post column,
"The Dysfunctional Duo"

by Ken

Last night Howie talked about the grotesque situation that has developed around the nomination of Rep. Hilda Solis to be the first secretary of labor since . . . well, at least since the Clinton administration who actually believes that the job includes standing up for the rights and working conditions of working people. Anyone who has so quickly forgotten the horror of the Bush regime tenure of now-former Secretary Elaine Chao is directed to Joe Sudbay's Thursday AmericaBlog post, which began:
For the last eight years, America's workers have had the crap kicked out of them by the Bush administration and Republicans on the Hill. We had an anti-labor Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao, who is married to the vehemently anti-labor GOP Senate Leader, Mitch McConnell. Those two are worth millions (she was on 13 corporate boards before becoming Labor Secretary) so you can imagine they didn't have much in common with people who actually work for a living. Chao and McConnell were a potent (and very wealthy) combo determined to undermine the safety and job security of America's workers.

Do Americans understand the problems set out in the above Burger King video? ZP Heller offered a valuable take in a Saturday OpenLeft post:
All week long, Brave New Films, SEIU and many progressive bloggers have been holding Burger King's feet to the deep fryer. Together we exposed Burger King's horrendous working conditions; launched a contest asking people to Have It Their Way with Goldman Sachs (Burger King's top shareholder) for squandering $6.5 billion of the bailout on bonuses while average BK workers earn less than the federal poverty line; and staged peaceful demonstrations at Burger Kings across the country protesting the fast-food chain's low wages, lack of healthcare, and lobbying against unionization legislation. So what was Burger King's response? They served up this flamebroiled pile of garbage yesterday:
"Burger King Corp. (BKC) believes unions serve a purpose in some workplaces and a number of its guests, vendors and franchisees have positive union membership experiences. BKC is not anti-union. BKC and its franchisees serve a diverse consumer base and, therefore, aim to remain neutral on political issues."
Neutral on political issues, eh? If that's the case, why did Burger King spend $319,648 between 2006 and 2008 lobbying against pro-labor laws like the Employee Free Choice Act? Why did Goldman Sachs spend $15,849,000 in 2008 alone lobbying against the Employee Free Choice? And why, as SEIU's Michael Whitney noted, has Burger King fought this legislation through their involvement with the National Retail Federation, which stands firmly behind an anti-union group called the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace?

If Burger King is "not anti-union" as they claim, then let's see them stay out of their workers' efforts to unionize. And if they're "not anti-union," does that mean they're suddenly pro-worker? Then perhaps they should quit dropping hundreds of thousands on lobbying efforts to oppose federal minimum wage hikes. They should improve workplace conditions to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act. And while they're at it, they could also provide their employees healthcare so they no longer have to rely on publicly-funded health insurance programs that cost taxpayers up to a quarter of a billion dollars a year.

If Burger King is really "not anti-union," let's see them put their money where their mouth is. Until then, we'll continue to have it our way.

I really don't understand what it is with Americans and labor unions. Is it simply yet another effect of the chokehold the Right has gained over the American mis-education system?

When I was growing up, even though I'm not aware that anyone in our extended family was a union member -- there are more management types in my family history -- Samuel Gompers was a household name. (Gompers was the crusading labor organizer who forged the American Federation of Labor, which when merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955 became the powerful AFL-CIO coalition.) It was part of the general public understanding, once upon a time, that the American prosperity of the second half of the 20th century would have been impossible without strong labor unions, because the economy could never have blossomed without consumers to buy the products sold by American industry.

I've got a bad feeling that none of this history is taught to today's students. For Americans who have no idea that, for example, the mines were once operated as something close to slave-labor camps, with the tacit acquiescence and even active support of the U.S. government, maybe we need to schedule nationwide screenings of Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein's shattering 1970 film The Molly Maguires (with huge performances by Sean Connery, Richard Harris, and Frank Finlay)? (Anyone is welcome to borrow my Laserdisk copy.) And slide-show presentations tracing the origins of the ILGWU, including the still-almost-unimaginable horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911?

All useful, but I doubt that it would be helpful. It would all be dismissed as, "That was then. We've gotten past all of that." But of course we haven't. As with so much else that's gone wrong in this country, a lot of it started with Reagan. It was in the Reagan administration that open warfare against unions became not only acceptable but officially approved. Over time, partly in sync with changes in the structure of the economy, such gains as organized labor had achieved were steadily ungained.

There's no question that the unions did themselves no favor with the excessive demands and entrenched corruption that set in at the height of their power. But of course this was a pale reflection of the wanton abuse of power and corruption characteristic of the managements they were dealing with -- where does anyone think the overweening and corrupt union bosses learned it all from? It's notable that the anti-union propagandists were never heard from when crusading union members were trying to reform the unions from within. And it's not hard to understand why: It wasn't the corruption the anti-unionists objected to, it was the very notion of workers being able to push back against the bullying of management. If anything, strong and uncorrupt unions are their worst nightmare.

The liars and delusionaries who preach "the free market" have it that all the problems for which pro-union advocates insist unions are necessary can be solved more simply and fairly by the workings of the free market. The only difference is that the liars know better, while the delusionaries don't. Even if there were such a thing as a free market it would be bullshit, for a panoply of reasons, most of which come back to the basic fact that it's human nature to seek any advantage that's obtainable by any means, and when management has no checks on its powers, it will exploit those advantages in every way possible, dehumanizing workers to the level of merely another commodity, like plant fixtures and raw materials, simply occupying another column on the balance sheet.

But of course we've never had a free market, and it's the last thing the people who claim to champion such a thing want. What they want is for the government to play the role it played back in Molly Maguires days: behind-the-scenes enabler and when necessary active partner of management.

I guess Americans like to think that unionism is a grubby business that's beneath them. Of course in other countries even white-collar workers have benefited from union organization, but Americans like to think they're "individuals" who are above all of that. This may be why so many white-collar Americans were so stunned to wake up and find that their jobs had been outsourced to cheaper workers abroad, kaboom! More perplexingly, even Americans who are bitter and resentful about their poor prospects for job improvement seem to identify with the managements that have worked so hard to trap them in dead-end jobs, and to replace even those jobs with even worse, no-benefits "opportunities."

Economists have told us for decades that in strong union economies, even non-union workers benefit in terms of wages and working conditions from the countervailing force offered by unions to untrammeled management control. In the simplest terms, where there are strong unions, managements wishing to keep them out of their workplaces have to treat their workers with a respect that's likely to vanish with as union options do.

We haven't had many more grotesque national spectacles than that of the predominantly Southern senators, which is to say states from what was once the slave-holding South, states that have invested heavily via massive tax subsidies in non-union auto plants, used the economic meltdown as leverage to try to once and for all destroy the U.S. auto-industry unions. We're talking about intellectual flyweights like Alabama's Richard Shelby and Tennessee's appalling Bob Corker. It might have been funny if it wasn't all so dishonest and shabby and shameful -- the careful cherry-picking of numbers to "prove" the arrogance of the unions, who in fact had already made massive concessions and were the only parties offering additional cooperation.

All of this was churned up by the really fine, thought-provoking Harold Meyerson column I quoted from at the top of this post. Meyerson advances the proposition that we Americans, like our chief international partners in union-hating, the Chinese, pay a steep price for this, and in the economic meltdown the bill has come due. I have too much respect for Meyerson's argument to try to "highlight" it. So here it is in full:

The Dysfunctional Duo

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, February 18, 2009; A13

We are hemorrhaging jobs just now, but by historic standards, unemployment may look a little low. The official unemployment rate (which understates actual unemployment, to be sure) is at 7.6 percent, a far cry from the 10 percent-plus during the downturn of the early 1980s. In those years, Midwestern manufacturing shed more jobs than it is shedding today. Where's the comparable unemployment now?

It's out there, and then some. Only, it's in East Asia. We've offshored it.

In China, where exports dropped 17.5 percent in January, tens of thousands of factories have closed, and the government estimates that 20 million migrant workers -- rural Chinese who moved to manufacturing zones for the work -- have lost their jobs. Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan all project declines in their gross domestic products this year.

The problem is that East Asia is one big export platform, and its mega-importer -- the United States -- has stopped buying. If the emblematic image of the Great Depression was that of Americans lined up for bread or living in urban shantytowns, the signature image of the current collapse is the acres of Japanese-made cars gathering dust in the immense parking lots abutting the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors. According to Morgan Stanley economists, exports account for 47 percent of the output of East Asia's developing economies. Here in the United States, consumption accounted for more than 70 percent of our GDP on the eve of our consumer meltdown.

The solution for East Asia, and China in particular, is to change its economic strategy. Instead of relying so heavily on exports, China will have to increase its domestic consumption. It will have to invest in upgrading its infrastructure and establish social insurance programs so that its citizens, instead of hoarding money, will be able to spend more. It will have to allow wage levels to rise, creating a more stable domestic market for its goods.

Devising a successful economic strategy for the United States is a good deal trickier. When our economic elites offshored much of our manufacturing sector to East Asia and other cheap-labor lands, and took arms against union labor here at home, they ensured that most of the American jobs created over the past quarter-century would come in retail and service sectors that paid less than manufacturing. Every year for the past couple of decades, we've added lots more sales-clerk, cashier and fast-food jobs than we've created in high technology or energy. Yet Americans have been able to maintain middle-class living standards -- not through rising income but through rising debt, available to us because China has funneled the immense revenue it amassed selling us goods back to us in the form of loans that we can no longer repay.

At the center of the global meltdown, then, is the misshapen economic codependency of the United States and China. Each has followed a fundamentally unstable economic model, with one nation suppressing wages so that it could export more and the other living on borrowed funds so that it could purchase more. Despite the sharply different roles that each nation carved for itself, though, a shared characteristic allowed them to chart their ultimately disastrous course.

What do the United States and China have in common? They are the only two major economic powers that are resolutely hostile to unions. In China, any unions not controlled by the state are outlawed, which is why so many protests about unpaid wages and the like take the form of riots; there's no legal way to enforce workers' rights. In the United States for the past 30 years, business has been implacably opposed to labor, routinely violating the National Labor Relations Act rather than permitting employees to join unions.

Over the past few years, as global alliances of unions have begun to win agreements with global corporations, there's been one major impediment to such accords. "I always look at the percentage of a company's revenues from two nations, China and the U.S.," says Ron Oswald of the International Union of Food Workers, "in deciding whether to push for an international agreement." That's what happens when worker organizing is all but forbidden.

But suppose that China and the United States did have powerful unions. In China, such unions might have pushed for higher wages, social insurance and more domestic consumption. Here, such unions would have preserved more of a manufacturing sector and boosted wages in the service and retail sectors, so that American consumers could have relied more on income than on credit to make their purchases. The two nations would have had more sustainable economic strategies. And the world economy might not now be plunging into what, so far, appears to be a bottomless pit.

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At 7:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I grew up listening to my older sisters play and sing union maid. One of those sisters became a teacher and the first meetings for the Philadelphia teachers union were held at our house. My 19 year old daughter just went to a conference for college activists in LA. She came back to school and wants to spend time working for a union

Most Americans haven't connected the dots yet.They have heard all the bullshit from the right and they don't understand that unions have served as a reminder to management that you have to treat people fairly. Right before I got laid off, the people who worked in one of that companies warehouses were trying to unionize. Why? because they hadn't had a real raise in 3 years even though those at the top got raises and huge bonuses. Bain capital who owned the company and notorious for union busting ,decided to close the warehouse. laying off 150 people. They turned around and opened a new warehouse 150 miles away.

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Neo Tuxedo said...

I really don't understand what it is with Americans and labor unions. Is it simply yet another effect of the chokehold the Right has gained over the American mis-education system?

That and the noise machine. Even before it got organized as the Powell Memorandum suggested, it was beating the "unions = Communism" drum to the point of puncture.

At 1:29 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Some of the smartest and most committed progressives I know are working for unions now, and I hope they can make a dent in this ghastly reflexive anti-union climate we live in.

It's nice to be among friends! Thanks, Lee and Neo T. And Neo, you're right of course about the reinforcement power of the noise machine.



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