Opinion

Modern Union Busting, and the Decline of the Middle Class

By Larry J. Schweiger

 

Workers in slaughterhouses, frontline bus drivers, transit operators, and essential grocery store clerks did their jobs during this past month. Many faithfully showed up to work despite not having proper protection measures, adequate healthcare coverage, or decent living wages. Far too many are now paying the price. “Workers of every stripe are supporting the sick, the isolated, and the vulnerable. Even in the face of this emergency, working people are showing no crisis is too great, and no task is too small.” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently spoke on a March 19 Facebook telecast: “Our values are needed more today and more than ever before.” Once the immediate pandemic crisis has run its course, Trumka said, “We can rebuild America. 

In response to widespread COVID-19 outbreaks at thirteen meat-producing operations, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, and ordered slaughterhouse workers, sick or not, back on the job while relieving the meat-producing corporations from liability. More concerned with his re-election than the health of workers, Trump has also been encouraging governors who are ignoring CDC benchmarks to reopen prematurely. Trump and many governors are forcing workers off unemployment compensation back to work with inadequate safeguards, including masks, gloves, testing, and contact tracing. He has refused to use the same Defense Production Law that gives government sweeping powers to dramatically ramp up the manufacturing capacity of masks, swabs, and test kits to be able to produce widespread and timely testing because he does not want voters to know how bad things are. Economist Robert Reich explained “Trump’s actions regarding re-opening the national economy to a chilling four-point plan: Remove income support, so people have no choice but to return to work; hide the facts; pretend it’s about “freedom”; and shield businesses against lawsuits for spreading the infection.” The coronavirus did not cause a myriad of workplace injustices; it merely brought them into sharp focus. 

Just after the first Earth Day when millions of Americans protested and demanded corporations stop polluting the air and waters, Milton Friedman in apparent response to the public demands, published an article in the New York Times on September 13, 1970, asserting the sole purpose of a firm is to make money for its shareholders. Full stop. Friedman’s article claimed executives who pursued any goal other than making money (like caring for workers’ health and safety or addressing pollution) were “unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.” He said they were guilty of “analytical looseness and lack of rigor,” turning themselves into “unelected government officials” who were illegally taxing employers and customers. For this economic drivel, Friedman won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976. More importantly, his economic theory found a home on Wall Street. Corporate culture has shifted to become laser-focused on quarterly returns and stock prices as the compensation measure for rewarding CEO’s. 

Oligopolistic behemoths see organized labor as a serious threat to their profits and have successfully attacked labor with crippling state laws and through conservative courts decisions. Increasing corporate profits by keeping workers down, and wages low has been vital element of corporate strategy in recent decades following Friedman’s admonition. 

Historically, organized labor has been a vital force for numerous progressive changes and has been a driving force building a vibrant middleclass. The American labor movement has been systematically targeted, and as a result, it has dramatically contracted in recent decades. Now, unions struggle to be relevant as wages have flattened, and healthcare and pensions disappeared. More than ever, labor unions must be well-resourced to be able stand up for workers in the face of the rapid corporatization of America.

In recent years, monopolistic practices of buying up competition have been great for executives, and shareholders, and very bad for almost everyone else, including our struggling capitalistic system. They have an outsized influence in elections aimed at keeping regulations down, and to promote self-serving policies like a flat tax that disproportionately advantaged the wealthy. David Leonhardt wrote a piece on November 25, 2018, New York Times entitled “The Monopolization of America” explains: “In one industry after another, big companies have become more dominant (in their markets) over the past 15 years, new data show … They hold down wages because where else are workers going to go? They use their resources to sway government policy. Many of our economic ills—like income stagnation and a decline in entrepreneurship—stem partly from corporate gigantism.” Sooner or later, crony capitalists and monopolistic corporations will jack prices as we have seen in the pharmaceutical and airline industries 

Mega-wealthy libertarians like Koch have enjoyed an unprecedented upward spiral in wealth. To maintain status, they invest in efforts aimed at crippling unions. Corporate elites also enlisted conservative politicians, and conservative talking heads to carry out a coordinated stratagem to suppress labor unions. The nature of a strike can at times include some drama. Russ Limbaugh labeled protestors “union thugs.” (Not surprisingly, Limbaugh has been silent about the armed and masked terrorists who raided the Michigan State Capitol to overthrow stay-at-home-orders intended to control the pandemic.) Limbaugh and the other right-wing talking heads have long been breeding discontent and skepticism among truckers and other blue-collar workers, and they have aimed at more conservative union members, focusing on coal miners, steelworkers, and other workers whose jobs will change with the climate crisis and clean energy policies. 

In 2016, corporate PACs and other political investments yielded six times the amount donated by labor. Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, warned that labor is “so overshadowed by corporation’s and billionaire’s money. The labor stuff is pathetic in comparison.” The intensity of efforts to undermine labor unions has dramatically expanded with much success. Since 2009 for the first time, Americans now increasingly see labor in a more negative light. 

David Madland and Karla Walter prepared a paper for July 2010 for the Center of American Progress Action Fund entitled, “Why Is the Public Suddenly Down on Unions? Labor unions, like any other institution led by humans, may have had their share of issues over the years. Despite failings, they have historically been the most influential counterweight to the heavy hand of corporate money. Currently, 117 million private-sector workers and 21 million public sector workers are under severe pressure. The number of unionized workers has dramatically contracted in recent decades with a concurrent decline of the middleclass. Organized labor has fallen from about 25% of the private workforce to about 6.5%. Now the private and public sector unions are nearly identical in size with 7.6 million members versus 7.2 million. For labor, and for much of the disappearing middle class, the stakes in this struggle are high. No one should be surprised that the wealthy are getting wealthier while workers receive crumbs. 

As a recent example of their strategy, anti-union groups set their sights on home-healthcare workers as one of the fastest-growing professions in the country, but also one of the lowest-paid jobs. A Michigan law banned paycheck deductions from home-healthcare workers. Trump followed with a Department of Health and Human Services rule banning union dues deduction from home-healthcare workers’ Medicaid-funded paychecks. The SEIU Healthcare Michigan experienced an 84 percent drop in membership and a 74 percent drop in revenue.

Influenced by Trump’s hot rhetoric and empty promises, far too many low-information workers voted for Trump in 2016 despite his long and well-documented history of abusing workers on job sites. Trump has consistently opposed their interests as a private-sector employer repeatedly braking contracts and abandoning promises. Despite Trump’s corporate practices that were hostile to labor, many workers have naively supported Trump. Some have even supported “right to work” laws to avoid paying union dues. 

Since 1981, a well-coordinated state-by-state effort has undermined unions through so-called “Right to Work” laws. These laws diminish union revenues and prevent them from being an effective counter-current to the dominant corporate politics aimed at keeping wages and benefits low. Labor’s influence has been declining as “right to work for less” laws are now in force in 26 states, including Michigan of all places. Arizona went so far as to add “right to work” to its Constitution. Such laws strip unions of the right to collect dues from all workers even in shops where workers voted to require dues payments. Senator Rand Paul has introduced the National Right to Work Act to make paying union dues optional. Senator Paul does not care that forty percent of Americans make less than $15 an hour, and essential workers cannot afford even a $400 bill for medicine during a pandemic.

Richard Trumka is right. We must rebuild America. Once again, organized labor needs to be at the forefront of a progressive movement to create safe working environments, fair wages, health care, and retirement benefits. Ending unjust “Right to Work” laws can be an essential step towards addressing the enormous inequities of a run-away capitalistic system laid bare by the pandemic. By fusing environmental, labor, faith, and other forward-minded organizations in common cause, we must take steps to correct a system that has bent not towards justice as Martin Luther King Jr. had hoped, but to toward extreme greed of the one percent.

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