A pro-labor column in a major newspaper? I’d better look out my window and see if pigs are flying down the street. Nope, they’re not! Hell hasn’t frozen over. And hey, monkeys aren’t even coming out of my butt!
In today’s NY Times Joe Nocera writes, in Turning Our Backs on Unions,
In the early postwar years, even the Chamber of Commerce believed that “collective bargaining is a part of the democratic process,” as its then-president noted in a statement.
But, in the late-1970s, union membership began falling off a cliff, brought on by a variety of factors, including jobs moving offshore and big labor’s unsavory reputation. Government didn’t help either:Ronald Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 sent an unmistakable signal that companies could run roughshod over federal laws intended to protect unions — which they’ve done ever since.
…“Draw one line on a graph charting the decline in union membership, then superimpose a second line charting the decline in middle-class income share,” writes Noah, “and you will find that the two lines are nearly identical.” Richard Freeman, a Harvard economist, has estimated that the decline of unions explains about 20 percent of the income gap.
Nocera concludes, “…if liberals really want to reverse income inequality, they should think seriously about rejoining labor’s side.”
Ok, checking again, are monkeys really not flying out of my butt?
OK, this is for real, and people had best pay attention if we want our economy to recover. We have a consumer economy and when regular people have money in their pockets to spend on things, the economy does better. Why is this so hard to get? So why are all of the solutions to the economic downturn based on, as Atrios writes, “free money for banks” instead of helping regular people?
Again, the rich don’t create jobs, we do. And companies want customers, not tax cuts. And this means that we need strong unions pushing to get raises and benefits so working people can start walking through the doors of the businesses again, which will make them hire again, to meet that demand.
Who’s In Charge Here?
We, the People were supposed to be in charge here. The economy was supposed to be for our benefit and we were all supposed to get a slice of that pie we all baked together. But (as always throughout history) wealthy interest were able to dominate, “influence” the lawmakers and enforcers, and grab what they could get for themselves. Our system fell down because it didn’t control the ability of a few wealthy people to gain power over the rest of us.
Unions gave regular working people the power to get the share of the pie that democracy promises. Before unions came along to enforce the promise of democracy working people didn’t get their share of the prosperity that democracy promised. After unions working people did. Before unions we had 12 (or more)-hour workdays, seven days a week. Before unions we had low pay. Before unions we had no benefits. Before unions we certainly didn’t get vacations. Before unions we could be fired for no reason. Before unions a wealthy few were able use their wealth to pay off influence legislators and keep the rules bent in their favor.
Unions organized people into power blocks that forced changes that brought a larger share of the pie to We, the People. Unions are a vital part of the system of democracy because they give regular people the power to confront the wealthy.
Corporations Aren’t The problem — The Rules Are The Problem
One thing Nocera wrote: “Company managements don’t pay workers any more than they have to” — actually, I would change “don’t” to “can’t”. Companies can’t pay workers more than they have to. And they can’t provide health insurance and benefits and good working conditions and all the other things we wish they would do.
Here is what a lot of us don’t get about corporations: it isn’t the corporations that are the problem, it’s the playing field that is the problem. If one corporation can get away with paying its workers less, then they all have to. They don’t have a choice. When one company finds a competitive advantage the rest of the companies have to respond or risk being driven out of business. They really do not have a choice. One company can’t pay better than the others. We, the People have to make them all pay better. It’s called making the rules. We are supposed to be making the rules, not them. And when we are not making the rules, the system stops working.
I think this is so important to understand. To change companies we have to change and enforce the rules that companies operate under. It is up to us to tell them what to do, to lay down the playing field, and then they will compete on that field as it is defined, up to the limits of how it is defined. They have to push to those limits, and they will, they all will, it is what they are wired to do. When we fall down on the job a few can game the system and break it and end up with everything for themselves, and this is what is happening.
It isn’t just that We, the People come out better when we are the ones making the rules, it’s that the system doesn’t work at all unless we are the ones making the rules. When (the owners and managers of) companies are making the rules, the ones with the most money are able to make the rules to benefit them and only them Which is exactly what we are experiencing today.
The economy and the system just don’t work without strong unions to balance the power of the billionaires and the big corporations they hide behind.