It’s Harder to Reach the American Dream If You’re Reaching All Alone

Robert Borosage

Read the full report, "Rebuilding the Middle Class Requires Reviving Strong Unions"

Read the full report, “Rebuilding the Middle Class Requires Reviving Strong Unions”

“Hours of chaos” is how the New York Times described the work reality of more and more Americans. It highlighted Jannette Navarra, a Starbucks barista, who is regularly forced to work part-time with fluctuating hours. She usually gets her work schedule three days ahead of the workweek, so she is always scrambling to arrange childcare for her son. Any hope Navarra has of advancing by pursuing a degree is shattered by her inability to schedule classes.

These sorts of lousy jobs are the increasing reality for many American workers. They are labeled “contingent” workers — part-time, temporary, on contract, on call. They generally earn lower wages than fulltime employees, with little or no benefits, and constant insecurity. They now represent one-third, perhaps as much as 40 percent of the workforce.

The Times focused on new technology that allows Starbucks to micromanage worker hours to fit outlet demand. This really isn’t about technology, however. It’s about power. Workers have less power in the workplace in part because of continued high unemployment. When jobs are scarce, workers have learned to accept what they can get.

It’s is also due to the absence of a worker voice on the job because of the virtual disappearance of unions, particularly in the private sector.

No job is inherently marginal. Lousy jobs in places like nonunion Phoenix are middle-class jobs in unionized New York City. Economist Robert Kuttner, writing in The American Prospect, described the very different reality of New York hotel workers, represented by the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union. New York employers, faced with variable demand for rooms, would also want workers to be on-call. But as Kuttner notes, in this case workers have a union to speak up for them. Through tough negotiations the union has guaranteed workers regular hours, decent pay (a housekeeper gets roughly $50,000 a year), paid vacation, pension and health benefits

Commentators often blame globalization and technology for America’s growing inequality and declining middle class. The former forces workers to compete with low-wage workers across the world; the latter displaces low-skilled workers with machines. What is missing in this scenario, however, is the central force behind the creation of America’s middle class — strong, independent unions.

Describing the decline of high-paying jobs without focusing on the decline of unions is like describing why an airplane can’t deliver goods — the runway is too short, the weather is bad — without noting that a major engine is broken.

Evidence of the importance of unions is overwhelming. Due to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, wartime mobilization and the need for “labor peace,” unions came out of World War II representing more than a third of the private labor force. At the workplace, unions negotiated wage, benefit and work standards, helping to spread good pay, pensions, health benefits, paid vacations, and overtime pay across the economy. Non-union employers had to compete with those standards to keep good workers and avoid the threat of organizing.

In the political arena, unions provided a powerful voice for full-employment policies, raising the minimum wage, fair labor standards, Social Security and Medicare, affordable housing, public education, progressive taxes and more. They were an affective counterbalance to corporate lobbies and big money in politics.

For 30 years, America grew together. Wages on the bottom went up faster than those at the top, and a broad middle class was created. Wages rose with productivity — as workers gained a decent share of the profits and efficiency they helped create.

None of this was easy. It took often tough negotiations, strikes, organizing drives and brutal struggles to make progress.

And labor’s victories were far from complete. The South passed laws that made sustaining unions virtually impossible. Seasonal, agricultural and many low wage jobs were left out of protection.

Yet, as unions fared, so fared the middle class. When union membership stalled, and then declined as a percentage of the workforce, the middle class lost ground and the rich captured a far greater percentage of the income growth. Productivity and profits continued to rise, but workers no longer gained a fair share.

America started to grow apart. Today, with less than 7 percent of the private workforce represented by a union, the share of national income going to workers is near record lows. The share going to corporate profits is at record highs.

Yet, for many today, unions are regarded as an outmoded part of an old economy — a horse-drawn buggy in a mach-10 world. But as inequality hits new extremes, and more and more workers are forced into low-wage jobs, this seems risible. The need for workers to have a larger voice at the workplace and in our politics is clear. And workers express the desire to gain representation.

Some attribute the union decline to globalization. It is true that unions flourished when the United States dominated the world coming out of World War II. Once other countries recovered and began to compete, global corporations starting shipping good jobs abroad in search of cheaper labor.

But globalization isn’t an act of nature. Its terms are defined by tax, trade and corporate laws. Germany, among other advanced industrial countries, has strong unions and a strong middle class — while making itself into an export powerhouse.

U.S. unions declined in part because they confronted unrelenting attack by corporations, aided and abetted by conservative politicians. Corporate lobbies largely wrote the rules of globalization. They launched aggressive “right-to-work” campaigns to undermine unions and their leaders. They fought to weaken labor law enforcement at the federal and state level. They used the threat of moving factories to a state with fewer work regulations or abroad against workers looking to organize.

Yet Unions can also bear some of the blame. They devoted too few resources to organizing new workers. Corruption and scandals provided grist for corporate lobbyists. Liberals’ attention focused more on the social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s — civil rights, environmental regulations, women’s rights, antiwar efforts. They didn’t mobilize to defend unions against the political assaults.

As for the New Democrats, this more conservative wing of the party increasingly scorned unions as outmoded in the economy, and unnecessary to the Democratic coalition.

What’s clear is that in today’s workplace, the rules are rigged against workers. Deprived of a voice at work in a high unemployment economy, they have little bargaining power — and corporations are increasingly willing and able to exploit that. This is one reason why median household incomes have fallen in the five years after the Great Recession — even as corporate profits (and CEO pay) have soared to new heights.

Turning this around will take new forms of political organizing. Democrats must once more make empowering workers central to their program.

In Los Angeles, for example, the city government has used its procurement and zoning powers to exact pro-worker jobs agreements with contractors — with decent wages and adherence to fair labor standards.

Meanwhile, new forms of worker organizations will have to be invented to respond to the modern workplace — where workers work at one company but are paid by another, as with many temporary workers. The fast-food walkouts, supported by broad coalitions of community groups, offer an early example.

Rebuilding a broad American middle class will be difficult. One thing is clear, however. We won’t be able to revive widely shared prosperity without strengthening the voice of workers at the workplace and in our politics. What was once scorned as an archaic leftover of an old economy is now clearly a vital ingredient to reviving American democracy – and the American dream.

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