If you don’t know Gordon Lafer, you should. He’s an associate professor at the University of Oregon, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, and in 2009-10 was a Senior Labor Policy Adviser to the House of Representatives. He’s also one of the leading experts in the country on the labor movement and labor politics. I asked him over the weekend to comment on a new report, just out in the American Sociological Review, that’s getting a lot of play in the media. This is what he had to say.
Last week a new report came out showing that economic inequality is largely caused by not enough people having unions. For a dry statistical study, this one got a remarkable amount of press—with everyone from the New York Times to Salon to Daily Kos weighing in. Even Science Daily ran a story.
The findings aren’t new—the question is what to do about them.
But these stories all have a weird quality.
Obviously, people are paying attention to this because the country’s going down, and we all know that one way or another we’re going to have to take something back from the rich if things are going to get better.
But none of these stories end by calling for support of current organizing drives, or for Obama to support organizing even in the ways that the administration can do unilaterally. Instead, they all tiptoe around these obvious conclusions and then back away, content simply to give articulate descriptions of the country’s demise. In part, this represents the triumph of right-wing propaganda.
For decades, the right has been hawking the line that unions are anachronistic and Americans just don’t like them anymore. Despite the seriousness of this year’s Tea Party-fueled attacks, the right is wrong.
The same facts these professors proved with statistics are understood by non-academics just by looking around at the job market. And people are not stupid. Polls show that about 40 million non-union workers wish they had a union at work. Whatever the right may say about the culture of individualism, the truth is that Americans still want collective power in the workplace.
The popular desire for unions is almost entirely invisible because it’s not translated into actual new unions being organized—though 40 million may want a union, less than 100,000 people a year are able to get one through the current Labor Board process. But this doesn’t reflect a lack of interest on the part of workers. Rather, it reflects the lengths to which employers go to stop them from getting a union—and thus the seriousness with which employers still take the threat of unions.
The decline of unions is primarily due to two things. First, employers systematically and aggressively punish those who try to organize. Every year, close to 20,000 American workers are fired, demoted or otherwise financially penalized for union activism. Second, the process workers have to go through to form a union is heavily stacked against employees, and would be condemned as undemocratic if practiced in any foreign country.
These problems are not a fact of nature or an immutable characteristic of the globalized economy. They are simply laws and regulations, and could be changed through normal politics.
Oddly enough, some on the left seem to be joining the corporate right in declaring that unionization is irrelevant. Smart bosses have long practiced the line that unions might have been great for sweatshop workers and turn-of-the-century coal miners but have no place in the modern economy. Their voices are now complemented by people like Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum, who notes the impact of deunionization but declares it a lost cause: “Mass unionization is gone, and it’s not coming back,” Drum tells us. “This means we still need something to take its place, and we still don’t have it. Until we do, the progressive movement will continue to tread water.”
It’s possible that Drum’s historical vision will turn out to be right—it’s certainly hard to be optimistic right now. But why pick this time to preemptively declare defeat? There is certainly no easier path waiting for us. Whatever alternative might take the place of unions will face no less ferocious opposition from the business class. And the corporate lobbies clearly think unionization is still sufficiently potent that it’s worth pouring tens of millions of dollars into preventing their employees from organizing. In this context—and with no alternative plan—Drum’s declaration functions as an invitation for lefty intellectuals to feel justified in doing nothing while they float around in the pool.
The truth is that there is no physical, economic or historical reason to declare unions a thing of the past. Millions of manufacturing jobs have been lost due to global trade, and most are not coming back. But manufacturing only accounts for about 15% of the economy. The rest of the economy includes big industries that are immobile and profitable enough to pay decent wages—health care, education, construction, tourism, transportation, mining, agriculture, real estate, even a lot of retail. This is the economy that’s not susceptible to globalization and where most Americans make their living. There is no natural or economic reason that these workers couldn’t form unions and these jobs couldn’t be better paying.
The corporate lobbies are aware of this—and that’s why they are pouring big resources into preventing even modest improvements in workers’ ability to organize at the workplace.
Most recently, the National Labor Relations Board has proposed making a few small changes to the rules governing how workers can form unions—changes that would make it easier to organize, and would make the process look more like elections to Congress and less like the phony elections of totalitarian regimes abroad.
The corporate counterattack has been predictably ferocious. Calling the proposed changes a “blatant attempt to give unions the upper hand,” the US Chamber of Commerce announced it will file suit to block the rules from going into effect. Congressional Republicans moan that the changes will drive jobs out of the country.
What these corporate whores are really opposed to, of course, is not some bureaucratic policy change but the awful prospect of regular old Americans actually having a bit of power. As Republican Congressman Jeff Landry explained to Fox News, the new rules are like putting “a big old sign out in America that says ‘Listen, employers beware – employees will run your company!’”
From his mouth to God’s ear.
But if the specter of organized workers is powerful enough to trouble corporate lawyers and Fox talking heads, it should be enough to stop those on the left from taking early retirement to their armchairs.