Monday, February 21, 2011


In 1979, a movie about a union organizer in a North Carolina textile mill won nine Academy Awards and was a huge box office hit. Some 30 years later, unions have been so demonized I wonder if "Norma Rae" would even sell 10 tickets if it were released today?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot in the past few years: when did unions become the bad guys? We’ve all heard the stereotypes about “union thugs” and corruption, a narrative so firmly embedded in the American consciousness that conservative activists like Phil Parlock have capitalized on the shifting attitudes for political gain. I’ve always wondered how unions went from American hero to zero in one generation.

Andrew Leonard’s interview with author/labor historian/Georgetown University professor Joseph McCartin touches on this very topic. Leonard asks the “what changed” question. McCartin responds:
A lot of this was really produced by the events of the last few years. There was a tremendous loss in the stock market that left a lot of pension funds looking underfunded, and that set off a lot of alarms in people. Now I'm not going to say that there aren't some workers in some places that have gotten some pensions that aren't really fully justifiable but that is different than saying that the whole principle of collective bargaining is wrong.

But an even more important factor is basically a 20- or 30-year period of failure in the private sector. What we are really looking at here is a private sector that for quite a long time now has not generated a lot of rising income for the great majority. It has not generated stable benefits for its workers, it has not generated increasing retirement security -- in fact we've had income stagnation or decline, we've had rising indebtedness, we've had growing insecurity for retirement. The private sector has failed on a massive level. And the tenuous position that so many American workers find themselves in as a result of that now makes it suddenly appear that public sector workers are just living off the fatted calf. I think some of it has to do quite simply with the way in which so many nongovernment workers have been suffering, and legitimately so. You can go to those folks and say: Why are you paying for the pension of the guy down the street? You don't have one!

That seems to be a real political liability for public sector unions.

It is a real liability, but it is liability that is not the result of union munificence, or that came from squeezing the taxpayers; it is a liability that basically flows from the fact that the private sector has done so poorly at creating a really broad growing thriving middle class in the past 20 years. And without a broad growing, thriving middle class, government workers are increasingly isolated and increasingly under threat and it is easy to play the dynamic this way, unfortunately for them.

In short, capitalism has failed a large segment of the American population, and conservatives have successfully laid the blame on unions. How they did that is a neat trick, but I think corporate interests in the guise of the GOP have been selling anti-union Kool Aid for decades, so it's no surprise some of it started to stick. These days we've got “right to work” states and anti-minimum wage movements and the current spate of anti-collective bargaining initiatives in places like Wisconsin and Tennessee, and yet the glorious free hand of the market still hasn't righted things. Indeed, it's made things worse.

The result is resentment and jealousy directed at those people who have what I don’t have. Instead of directing their anger where it belongs -- the wealthy and powerful who enjoy the lowest taxes in the Western world who have pulled the ladders up to keep out the riff-raff -- conservatives are resentful of the people with the crappy jobs who were able to secure some very modest concessions over years of negotiating -- and renegotiating, and renegotiating. The history of unions is nothing if not a history of reneged deals.

Somehow folks think if they work hard enough they’ll be bazillionaires like the Koch Brothers, not realizing the Koch Brothers have stacked the deck against them. I mean Jesus, it's not like people aren't working hard now. I know people with four jobs. They're barely treading water. There's no getting ahead when you are saddled with healthcare debt, or can't get a job because your credit score isn't high enough or because you're unemployed, which takes the cake for stupid reasons not to hire someone. We are fast headed to a country with a permanent underclass and a permanent ruling class, and no movement betwixt the two.

Yes, somehow jealousy and resentment has convinced some people that their solution is to hand their power over to those who will never give them a place at the table. It's quite baffling, really, how the wealthiest and most powerful interests managed to convince those lower down on the ladder that they should accept a less equitable arrangement. I really don't get it, but then women tend to understand these things more easily anyway. We're always being asked by society to give up our power to someone else. We're always being told our priorities and issues are less important and we're somehow deserving of less. So naturally we're suspicious when some rich asshole drives up in his limousine and tells us that we should accept lower wages and pay higher taxes than he does, just 'cuz. Being asked to accept inequality is something most of us women find a little reprehensible. And we know when we're being sold a shit sandwich.

I've linked to this Financial Times article from last summer before, but I'm going to do it again. Here we go:

Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French chronicler of early America, was once misquoted as having said: “America is the best country in the world to be poor.” That is no longer the case. Nowadays in America, you have a smaller chance of swapping your lower income bracket for a higher one than in almost any other developed economy – even Britain on some measures. To invert the classic Horatio Alger stories, in today’s America if you are born in rags, you are likelier to stay in rags than in almost any corner of old Europe.

Combine those two deep-seated trends with a third – steeply rising inequality – and you get the slow-burning ­crisis of American capitalism. It is one thing to suffer grinding income stagnation. It is another to realise that you have a diminishing likelihood of escaping it – particularly when the fortunate few living across the proverbial tracks seem more pampered each time you catch a glimpse. “Who killed the American Dream?” say the banners at leftwing protest marches. “Take America back,” shout the rightwing Tea Party demonstrators.

Statistics only capture one slice of the problem. But it is the renowned Harvard economist, Larry Katz, who offers the most compelling analogy. “Think of the American economy as a large apartment block,” says the softly spoken professor. “A century ago – even 30 years ago – it was the object of envy. But in the last generation its character has changed. The penthouses at the top keep getting larger and larger. The apartments in the middle are feeling more and more squeezed and the basement has flooded. To round it off, the elevator is no longer working. That broken elevator is what gets people down the most.”

CNN recently covered this issue in its "Rise Of The Super Rich" piece, and included a neat little chart:

Admit it, folks. This is why you are angry. Not at some public school teacher who earns $50,000 a year but if you include their union-negotiated benefits and pension it sounds like a whole lot more, while the guy selling this resentment tea has a personal net worth of $27 $21.5 billion.

You're pissed because capitalism has failed. For the past 25 years 90 percent of us have been working harder to stay in the same place, while a very small group of people have surged ahead thanks to policies which keep everyone else down. Everyone else has seen the American Dream slip away.