Sunday, February 26, 2017
Unions, Workers and Government
In 1768, journeymen tailors went on strike in New York to protest a wage reduction. And so the labor movement, in what was soon to become the United States of America, began. The formal beginning of American unions can be traced to shoemakers in Philadelphia in 1794 with the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers. The union movement accelerated in the nineteenth century, but while routinized labor in factories exploded, most unions were focused on the most skilled of the lot. The late nineteenth century erupted into armed assaults between unionized workers and big companies who hired goons to break the back of this growing labor movement.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded in 1886, based on an amalgamation of Marxist socialism and a desire to balance a new labor market – which fueled the industrial revolution – against the rise of mega-capitalism and monopolistic conspiracies at the top of the American business ladder. By World War I, ten percent of our work force was unionized, but the movement was accelerating. Unions had begun to move away from raw socialism to using their political clout to promote sympathetic candidates, but the outbreak of the WWI stalled the union movement, which still favored the highly skilled workers over the ordinary workers in the giant factors.
Later, the Great Depression slammed into the labor movement. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) arose to protect the ordinary factory workers, moving into steel manufacturing, coal mining, tire and rubber manufacturing, and other comparable industries. The New Deal redefined the American workplace as the nation struggled to right a very severely listing economic ship. World War II reignited economic growth that continued after the hostilities had ceased. But when the war ended, there were 12 million American trade unionists.
Labor laws were developed, the National Labor Relations Act was enacted and the National Labor Relations Board created, as unions became a powerful political force in every aspect of American politics. The civil rights movement was enabled by candidates supported by powerful unions. In 1955, the AFL and the CIO merged into one massive union organization. Half a century ago, a third of American workers were members of unions, but times have changed. One in ten workers is a member of a union today, heavily concentrated in the public sector, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that a mere 6.3% of American workers in the private sector are union members today. What happened?
According to History.com: “From the early 1970s onward, new competitive forces swept through the heavily unionized industries, set off by deregulation in communications and transportation, by industrial restructuring, and by an unprecedented onslaught of foreign goods. As oligopolistic and regulated market structures broke down, nonunion competition spurted, concession bargaining became widespread, and plant closings decimated union memberships. The once-celebrated National Labor Relations Act increasingly hamstrung the labor movement; an all-out reform campaign to get the law amended failed in 1978. And with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, there came to power an anti-union administration the likes of which had not been seen since the Harding era. Between 1975 and 1985, union membership fell by 5 million. In manufacturing, the unionized portion of the labor force dropped below 25 percent, while mining and construction, once labor’s flagship industries, were decimated. Only in the public sector did the unions hold their own. By the end of the 1980s, less than 17 percent of American workers were organized, half the proportion of the early 1950s.”
As unions faded from power in private industry, the issues that were once covered by collective bargaining either were relegated to hi-tech industries that simply paid well and provided good benefits simply to get the best possible workers or were pretty much left to dangle in the wind, hoping that government could step in and provide the relevant safety nets and benefit protections. Until the 2016 election, socialism, often equated with Soviet-era communism, was a dirty word in the United States, even as that notion found traction globally post-WWII, even among our European allies.
But government protection for workers, from occupational safety and working conditions to retirement and medical plans, moved from overall union protection to the government itself. Pro-business versus pro-labor movements ebbed and flowed depending on which party was in power. Wage protection all but fell by the wayside. The current federal minimum wage, a very paltry $7.25/hour, was last set in 2009. Many states set local minima that are higher, but the debate over raising the federal rate was one of the many dividing lines in the 2016 election.
Despite the populist forces – including many of the working class, often unionized, displaced by foreign competition, changing consumer demands, relatively minor impacts from federal regulations and automation, bringing a virtual house-cleaning election of state and federal Republicans to power – the pendulum is swinging wide and far away from governmental benefits and protections for working class Americans. More than ever, those with old world blue-collar skills are left with little or no-one to speak for their cause. Republicans believe in simply unleashing market forces to fix the labor market, and Democrats have yet to develop any focused, realistic and concrete plans to reemploy this market segment into higher paying jobs.
Even the notion of equal pay for equal work between men and women has become bitterly polarized as the above February 17th letter to the local Wasatch Wave (Utah) newspaper, from one of the two local party chairmen in Wasatch County, explains. The changes in global economic and political forces, the impacts generated by climate change in agriculture and water availability and the impact of artificial intelligence/automation have changed and will continue to change and redefine our labor market with hype-accelerating devastation… and opportunity.
There are no easy answers, but I see nothing on the horizon from either major American party (or major faction of such party) that even begins to deal effectively with the changes in the American labor landscape in a way to negate growing income inequality and political polarization. We are no longer simply a house divided; we are a house cracking apart at the seams. I no longer see “Americans,” but “___________ - Americans,” focusing on the differences and avoiding facing reality with concrete plans and viable social compromises. Unless we start reuniting and get real, this simply isn’t going to end well. We really need to start caring about each other.
I’m Peter Dekom, and to begin even thinking about the Re-United States of America, we need to spend a whole lot more time listening to those opposing points of view that we find distasteful with an eye to understanding the other perspectives.