From Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains:
If the nation’s health, schools, and prisons, and the world’s climate, are at a watershed moment, so, too, is the U.S. labor force. A large body of research by economists and political scientists over the past two decades has demonstrated that the surging inequality on display in America today is not an inevitable result of impersonal developments such as globalization and new technology, even as these have contributed. Rather, the extremity of our current situation is in good part due to the outsized power of corporations and wealthy donors over our politics and public policy. A case in point: According to the International Monetary Fund, an organization known for decades of draconian fiscal prescriptions, “the decline in unionization is strongly associated with the rise of income shares at the top.” The IMF concluded that the rights of workers to bargain collectively must be restored to slow the growth of inequality and enable economic growth.
Yet the cause is pushing hard in the opposite direction: willful destruction of workers’ ability to organize into unions and negotiate for better wages and conditions. At midcentury, the former slave states of the South led the nation in passing antiunion right-to-work laws, with only a smattering of imitators elsewhere, mostly in places of sparse population. Yet between 2012 and 2016, guided by Buchanan’s ideas and pushed by the Koch-funded organizations ALEX, the SPN, and Americans for Prosperity, four former free states passed such laws: Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.
The new antiunion rules unfurled first by Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin in 2011 are more devilishly lethal in the cumulative impact than anything the cause had theretofore produced…In the new Wisconsin, public employees would no longer be allowed to negotiate working conditions and benefits, only wages (with those held to the rate of inflation). Each contract would be only a year in duration, thus draining staff time and energy away from addressing the concerns of existing members and from organizing new members in order to prepare for now back-to-back annual negotiations. Unions would lose the right to have dues deducted from members’ paychecks and instead have to chase down individuals who did not pay. And, in a final slap, with the unions no longer able to do anything of substance for their members, they would face recertification elections each year. No wonder Walker boasted that “we dropped the bomb.” His approach cut in half, over just five years, the share of public employees who belong to unions.
The combination of hobbling unions and privatizing public services has taken a particular toll on African Americans, who were able to move into the middle class in significant numbers specifically because of measures preventing discrimination in government jobs. “Public employment,” explained the authors of a large interdisciplinary research study on U.S. inequality, “has been the principal source of black mobility, especially for women, and one of the most important mechanisms reducing black poverty.” One recent headline captures the impact succinctly: “Public Sector Jobs Vanish, Hitting Blacks Hard.”…
Professor MacLean wrote this before the Supreme Court’s utterly rotten and cynical decision in the Janus case, with its egregiously unnecessary blow to public service unions.
As I typed this out, the words were glaring as if in a 20K klieg light with one big unstated question: Why? Why would anyone want to cripple unions?
That is not a rhetorical question, nor is it naive. Many years ago, I had a discussion with a friend who at that time was a moderate Republican. The subject of unions came up, if I remember, because of some UAW strike, or threat of strike on Chrysler.
My friend was taking a conventional conservative, i.e., pro-business position: union workers were screwing companies by demanding so much in salary and benefits. They were out of control!
Here is what I told her: Let’s say an autoworker is making $25 an hour, with health and other benefits bringing him up to, oh let’s say, $37 an hour. We’re talking about the skilled workers who make the product that brings in the company’s profits for shareholders.
How much per hour does the company CEO make? And what does he do to earn it? Whatever union workers earn, it is nothing compared to CEOs’ compensation packages.
The idea that unions are bad — unions, individual workers forming groups through which they can negotiate their livelihood and future together, rather than individually, with companies that would otherwise have all the power — never made any business sense to me.
Or, rather, never made anything like an ethical practical point.
As I write this, the Los Angeles teachers (and their union) settled their strike, which was less for raises than for curtailment of L.A.’s metastacizing charter schools, which are stripping public school funding from public schools, for no reason I can perceive except to destroy teachers’ unions.