What We Mean by a Fair Shake: Part I. Unions Are the U.S. Economy’s Polar Ice

The 98% of scientists who have been warning of climate change that is perilously close to becoming irreversible have pointed repeatedly to the rapidly shrinking polar ice caps. Unfortunately, “global warming” predated “climate change” as the term for this crisis. So, despite considerable video evidence of the ice sheets sliding into the sea, if it snows more than six inches several times over the course of a given winter, too many Americans feel free to dismiss the crisis as something fabricated by “radical environmentalists.”

Unfortunately, much the same sort of irrational leap has shaped too many Americans’ attitudes toward unions. Over the past three to four decades, the size, composition, and influence of American unions has dramatically changed, reflecting some major changes in the American economy and causing other equally dramatic changes. Although some union leaders have clung too long to dated postures and rhetoric, most have clearly adjusted their priorities and adapted their strategies to current conditions and in anticipation of future realities. But, in striking contrast, those who seek to eliminate unions entirely continue to rely on much the same postures and rhetoric that were used by opponents of unions during their heyday. That incongruity should in itself be reason for progressive political leaders and American workers to reconsider their attitudes toward unions.

And it seems more than a simple coincidence that those who remain most vehemently anti-union are often those most dismissive of climate change.

It is not a coincidence that, between 1945 and 1975, 35% to 40% of American workers belonged to unions, and working-class Americans were lifted into the middle-class. Gains in wages and benefits made by unionized workers were passed on to non-unionized workers for several reasons. Because of the devastation caused by World War II, American industries faced very little overseas competition. At the same time, the size of the American workforce had been constricted by the low birthrates throughout the extended economic depression of the 1930s. Moreover, the need to provide jobs for the 16 million soldiers, sailors, and airmen demobilized after World War II combined with the “baby boom” that followed the war to keep most women out of the workforce and to restrict working women to very limited segments of the workforce. And continued racial segregation and restrictive immigration policies meant that most racial minorities in the U.S. remained economically marginalized.  Because American industry was booming and the workforce was constricted, there was intense competition for workers. That competition for workers and the strength of the industrial unions led to legislative and judicial protections of unions and workers’ rights. Those protections paralleled governmental controls on many industries and other economic sectors, controls that were in part an extension of governmental controls imposed during wartime and in part a more lingering extension of the controls imposed during the 1930s to prevent the sort of risky business and financial practices that had led to the Great Depression.

Around 1975, almost all of these conditions began to change very suddenly and rapidly. The extended reconstruction following World War II had actually provided the nations of Europe and the Pacific Rim with infrastructure advantages that, in combination with their relatively low-wage labor forces, allowed their industries to become increasingly competitive with American industries. At the same time, the dissolution of the European colonial empires meant that many new “Third World” nations were struggling to transform themselves from providers of raw materials into producers of higher-value finished goods. Domestically, the “baby boomers” began to enter the workforce at the same time as the Civil Rights and Feminist movements opened greater economic opportunities to racial minorities and women. In addition, the end of the American involvement in Indochina spurred increased immigration from Asia, and the rapidly expanding urban centers of the Southwest attracted greater legal and illegal immigration from Latin America. Because American industries were suddenly facing overseas competition, there was great pressure to begin deregulating those industries to increase their flexibility in meeting new challenges. Part of that deregulation involved reducing some of the safeguards provided to unionized workers. It did not help the cause of the large industrial unions that the corruption in the leadership of other large unions, most notably the Teamsters and the United Mine Workers, was exposed very publicly. But far worse than overseas competition, changing demographics, and scandals that damaged the unions’ public image, the rapid developments in computer technologies and the corresponding advancements in automation meant that the large memberships of the industrial unions were unsustainable. So, the workforce was growing as competition for American workers, particularly unskilled to sem-skilled workers, was declining and as the size and political influence of the large industrial unions was eroding.

Over the past three to four decades, the deregulation of American industry and business has produced an unprecedented but very uneven prosperity. It is no longer practical to speak of a broad middle class that includes most blue-collar and white-collar workers. For the top 10% to 20% of American earners, things have never been better. Their incomes have risen dramatically along with their employment and investment opportunities, For the lowest 10% to 20%, poverty has become a more ingrained and seemingly inescapable condition. The other 60% to 80% of income earners can be divided into three broadly defined groups. The third or so with the highest incomes are generally well educated and  have a good degree of employment security. But their incomes are not rising quite fast enough to offset increases in the cost of living and still allow for increased investments. In sum, they are doing very well, but they can see very clearly how they could be doing better. The middle third or so either are also fairly well educated but employed in fields that are less highly paid or are less educated but employed in still highly paid industries or trades. Their economic security typically depends on their wages and is threatened by the steady increases in costs of living that are outpacing their wages, In times of sustained economic growth, they will feel that they are sharing significantly in the general prosperity, but during economic downturns, they will recognize how perilously close they are to slipping into the bottom third. In fact, the increasing volatility of the economy even during times of prosperity has made this group somewhat permanently uneasy. The bottom third or so have already become, or are rapidly becoming, accustomed to dramatically lowered expectations. They are typically undereducated and employed in relatively low-wage and no-benefit jobs that provide little employment or economic security. They or their parents may have been employed in relatively high-paying jobs in manufacturing or mining. During the 2000s as employment in manufacturing and mining continued to plummet, many of them found good-paying jobs in construction. But with the collapse of both the housing and commercial real estate markets, most of these workers have become employed in low-wage sectors such as low-skill medical care, retail sales, food services, local trucking, or the fastest growing sector, warehousing. Ironically, the availability of low-priced consumer goods through the big-box retailers that directly or indirectly employ many of these workers is just about the only thing that has allowed them to maintain the illusion that they are middle-class.

Looking at just the middle 60% to 80% of income earners, each third has reasons for not being actively supportive of unions. Many in the top third may feel that unions have nothing to offer them. They have enough economic security to be unaware of or dismissive of the economic insecurities of those with lower incomes. Many in the middle third may feel that unions cannot practically improve their circumstances and might possibly undermine whatever economic security that they do have. And the bottom third includes many workers whose previous jobs could not be protected by the unions to which they then belonged and who would face major obstacles in trying to form unions in their current workplaces. (Indeed, hiring through temp agencies means that even those with relatively regular employment often frequently shift workplaces.). Many of the workers in this bottom third are deeply embittered, deeply skeptical, or completely apathetic toward unionization.

Not surprisingly, the most vocal critics of unions have relied on charges against unions that have served to reinforce and heighten workers’ antipathy toward unions—very often against their own economic self-interest. Beyond tying unions to support for progressive social issues that antagonize more conservative workers, the opponents of unions have turned twelve core charges against unions into truisms that have not be challenged as relentlessly and as effectively as they have been disseminated.

First, opponents of unions have continued to portray unions as being as powerful as corporations.

Second, they continue to attribute every failure of a unionized business to the failure of the unions to accommodate management needs or to acquiesce to management demands.

Third, they have continued to assert that current legislation and governmental regulation consistently and unfairly favor unions and union organizers over company interests.

Fourth, they have continued to caricature union leaders as privileged “bosses” who no longer share the values or understand the needs of their members.

Fifth, they have asserted that any erosion of workers’ wages and benefits, as well as the increasing lack of any employment security, is a necessary response to market forces.

Sixth, they have defended unprecedented increases in the compensation awarded to upper-management as an equally necessary but somehow completely unrelated response to market forces.

Seventh, they have argued that in off-loading the cost of basic benefits onto workers, they have freed up corporate resources tin order to become bigger “job-providers,” and they have, in the process, reinforced the core American value of “personal responsibility.”

Eighth, they have contended that a workplace unencumbered by regulation is an environment in which any exploitation of some workers will be offset by the new opportunities for the great majority of workers to realize the greatest possible advancement in their careers and their fullest earning potential.

Ninth, they have vilified unionized workers as being unfairly privileged in comparison to “average” workers.

Tenth, they have argued that unionized shops unfairly restrict the rights of employees who do not wish to join the unions.

Eleventh, they have claimed that unions have singularly corrupted our political process in order to protect the political allies of their “bosses” while violating the political values of their ordinary members.

Twelfth, and lastly, they have continued to describe unions in loaded terms that date back to the Cold War. Although terms such as “socialist” and “communist” may no longer be clearly understood by many Americans, they still carry a negative resonance, the connotation that unions are at their core unduly influenced by foreign ideologies and therefore antithetical to fundamental American values.

Not surprisingly, these arguments have been repeated for decades by corporate-supported groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, groups that have had little or nothing to say about the widening income inequality among all classes of earners, about the corporate abuses of basic workplace and environmental safeguards made possible by deregulation, and about the greatly diminished possibility of achieving the “American Dream” for an dramatically increasing percentage of American workers and their families. Indeed, having reduced the wages and eliminated the benefits of about 40% of American wage earners, the most vocal critics of unions have also sought effectively to eliminate the entitlement programs that will sustain that 40% of workers at just the most basic level through their retirements. Even more cynically, they have proposed the privatization of those entitlements so that the private sector that has very literally squeezed profits from those workers throughout their working lives can continue to profit from them in their retirement years.

In future posts in this series, I will attempt to address each of the twelve core charges that continue to be made against unions, with very little if any evidence to support them. Despite this lack of substantive supporting evidence, as the corporatization of colleges and universities has increased, all of them have directly or indirectly become part of the dialogue on shared governance at our institutions (that is, wherever such dialogue is, in fact, still occurring). Furthermore, academia is very much a microcosm of what is going on in the broader labor market, and the three broad categories into which the middle class might be divided very much apply to academia, as do the prejudices against unionization that I have attributed to each of those categories of faculty. Consider how difficult it still is to convince faculty at elite institutions that unionization might be in their own and their institutions’ best interests, how hard it still is to engage members at unionized institutions unless there is an undeniable crisis, and how other faculty warily respond when one starts to talk about organizing adjuncts. Across institutions and within our individual institutions, we will always have many divergent interests. But, as Rudy Fichtenbaum has repeatedly pointed out to our chapter leadership ever since our chapter was formed, our divergent interests should not prevent us from focusing on those common interests that we do have and that are well worth protecting.

We may not be able to reverse the polar ice melt, but perhaps we can slow it down and eventually even stop it before all of the ice is gone.

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