The American Dream: The Forgotten Leading Actor

As any veteran of social movements knows, no major social reforms succeed in Washington without strong union support and mobilization.
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When Newt Gingrich maligned our "truly stupid" child labor laws, and suggested that kids 14 and under be put to work cleaning their schools, he sparked the outrage the former Speaker relishes. Less attention was paid to the other casualty of his proposition: "get rid of the unionized janitors."

This is the slur turned to high art -- a little race bait posturing at "poor kids" who, Gingrich tells us, don't work like middle class kids do -- and a shot at "unionized janitors" -- almost by definition overpaid and lazy, whose work could be done by a grade-schooler.

Newt's blistering of child labor protections expresses his own perversity, but his scorn for union workers is a conservative staple. It's been a basic theme for the right since Reagan broke the PATCO strike in 1981, and declared open season on unions for corporate employers.

That assault has been stunningly successful. Globalization gave manufacturers a large club in negotiations -- concessions or jobs get shipped abroad. And often the reality was concession AND jobs got shipped abroad. Corporations perfected techniques, often against the law, to crush organizing drives, and stymie new contracts for the few that succeeded. The National Labor Relations Board, stacked with corporate lobbyists under Republican presidents, turned a blind eye to systematic violations of the law.

So now union workers are down to about 7% of the private workforce. Virtually, the only growing unions are public employees -- teachers, nurses, cops. Not surprisingly, conservative Republican governors -- led by Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Ohio's John Kasich -- used the budget squeeze caused by the Great Recession to go after these unions, combining layoffs with efforts to eviscerate the right of public employees to organize and negotiate.

But if unions remain a prime target of corporate and conservative assaults, they often slighted in progressive and Democratic narratives.

Last week, I had the pleasure of listening to Elizabeth Warren deliver a version of the stump speech she is using in the Massachusetts Senate race. She was sensational -- clear, compelling, human, funny. She knitted her own journey as the daughter of a hard scrabble working family who worked her way up to her passion for defending consumers from the financial flimflam and frauds of Wall Street. She faces a tough race in Massachusetts against the incumbent, but she is the real deal. She will lead any progressive surge in 2012 and deserves everyone's support.

In her speech, Warren described how America built the broad middle class -- and made the American dream real for millions -- after World War II. We educated a generation through the GI bill, subsidized research and development, made college affordable. We invested in basic infrastructure -- exemplified by the interstate highway system launched under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. We shackled finance, with regulations that, in her words, "made banking boring." The gamblers and speculators in investment houses were not allowed to combine with banks carrying federally guaranteed consumer accounts. Progressive taxes featured a top rate of 90%.

During this time, the economy grew and we all grew together. The rich got richer, but so did the middle and working class. In fact, incomes on the bottom grew faster than those on the top, building the broad middle class that was at the heart of what made America exceptional.

Warren then described how this system was dismantled, with the election of Ronald Reagan providing a good marker. Wall Street was deregulated -- and we suffered one banking crisis after another. Investments in infrastructure were starved. Colleges were gradually privatized, with more and more of the costs placed on students. Taxes were lowered on the top end -- and America moved back to extreme inequality that we had not witnessed since 1929.

She tells the story better than I do -- but one striking actor in this play was missing: American trade unions. We emerged from World War II with unions headed towards representing about 30% of the workforce. Fierce struggles with companies were needed to ensure that workers got a fair share of the rewards of their work. Unions were strong enough that non-union employers had to compete for good workers by offering comparable wages. Unions enforced the forty-hour week, and overtime pay, paid vacations, health care and pensions, family wages. Strong unions limited excess in corporate boardrooms, a countervailing power beyond the letter of the contract. As profits and productivity rose, wages rose as well.

When unions were weakened and reduced, all that changed. Productivity and profits continued to rise, but wages did not. The ratio of CEO pay to the average worker pay went from 40 to 1 to over 350 to 1. CEOs were given multimillion-dollar pay incentives to cook their books and merge and purge their companies. Unions were not strong enough to police the excess. America let multinationals define its trade and manufacturing strategy, hemorrhaging good jobs to mercantilist nations like China.

The result was the wealthiest few captured literally all the rewards of growth. And 90% of America struggled to stay afloat with stagnant wages, rising prices, growing debt.

Unions were not the only factor in the rise of the middle class or in its decline. But they surely were central to the story of how the middle class was built and where America went wrong.

Similarly, President Obama's fine speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, detailed the dangers of extreme inequality -- and how it saps both our economy and suborns our democracy. He boldly challenged the conservative ideas and ideology that helped to create that inequality. He talked about how we faced the same challenge in the Gilded Age at the dawn of the 20th Century. And how Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, challenged the great trusts, calling for busting up monopolies, protecting child labor, policing unsafe food and medicine. "We're a richer nation and stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight hour day and a minimum wage for women, insurance for the unemployed and for the elderly, and those with disabilities, political reform and a progressive income tax."

Terrific -- but missing from the story was the worker organizing, the unions that helped wage often brutal campaigns to help make these ideas a reality.

The omissions aren't surprising, I suppose. Unions are under siege. Their numbers are down. Economically, fewer and fewer working people look to unions as a way out of their struggles. Politically, Democratic analysts suggest that the emerging majority that is the core of the Obama majority can win without the white working class. In our big money politics, union contributions are far less important. Democratic presidents and Congresses under Clinton and Obama notoriously failed to pass or press even modest labor law reforms that could curb some of the most egregious employer abuses against the right to organize.

But it is worth remembering just how vital unions are to democracy. America supports independent free trade unions across the globe. It helped to create the International Labor Organization to put unions, companies and governments at the table to negotiate the terms for decent work. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, and adopted in 1948, incorporated much of the Economic Bill of Rights that Franklin Roosevelt had promised would emerge from the sacrifices of the Great Depression and the Great War. Article 23 of that Declaration establishes the following as basic human rights:

•(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

•(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

•(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

•(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Independent trade unions were acknowledged then -- and in US foreign policy now -- as vital to any robust democracy. Unions give workers practice in exercising their democratic rights. They elect their own leaders; they voice their concerns; they must learn to compromise and prioritize. They are true laboratories of democracy. They provide a democratic forum, and the organizing skills vital to challenging democracy's opponents.

Unions are also essential to building a free market economy with shared prosperity. Unions help ensure that the rewards of rising productivity are widely shared. They help curb greed and lawlessness in executive suites. They help sustain legitimate order in the workplace, giving workers a way to express grievances, adjudicate wrongs. Their workplace success is vital to insuring that workers earn enough to generate consumer demand vital to economic growth.

In our current economic distress unions should be more important than ever. The net jobs being created in America are almost entirely in the non-tradeable sectors of the society -- retail services, public employees, health care, education etc. These tend to feature low wage jobs -- from the shop clerk to the hotel maid. But there is no intrinsic reason they are low paid. With strong unions, hotel maids in New York City make a middle class wage, with health care benefits. At least a part of countering the increasing income disparity in America is to empower workers to organize once more.

And, as any veteran of social movements knows, no major social reforms succeed in Washington without strong union support and mobilization. If we are once more going to succeed in making banking boring, raising taxes on the rich and investing in areas vital to our future, building a new foundation for growth, the resistance of entrenched corporate lobbies will be overcome only with popular mobilization, to which unions will be essential.

And now, as the president stated, that defining moment is on us. The spark was lit in Madison, Wisconsin, when students and farmers joined public workers demonstrating to protect their basic right to organize and bargain collectively. Occupy Wall Street turned that into a conflagration. As this fight intensifies, labor unions and the workers that they represent -- reduced in membership, short of funds, savaged by their enemies and too often ignored by their friends -- will by what they do or what they fail to do make a fundamental difference in what kind of society we build out of the ruins.

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