Monday, January 10, 2011

Elevator Up or Slide to Ride Down?

Here is a bit from a good article by James Surowiecki on "State of Unions"...
In the heart of the Great Depression, millions of American workers did something they’d never done before: they joined a union. Emboldened by the passage of the Wagner Act, which made collective bargaining easier, unions organized industries across the country, remaking the economy. Businesses, of course, saw this as grim news. But the general public applauded labor’s new power, even in the face of union tactics that many Americans frowned on, like sit-down strikes. More than seventy per cent of those surveyed in a 1937 Gallup poll said they favored unions.

Seventy-five years later, in the wake of another economic crisis, things couldn’t be more different. The bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler saved the jobs of tens of thousands of U.A.W. workers, but were enormously unpopular. In the recent midterm elections, voters in several states passed initiatives making it harder for unions to organize. Across the country, governors and mayors wrestling with budget shortfalls are blaming public-sector unions for the problems. And in polls public support for labor has fallen to historic lows.
So, in 1935 unionization was legalized and ordinary Americans started a 40 year march of ever increasing incomes and a better life. Then came Reagonomics and "trickle down" economics and the suppression of unions. And from 1980 there has been a 30 year slide down by ordinary Americans as they have watched their wages fall behind inflation and as they have watched the rich seize a bigger and bigger piece of the economic pie. As de-unionized workers they are force marched to be more "productive" but all those productivity gains go to the top 1% of the population.

Is this just a coincidence? The political right would try to convince you that there is no connection. That getting rid of the unions was a great advance in "liberty". But those hungry unemployed of the Great Depression were quite happy to struggle to found unions because it meant a better life, a better wage, a tool to fight off the depredations of management.

The US has seen the growth of a politics of hate. The bombastic voices of Fox "News" and the Rush Limbaughs of radio land assure people that all the problems come from government and unions. None of these ever considers that the machinations of great wealth might be playing a role. Instead, these loud voices on the right sell hate:
The statistician Nate Silver has found a historical correlation between the unemployment rate and the popularity of unions. Furthermore, an analysis of polling data by David Madland and Karla Walter, of the Center for American Progress, shows that, when times are bad, the approval ratings of government, business, and labor tend to drop in sync; voters, it seems, blame all powerful institutions equally. And although organized labor is much less powerful than it once was, voters don’t seem to see it that way: more than sixty per cent of respondents in the 2010 Pew poll said that unions had too much power.
The ideologues on the right sell their hate to divide people and disarm them. Remember the old saying of Ben Franklin about "standing together or all hanging separately"? Well, Ronald Reagan's war on unions means that workers can be picked off separately -- hanged separately -- because there is no longer any union solidarity.

The American people are now on a slide down:
In a landmark 1984 study, the economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff showed that there was a strong connection between the public image of unions and how workers voted in union elections: the less popular unions were generally, the harder it was for them to organize. Labor, in other words, may be caught in a vicious cycle, becoming progressively less influential and more unpopular. The Great Depression invigorated the modern American labor movement. The Great Recession has crippled it.
I would say that the Great Recession is in the process of killing the unions. They were crippled long ago. They are now being finished off.

I remember my father working a 44 hour week. Funny, the American workers' struggle for an 8 hour day goes back to 1886 and the Chicago Haymarket Massacre. The 40 hour work week became widespread only in the late 1950s as part of the surging post-WWII prosperity. By the mid 1970s the struggle was for a 32 hour week and some got it. But now the average American worker is spending far more than 40 hours on the week and companies like Walmart are illegally demanding that their employees "work off the book", i.e. put in hours for which they are not paid.

I remember going to a lecture by Robert Theobald in 1966 where he declared that the "most pressing" problem facing Americans was what to do with their increasing leisure time. I remember getting up and walking out of that lecture because that struck me as nuts. Nobody I knew was worrying about "too much leisure time". This was a fantasy of the upper classes with their visions of robots and automation. The reality was that most people were fighting to hang on to the newly acquired 40 hour work week.

What I did absorb in my youth was optimism about the future. If you had told me that Americans would be walking on the moon in 1969 when Kennedy gave his famous speech in 1961, I would have thought you were nuts. But if you told me in 1970 that Americans would close shop and not return to the moon for over 50 years after the last landing in 1972, I would have thought you were nuts.

But after 30 years of "trickle down" economics with the promise of untold riches showering the working people from the tables of the ultra-rich, the ability of the US to afford manned space flight has come to an end. Instead of visions for the future, the American people are fighting tooth and nail over which social programs to dismantle so that yet another tax break can be given to the ultra-rich in the latest desperate plan to kick start economic growth so that those long promised "trickle down" crumbs from the table of the ultra-rich will finally start to flow in the abundance that was promised.

When will the American people realize they have been sold a pig in a poke? When will they realize that the problem isn't "socialist Obama" or Obamacare or gay marriage or a woman's right to choose? The problem isn't that people are being prevented from using their "second amendment remedy" by arming to the teeth and shooting any politician they don't like. The problem is that jobs are scarce because there is a Great Recession caused by Wall Street Banks taking risks knowing full well that when their trillion dollar gamble failed they would be "made whole" by a trillion dollar infusion from the American taxpayer. Meanwhile the tens of millions facing foreclosure won't be "made whole". That would be "socialism"! Everybody these days knows you have to destroy unions and find another tax cut for the ultra-rich. That is the golden road to the long promised future of unlimited wealth.

When will the American people realize they are taken for fools by a lot of cynically manipulative ultra-rich people who buy and sell politicians to set up the system to line their own pockets?

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