Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Where-Oh-Where Did the Working Class Go?

Regarding the gubernatorial re-call election last week, many expressed shock that Wisconsin's working class did not overwhelmingly oppose Governor Scott "Unions-Are-the-Plague-of-the-Earth" Walker.  The man who once described collective bargaining as an "expensive entitlement" walked away last Tuesday with 38% of the working class vote, and 61% of the white working-class vote.  To me, these numbers do not demonstrate that the labor movement has drastically changed its agenda, but rather signify the decline of the working class as a unified political identity, altogether.

There are several explanations for this trend.  Psychology professor, Jonathan Haidt, proposes that economic interest is not the unifying force in electoral decision-making that people assume.  In his research into political decision-making, Haidt found that “When working-class people vote conservative, as most do in the US, they are not voting against their self-interest; they are voting for their moral interest.” Contrary to popular opinion, he explained, people vote in accordance with their moral value-systems rather than  economic interest.  While liberals are more concerned with “care,” as a moral value (thus often advancing policy related to social welfare), conservatives tend to value more respect for authority, group loyalty, and sanctity.  Haidt suggests that in the wake of the financial crisis and looming uncertainty, American citizens are more likely to vote for the order and national cohesion that conservative values and candidates offer.

On another front, Doug Henwood, of LBO News, theorizes that the labor movement's decline is due to the siphoning of political activity away from grassroots education and organizing, and into electoral politics.  Rather than pursuing the interests of the working class on the ground, union leadership is too busy filling the pockets of Democrat candidates who rarely fulfill the needs of its constituency.  This, coupled with a decided amount of corruption and mistrust among certain union leadership, has led to disillusionment among voters, who no longer see the labor movement as serving their interests.

Both of these are relevant, and non-exclusive, theories that address the changing choices of working-class voters and the decline of proper leadership in both the labor movement and the Democratic party.  There are a host of other reasons to explain the decline of the working-class as a unified political identity (including, in my opinion, the inability for most Americans to see modern problems through the lens of social class), but I will forgo them for now.  Suffice it to say, while the labor movement was once a powerful voice in America,  it is no longer the same organizing force of the early 20th century.

Not only is this true, but “union” has become the dirty word de jour in this country.  Schools are failing?  It must be the teacher's union.  Job outsourcing?  That's the union.  Small business in decline?  I think you see where this is heading...

I will be the first to admit that unions are not perfect.  Especially where they have been overly-bureaucratized or, as Henwood suggests, co-opted by ill-intentioned movements, leaders, and political machines (the last of which we see often in cities like Chicago and New York), we witness large amounts of graft, inefficiency, and short-sightedness.  However, these are generally problems of leadership and organization, not intention.  Furthermore, this view lumps all unions into one category, when the locations, activities, and interests of each are quite specific.

In truth, the unionization movement has been grossly oversimplified and misunderstood in the public eye, making it an easy target for all social ills.  And while we are busy attacking this straw man, the multitude of harmful practices and policies enacted by both corporation and government continue unnoticed.

By unilaterally denouncing all unions and labor organization, we throw the baby out with the bath water.  While many unions, and the labor movement as a whole, may be poorly directed, organization based on working-class interests is still sorely needed.

For example, in a recent New York Times article, Joe Nocera points to how declining union membership has led to severe problems for America's middle class.  In the absence of union protection, there is nothing to stop big corporations from taking advantage of their workers.  Nocera cites columnist Timothy Noah, who reveals, in his work on income inequality, the close inverse correlation between union membership-- which has declined from a high of 40% of workers in the mid-1950s to a mere 12% today--and rising income inequality.  Nocera states:

This makes perfect sense, of course. Company managements don’t pay workers any more than they have to — look, for instance, at Walmart, one of the most virulently antiunion companies in the country. In their heyday, unions represented a countervailing force that could extract money for its workers that helped keep them in the middle class. Noah notes that a JPMorgan economist calculated that the majority of increased corporate profits between 2000 and 2007 were the result of “reductions in wages and benefits.” That makes sense, too. At the same time labor has been in decline, the power of shareholders has been on the rise.

So we see, there is no real incentive for wages and benefits to grow alongside profit without some sort of organizing force to make it so.

The needs of the working class extend further than this.   In our current economic climate, employees in most industries are an expendable commodity.  After the financial crash, unemployment skyrocketed, leaving America with an employee-saturated market.  Without any type of labor protection, this leaves employees extremely vulnerable to the whims of their employers.  Employees have no leverage to demand a basic living wage, health insurance, reasonable work-days, or basic dignity.  If they were to make such demands, they risk being tossed aside for the next resume in the pile (or worse, for an unpaid intern).

It is in this climate that we need a strongly organized labor movement.  It does not need to be radically Marxist, or  a carbon copy of 20th century movements.   And it certainly should not build on the inefficiencies of current leadership and politics.

What the movement must do, is educate, organize, and politically engage working class citizens in their economic interests.  At the same time, it should encourage the critical examination of the root causes of economic inequality in society.  It also must advance a fundamental agenda that includes the provision of living wages, safe and dignified working environments, and healthy living conditions for workers and their families.  And last, it must serve the broader principles of human dignity, equality, and economic justice for all.

… aaannd it might want to put a few people out there in Wisconsin come next election.  Just to be sure.

1 comment:

  1. The unions have become their own elite, and it's hurting them. The only industries where they retain a strong hold are in government and in government bailed-out industries like car manufacturing and construction (to a lesser degree in both bailout support and unionization). If there's a pattern there, I think it's one of unsustainability. Along with bankers, unions have come to represent an oppressive, parasitic class to a lot of people.

    The CTU just voted to authorize a strike (by >90% of tallied votes) if negotiations with CPS are unsuccessful. The current CTU demand is a 30% raise (that's right!) in response to CPS' request for a 7-hour elementary school day and 7.5-hour high school day. These increases would increase teachers' in-school time by 85 minutes and 39 minutes, respectively. Anyway, CTU contends that this warrants a 30% raise.

    The CTU seems to be blind to the fact that threatening to strike over such a ridiculous demand is extremely angering to most people. This is exacerbated by the fact that the median CPS teacher salary is $74,277.97. That excludes part time, vacant positions, 1.2FTE, and undefined FTE level teachers. 1.2FTE and undefined FTE salaries are over $100,000 by the way. (I calculated this myself using the numbers available here: )

    Anyway, a 30% raise would set the CPS median salary at over $96,000/year while most people in Chicago make less than $60,000/year, and they have worse benefits. Threatening to strike while the city is broke, unemployment is high, and most people have seen pay cuts is not winning the CTU any favors with the rest of us.

    As far as the unions themselves go, the corruption you mentioned in places like Chicago just contributes to people's dislike of the unions. There are multiple former teachers or city workers (and politicians, not that they're unionized) who are drawing pensions in the hundreds of thousands per year. Many of those people also served as union officials and used extremely high union pay to spike their teacher pension (or wherever they worked). On top of this, there are a lot of stories of union officials raiding and abusing their own constituents' pension funds. To many people on the outside, myself included, this sort of behavior is unacceptable.

    In the end, it does still come down to class to some degree. It's just that the unions are now seen as part of the oppressive class.