Monday, September 06, 2010

Labor Day 2010: Labor in the US today

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, No holiday for labor unions Washington Post 08/31/2010, looks at the state of union on this Labor Day in the US:

Unions are in trouble. They represent less than 13 percent of the workforce and less than 8 percent of private workers. Union workers still receive higher wages and are more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, pensions and paid sick leave than non-union workers. But when unions represented over 33 percent of all private workers in the 1940s, they drove wage increases for everyone -- non-union firms had to compete for good workers. Now, unions struggle just to defend their members' wages and benefits. Over the past decade before the Great Recession, productivity soared, profits rose and CEO pay skyrocketed, but most workers lost ground.

Unions face constant attacks from corporations and conservatives. The most recent campaign -- designed as always to divide workers from one another -- assails the pay and particularly the pensions of public employees. Why should they have pensions, when many workers have lost theirs and get, at best, a retirement savings plan at work? In fact, in a civilized society, we would ask the reverse question. How do we create pensions -- beyond Social Security -- for workers across the economy, leveling up, rather than down?
She doesn't use the term "neoliberalism," aka, the Washington Consensus, the main ideology of economic "globalization." But she reminds us about how organized labor how so often been right in its criticism of such policies on international trade, economic inequality and deregulation. On the latter, she writes:

On government regulation, labor fought a pitched battle against privatization and deregulation that Reagan conservatives and New Democrats made fashionable. Now in one area after another, privatization has been revealed as a source of waste, fraud and abuse -- from Halliburton to Blackwater. Deregulation contributed directly to the corporate and financial debauch that brought the economy down, with the human costs apparent from the Gulf of Mexico to Appalachia to the eggs we eat.
And she reminds us that it is not anti-union reactionaries who the heirs of the civil rights movement:

Last Saturday in Washington, Glenn Beck tried to lay claim to the civil rights movement. That same day in Detroit, we saw the real thing: The UAW, SEIU and AFSCME joining with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the NAACP, the Urban League, ministers and civil rights activists to march for jobs and justice. Union support was vital to the Rev. Martin Luther King's march on Washington 47 years ago. And union support is vital to civil rights movements -- from immigration reform to equal pay for women to the fight for jobs -- today.
For the Democratic Party and the immediate future of progressive politics in the US, one of the greatest missed opportunities of the Obama administration is its failure to even attempt to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give union organizing the protection it needs in today's conditions. And stronger union movement would mean stronger progressive politics and a stronger Democratic Party. But with a Democratic President appointing a Catfood Commission stacked to recommend the next step in the phase-out of Social Security, you really have to wonder whether today's Democratic Party will ever be capable of fighting for the interest of working people effectively. They will have to be forced to do so. And unions are a key group with a strong incentive to do so.

Robert Reich in How to End the Great Recession New York Times 09/02/2010 looks at inequality and its role in causing economic crises. He observes:

The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty examined tax returns from 1913 to 2008. They discovered an interesting pattern. In the late 1970s, the richest 1 percent of American families took in about 9 percent of the nation’s total income; by 2007, the top 1 percent took in 23.5 percent of total income. ...

Policies that generate more widely shared prosperity lead to stronger and more sustainable economic growth — and that's good for everyone. The rich are better off with a smaller percentage of a fast-growing economy than a larger share of an economy that’s barely moving. That's the Labor Day lesson we learned decades ago; until we remember it again, we'll be stuck in the Great Recession.
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