Why Labor Day Still Matters: Unions and the Future of American Democracy

Jim Mahler
Tuesday, September 02, 2014 8:05 AM
Why Labor Day Still Matters: Unions and the Future of American Democracy
by Jim Miller on September 1, 2014
AFT Guild Political Action Vice-President
labor movement
Over the last year, the subject of economic inequality has been in the news quite a bit with the release of Robert Reich’s spectacular documentary Inequality for All and economist Thomas Piketty’s seminal work, Capital in the Twentieth Century. The picture they paint is a grim one and new bad numbers just keep rolling in.
For instance, a few weeks ago a Russell Sage Foundation study revealed that the wealth of the typical American household has dropped nearly 20 percent since 1984 and yet another study notes that private sector wages measured in real terms have dipped 16.2 percent since their 1972 high point. In the wake of that news, another US Census Bureau report came out showing that middle class household wealth fell by 35 percent between 2005 and 2011.
Thus while the last few years in particular have been incredibly beneficial for the ultra affluent, most of the rest of us have struggled to hold ground or not lose more. Some economists are even calling this phenomenon “the new normal.”
As Doug Henwood notes in his review of Piketty’s book: “The core message of this enormous and enormously important book can be delivered in a few lines: Left to its own devices, wealth inevitably tends to concentrate in capitalist economies. There is no ‘natural’ mechanism inherent in the structure of such economies for inhibiting, much less reversing, that tendency. Only crises like war and depression, or political interventions like taxation (which, to the upper classes, would be a crisis), can do the trick. And Thomas Piketty has two centuries of data to prove his point.”
A new working paper done for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) echoes many of the key points of Piketty’s work. More specifically, the OECD report observes that “Our world’s deeply unequal market economies have no automatic ‘self-correcting’ mechanism” and our profound inequality “generates ever-growing social pressures for still more imbalance” but “people within those economies can correct them.”
The only political mechanism American workers have ever had to address this problem is the labor movement and that is why most Americans should care about its fate, whether they are in a union or not.
Unions may not always be able to do everything for their members, but as part of the last twelve percent of American workers covered by collective bargaining, union members have been able to hold the line better than most. Hence the survival and revival of the American labor movement and/or some aligned movement for economic justice are the last best hopes for the American dream.
As Robert Reich points out clearly in Inequality for All, unions were a significant part of the building of the American middle class. This was true because of their capacity to bargain for a better economic future for their members and their ability to influence our politics and give workers a real voice in our system.
The consequence of this is that average Americans were able to make that system work for them whether that was by instituting policies like the GI Bill, Social Security, providing affordable access to higher education, or one of the many other key policies that led to what Reich calls the “great compression” of the middle twentieth century when inequality fell and the standard of living for American workers dramatically improved.
With the immense drop in union density over the last thirty years has come a record level of inequality, reduced political power for American workers, and a renewed assault on many of the rights in the workplace that we had come to take for granted. As grim as this seems, with the current percentage of American workers in a union down to twelve percent and dropping, the race to the bottom may only be beginning on both the economic and political fronts unless we do something to stop it.
And as the assault on labor continues from Wisconsin to the Harris v Quinn decision by the Supreme Court and the seemingly never-ending efforts by members of both political parties to crush the union movement in every way, the voice of average Americans on economic and other political issues has been drowned out by big money.
The sad truth is that in many respects we have headed back to the future to a new Gilded Age of robber barons versus everyone else.
Thus, many of our partisan political battles, fierce as they are, can be described as skirmishes between what Noam Chomsky calls the “two wings of the business party.” It should therefore come as no surprise that a recent study determined that regular folks have almost no say in our democracy.
Indeed as John Light reported: “In America today, the views of the voting public are nearly meaningless; wealthy individuals and business-backed special interest groups are almost entirely responsible for the stances that politicians take on the issues. That’s the takeaway from a new study by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University.”
So if you want to end the dominance of big money in our system in order to address the most pressing issues of our day, you should care a lot about the fate of the American labor movement. In fact progressives who dismiss labor as part of the problem ignore its crucial role as the only real non-commercial entity in our current system that is even able to compete with the corporate machine.
That doesn’t mean that the labor movement is flawless or doesn’t need to do a lot more to build alliances. It does mean, however, that a reinvigorated movement of working people that is broad-based and embraces the full diversity of the new America and looks to the local, national, and international level is our only hope for a thoroughgoing democracy that will start to pay attention to our most crucial problems.
A new labor movement that supports the fundamental principles of social justice unionism, that “an injury to one is an injury to all” and that the interests of all workers are inextricably linked (whether we like it our not), is the answer. It needs to be a movement that can take up the issues of economic inequality, climate change, immigration rights, fair taxation, education, the kinds of civil rights issues raised by Ferguson, and one that has difficult conversations with those who should be our allies.
Otherwise, the drift toward oligarchy that Piketty and others describe will continue unabated with all the collateral damage that comes with a profoundly unequal society. And that won’t just hurt unions–it will hurt nearly all of us.
Only a real social movement built on fundamentally egalitarian principles can even begin to address the great issues of our day. The labor movement needs to stand up as “the people within the economy” who are fighting to correct the excesses of American inequality for all and join hands with those ready to stand with them.
The future of the labor movement (however reconstituted) is directly linked to the health and persistence of American democracy, like it or not.