Democracy Economy Inequality Unions

Unions and the Future of Democracy

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The following essay was written by Michael Podhorzer, Senior Advisor to the president of the AFL-CIO. I totally agree that the key to building a strong middle class is the expansion of unions. The plutocrats have done a great job of demonizing them and destroying the ladder into the middle class that unions offer. Right now, Amazon workers are deciding whether to form a union in Bessemer, Alabama. I hope they win. Jeff Bezos should share the wealth with those who work for him. He should not have nearly $200 billion. Why should Elon Musk and Bill Gates have nearly $200 billion? Couldn’t they be satisfied and live in luxury with only a few hundred millions? In a just world, societies would dedicate their best efforts to reducing inequality and eliminating poverty. Let’s give credit to Joe Biden on this important issue. He has said he is a union guy, and he is pushing legislation to enable workers to join unions.

Podhorzer wrote:

The House of Representatives is expected to pass the PRO Act this week, Amazon workers in Alabama continue to vote to form a union and President Biden’s released a video encouraging working people to join unions.  

While the prospect of a national conversation about supporting working people organizing themselves against their exploitation is long overdue, maddeningly, even those who support unions regret the “decline in union membership.” Stating the fact that union members make up a smaller share of the workforce than they once did in the passive voice (decline) erases causality, implicitly confirming the idea working people are now less likely to want to be in a union, or that unions are outdated, or that unions themselves have done a poor job selling themselves. In fact, research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows more than 60 million people would vote to join a union today if given the opportunity and Gallup recently found that union approval stands at 65%, one of the highest marks in a half-century. 

A more accurate characterization of the same fact would be, “intense and sustained corporate campaigns to bust unions, make it more difficult to form unions, exclude more sectors of the workforce from access to union membership and depict unions in the worst possible ways, along with an often bi-partisan retreat in federal support for working people, relentless roll backs by Republican Presidents and Republican trifecta states have dramatically reduced the number of working people who even have the option of joining one.” 

This is yet another example of progressives repeating their opponents’ framing with the effect of making the intentional and contingent seem natural and inevitable.   Similarly, we routinely talk about profits rising, but never about the fact that an increasing share of those rising profits come from preventing working people from sharing in the gains from their increasing productivity. Thus, since the pandemic, all of Amazon’s gains have been captured by Jeff Bezos and the company’s largest shareholders, not the working people risking (and losing) their lives to enable many of us to get through this year without much to disturb our lifestyles. 

Meanwhile, progressive opinion leaders and policy wonks wring their hands and heroically search for fresh solutions to the most pressing crises of the day as if there isn’t a substantial body of evidence that increased union membership ameliorates many of them, including income inequality, democratic participation, racism and authoritarianism among other things (below).  

Studies show that union workers make about $150 billion more a year than non-union workers in wages alone controlling for industry, occupation education and experience. And union workers are much more likely to have health, pension and leave benefits than non-union workers, and those benefits are much more substantial than those non-union workers who have them at all. To put that in perspective: $150 billion is more than twice the SNAP program, yet costs the taxpayer almost nothing. 

All of this will seem improbable at best as long as you imagine that the benefits accrue from unions as the institutions you experience in your professional life.  The benefits accrue from allowing working people to organize themselves collectively and democratically to act on their own behalf.   It is the practice of acting democratically and collectively to negotiate contracts and set working conditions that produces more tolerant, effective citizens. Union members vote for things that matter in their daily lives from their shop steward to the health benefits in their contracts. They can see how much more powerful they are together, embracing their linked fate than they are on their own. They practice a democracy that has all but disappeared elsewhere in America. 

Even if most progressives don’t fully understand how much more powerful working people acting together on their own behalf are than government programs designed to help them, corporations do. That’s why, since the Wagner Act they have relentlessly attacked working people’s ability to combine. 

The Taft-Hartley Act is most known for opening the door to “right to work.” By the 1950’s most southern states were “right to work,” crippling the CIO’s multiracial organizing efforts in the region. The creation of an effectively non-union, low wage region of the country quickly had two profound effects. First, by offering a low wage domestic region to relocate to, unionized corporations had greater leverage against their employees demands. Arguably as important, but much less recognized, it put an end to the development of a national working class consciousness. 

Even less well recognized are the impacts of the restrictions Taft-Hartley put on joint action. The Taft-Hartley Act also banned  jurisdictional strikessolidarity or political strikessecondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing. In doing so, the Act made illegal the ways in which working people could join together beyond their own employer on behalf of other working people. In this way again, corporations were able to criminalize the development of class solidarity. That has also radically shaped the incentives of unions as institutions. 

MORE THAN THE WEEKEND

While there’s growing acknowledgment of how much the neoliberal market absolutism that triumphed in the late 1970’s is responsible for the present state of affairs, there’s relatively little genuine awareness of what it replaced, or how breaking working people’s ability to act collectively was central to its success. 

Although very far from perfect, from the New Deal until the 1970’s was a period in which pluralism was seen as an essential element of healthy democracy. And there was no more important element of pluralistic America than the labor movement.  At an elite level, a tripartite pluralism consisting of business, labor and government was seen as crucial for the nation’s prosperity and robust democracy. (For example, John Kenneth Galbraith, American Capitalism; The Concept of Countervailing Power and The New Industrial State.)

Unions demonstrated to ordinary people that community problems could only be solved by coming together; strength in numbers was more than a slogan, it was a democratic habit and the way America often functioned. This was a period of movements that led the way to the progress since eroded and continuously under siege.  The advances made on civil rights, women’s rights, environmental protection and limiting foreign military intervention and nuclear proliferation (for a time) reflected sustained collective action that required immense social capital built up from the myriad associations that were common at the time to cohere and a shared experience that government would be responsive.

That social capital and sense of agency is shot, demonstrated by our learned helplessness in the face of Trump’s shredding so much of what those movements delivered.  This Brookings’ Tracking Deregulation in the Trump Era provides a staggering inventory of decimation. For example, not only has Trump been dismantling the environmental regulatory system, the EPA has been routinely granting thousands of waivers and just not enforcing the law. And, almost without notice, the longstanding treaties and instruments to control nuclear proliferation have been discarded.

The rest of this Weekend Reading provides a guide to resources that demonstrate the ways in which an empowered workforce changes everything and concludes with key points about the PRO Act. 

Inequality

The labor movement plays many positive roles in democratic societies—but the most foundational is making sure that the people who do the work of society share in the wealth they create.  This is one of many charts the show the connection between corporate success weakening unions and the increasing share of income going to the top ten percent. 

Income inequality is the result of unequal power. It’s that simple. 

  • Unions, inequality, and faltering middle-class wages provides an excellent overview of much of the literature. 
  • This paper from Hank Farber, Daniel Herbst, IIlyana Kuziemko, and Suresh Naidu is just-revised and packed with terrific (and comprehensive) analysis of the relationship between unions and inequality.  It shows how the strength of unions and collective bargaining in the United States after World War II disproportionately benefited low wage workers and workers of color.  It remains the gold standard analysis so far of unions and economic outcomes over the long-run in the 20th century.  
  • Internationally, this report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) documents the positive effects of unions across the developed world.
  • This paper found that, “the decline of organized labor explains a fifth to a third of the growth in inequality” from 1973 to 2007. 

Democracy

As I said earlier, it is only recently that the accepted idea of that holding free and fair elections was the only requirement to qualify as a democracy. The degree to which people have collective agency in their daily lives determines the health of the society and the democracy. We don’t even notice the ways in which the law facilitates the affluent acting collectively, most notably through corporations. Or the ways in which the law inhibits everyone else from acting collectively. The following research develops that idea. 

  • Authoritarianism. This study in Nature showed that “Participatory practices at work change attitudes and behavior toward societal authority and justice.” Specifically, they found that “participatory meetings led workers to be less authoritarian and more critical about societal authority and justice, and to be more willing to participate in political, social, and familial decision-making.” It confirms earlier research here and here that unions fundamentally change members understanding of and expectations for the relations of power between themselves and their employers. 
  • Resistance to system justification. John Jost’s Theory of System Justification provides a powerful explanation of why oppressed people rarely rebel. Much more to come on this in future Weekend Reading and Open Mic. Relevant here is the theory’s logic, borne out in research that willingness to protest is much less a function of the extent of oppression than beliefs about group efficacy.  “Collective action is more likely when people have shared interests, feel relatively deprived, are angry, believe they can make a difference and strongly identify with relevant social groups.”
  • Responsive Congressional Representation.  This recent paper from Michael Becher and Daniel Stegmueller uses an impressive array of survey data and union membership data to show how the presence of stronger unions within U.S. House districts leads to more policy responsiveness for lower-income Americans (and less responsiveness for higher-income Americans), especially on economic issues.
  • Protest. This paper by Greg Lyon and Brian Shaffner documents how unions increase protest activity among non-members through social ties, especially relevant for thinking about how unions have seeded and supported recent protests.

Racism

Although very far from perfect, and especially in its origins often an accomplice to segregation and racism, the union movement has also been an essential partner in dismantling elements of systemic racism.  In Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965, Eric Schickler recovers the importance of the partnership between the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the Civil Rights movement.   The solid segregationist South initially supported most of the early New Deal’s pro-worker legislation, including the Wagner Act. However, once the CIO began multi-racial organizing efforts in the South, Southern Democrats turned on the labor. Over the next several decades, the Civil Rights movement and the CIO the power of the Southern wing inside the Democratic Party, succeeding in adopting a Civil Rights plank at the 1948 Democratic Convention that triggered Thurmond’s third party candidacy that year which carried Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. Speakers at the March on Washington included A. Philip Randolph and Walter Reuther. 

Furthermore, union membership increases racial tolerance. For example, this paper from Paul Frymer and Jake Grumbach uses survey data to show how union membership leads to more tolerant views of racial minorities among white workers, and is an important reminder of the spillover effects of unions on many other attitudes and preferences beyond economic policy.

Politics

Many have written about the role of unions in politics. Tom Edsall makes the point, obvious to Grover Norquist, business and the right wing, but somehow obscure to many Democrats and progressives, that gutting the labor movement would mean that, “the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics.” Republicans wasted little time after their state electoral sweep in 2010 to attack unions, beginning in Wisconsin.  The recent book, State Capture, tells this story.  

Numerous studies document the connection between union strength Democratic and progressive political impacts. Union members vote more Democratic than their neighbors. Nate Silver (2008) and Harry Enten (2012) write about how consequential that gap was, accounting for about 1.7 points of Obama’s margin in both elections. After controlling for other demographics they found that union membership was one of the most important variables. Thus, it is not surprising that fewer union members = fewer Democrats:

  • Right to Work. In this 2018 study, Alexander Hertel Fernandez carefully examined the impact of the passage of Right to Work laws and concluded that Democrats pay an average of a 3.5 point penalty after passage. They attribute that to lower union density, less political activism and collateral impacts on family and neighbors.  Data for Progress takes a different approach, and finds the same result. Instead of looking at RTW, they create a time series relating union density to congressional vote for each of the 50 states. As union density in a state declines, so does the Democratic vote share. It’s a very steep curve after 1990.   (Includes density-Democratic vote graphs for every state.)
  • Fewer Resources for Politics. Both the OpenSecrets and FollowTheMoney websites track union giving. For example, the 2018 election cost $2.1 billion more than 2010, but union spending increased by only $81 million. That was the pattern at the state level as well. That said, unions are still a very significant share of independent spending.

So, while Democratic strategists obsess in their search for the message or counsel a “cultural” conservatism that will get a few more working class votes, they ignore the evidence that increased union membership would provide a much greater and durable increase in Democratic support.  

THE PRO ACT

The PRO Act is the most significant worker empowerment legislation since the Great Depression because it will:

  • Empower workers to exercise our freedom to organize and bargain. 
  • Ensure that workers can reach a first contract quickly after a union is recognized.
  • End employers’ practice of punishing striking workers by hiring permanent replacements. Speaking up for labor rights is within every worker’s rights—and workers shouldn’t lose our jobs for it.
  • Hold corporations accountable by strengthening the National Labor Relations Board and allowing it to penalize employers who retaliate against working people in support of the union or collective bargaining.
  • Repeal “right to work” laws—divisive and racist laws created during the Jim Crow era—that lead to lower wages, fewer benefits and more dangerous workplaces.
  • Create pathways for workers to form unions, without fear, in newer industries like Big Tech.

Click here for the AFL-CIO’s PRO Act toolkit.   Click here for the Economic Policy Institute’s Why unions are good for workers—especially in a crisis like COVID-1912 policies that would boost worker rights, safety, and wages.

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