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Feb 24 2011

Destroying the middle class by killing the unions

What is currently taking place in the US is a ruthless class war perpetrated by the oligarchy on everyone else. The pattern should be clear to anyone because the plan is being done at the federal level and repeated all across the nation at the state level: Cut taxes on the rich to create a budget ‘crisis’ and then use that to eliminate programs that benefit the poor and middle class. As a result we have cuts in wages and benefits, social services, education, regulatory agencies, and an all out war against labor unions, while the rich get richer.

One of the extraordinary features of contemporary American life is the willingness of so many people in the middle class to turn against their own class (and the poor) in the service of the oligarchy. The upper middle classes and many in the middle class support this assault because they do not realize that what the oligarchy is demanding of those below them in the socio-economic ladder is eventually going to destroy them too. Those professionals who smugly see themselves as people whose skills are so valuable that they can succeed on their own in the marketplace without the protection of collective bargaining and thus sneer at unionized workers as pampered and privileged and lazy, do not seem to realize that the reason they enjoy their privileged life and seeming autonomy is precisely because unionized workers laid down the foundation on which they could build their own careers.

Labor unions are what gave us so many of the basic rights we take for granted. Sam Smith lists some of the things that the labor movement in the United States led the struggles for and are significantly the result of labor union organizing and action:

  • The end of child labor

  • The right of workers to negotiate with their employers over wages, benefits and working conditions
  • The 8 hour work day and paid overtime
  • Compensation for workers injured on the job.
  • Unemployment insurance.
  • A minimum wage
  • Pensions
  • Healthcare insurance
  • Paid sick leave, vacations and holidays
  • Elimination of job discrimination by ethnicity, color, religion, sex or national origin
  • Family medical leave

People who have forgotten the long and often deadly struggle by unions for these things may think of the benefits we now have as somehow ‘natural’ that will remain even after unions are destroyed. But they are wrong. The oligarchy would like to return us to the days when management could demand any amount of work hours, eliminate workplace safety rules, cut salaries and benefits at will, and fire people for no cause.

Thus it has been heartening to see the solidarity amongst so many people in Wisconsin and Ohio who are demonstrating and occupying statehouses to show their opposition to these policies. We have seen some unions see through the divide-and-conquer strategy of the Wisconsin governor who sought to exempt the police and firefighters from his union-busting strategies. Those groups have joined the protestors, rightly recognizing that if the present assault on some unions succeeds, their unions might well be next.

In a weird way, the uprisings in the Middle East have helped their cause. Of course, we should not in any way compare the two kinds of protests since the people in the Middle East are actually risking their lives to overthrow decades-long repressive regimes. But what those other protests have done is make mass demonstrations seem heroic. If not for them, the American mainstream media, which is an arm of the oligarchy, would have been able to portray the labor protests in the US as ‘lawless’ and ‘undemocratic’.

It is extraordinary that the political and media class acts as if there is no choice to solve the budget problems other than to cut wages and services that benefit the poor and middle class. There is an obvious alternative: Raise taxes, with the amount of the hike rising rapidly with income. Yes, tax the rich.

The tax giveaways for the rich in the latest tax deal that Obama and his congressional pals agreed to in December are truly obscene. They have snuck in goodies to benefit the very rich in all kinds of places. As just one example, it is only rich people for whom it is worthwhile to itemize their deductions in Schedule A. Most people claim the standard deduction of $5,700 while the rich can claim very much more. But at least in the past, some limits on Schedule A deductions started to get phased in for those people with incomes over a high amount ($166,800 for married couples filing jointly in 2009). But this year even those limitations have been removed, even though the only people who benefit are those who do not need more money in the first place. No wonder we have budget deficits. If one needed to point to one symbol that clearly demonstrates that the rich are determined to contribute as little as possible to the government while squeezing as much as they can out of it, the elimination of the Schedule A limits is it.

What is extraordinary is that there will be some people (even those who are nowhere close to being wealthy) who protest my post, saying that the rich have ‘earned’ every cent they get and are thus ‘entitled’ to keep as much as they want and that the government is essentially ‘robbing’ them of the fruits of their labor by taxing them at all. They do not see that the entire system is rigged to create a self-perpetuating oligarchy.

Such people have essentially a feudal mentality, a serf-like admiration of the wealthy, and contempt for people in their own class. All that is missing is their willingness to bow down and touch their forelocks as the wealthy drive by in their limousines.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    Sean Estey

    I’ve been following tour blog for a short time and am already impressed with your insight on politics and religion, but I think you do yourself a disservice in this post by insulting those who disagree with your economic views as serf-like and other adjectives. There are intelligent opinions out there by economists like Thomas Sowell who, in scholarly books like Basic Economics, present empirical evidence that unions help those who belong in them at the expense of those who do not, and some of the things you mentioned like minimum wage, are actually harmful policies if we look at how they actually affect people in the real world, versus their INTENTIONS, which are noble.
    I myself haven’t made up my mind entirely on these topics, and I’m not sure if you are aware of the counter-arguments to your post, since you don’t acknowledge them here, but they are well-reasoned, and though you may disagree with people like Thomas Sowell, they are not serf-like in their reverence for the oligarchs, as you put it. Intelligent arguments can be made on both sides of the fence.

  2. 2
    Henry

    Actually the idea that increases in pay for public employees like teachers should be a voter approved thing makes good sense to me. What better way for teachers to get a raise than put it on the ballot?

    My dad was in a local steelworkers union for over 30 years and he complained about them more than the bosses.

    I personally worked in the steel industry for 10 years and I can honestly say many people were fired for just cause only to have the union get them their job back. In contract negotiations unions will often demand something in exchange for a new policy even when all parties agree that the policy would be beneficially to everyone. The fact that dues are automatically deducted should speak to how much they are valued by their members. I wonder what percentage of died would be paid otherwise.

    While unions served an important role in the past I wonder if on balance the will be helpful in the future.

    Sorry for any typos as this is typed on my phone.

  3. 3
    Mano Singham

    Sean and Henry,

    I am familiar with the anti-union arguments of people like Sowell.

    My point is that the issue is not about economics, it is about power. The union is the only means by which workers are protected from the arbitrary decisions of the owners and managers, since the legislature is bought and sold by the oligarchy.

    All the benefits we have were brought about by naked power struggles, not because of the benevolence of employers or because they thought it was a good idea. People think those gains cannot be reversed and that unions are therefore redundant. I disagree. I think employers are seeking to reverse those gains and the crushing of the unions is part of their strategy.

    The price we pay for this protection is that there will be a few people who, as Henry points out, take advantage of the system to not do honest work. But can we really deny that most unionized workers do what can be reasonably expected of them? I, for one, am willing to put up with the occasional slacker in return for all the rest having the right be treated with respect and dignity.

    I take the same attitude with my teaching. I treat students as if they are honest and ethical people (which almost all of them are) and in return I have to deal with the occasional student who games the system. But that is better than treating them all as if they are trying to get away without doing any work.

  4. 4
    Steve LaBonne

    The shorter answer is that things like 40 hour workweeks, paid vacations and sick leave- which have come to be taken for granted by so many non-union workers- would never have come to pass without unions. Nor would child labor laws. It is very naive to think that such things can be maintained if there is nobody left who is willing and able to fight for them.

  5. 5
    Henry

    But it isn’t a few people taking advantage, it’s entire systems. This NYTimes article is a good read:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/21/nyregion/21lirr.html

    That said, I don’t think a rational argument can be made for unions moving forward. The current purpose of a union today is not to protect their members. It is to protect their own existence.

  6. 6
    Peter

    I’ll relate a story I heard from my wife (who, like me, is also in a union).

    When the financial collapse hit New York City, the head of a major arts organization approached my wife’s union representative and asked for a freeze on the pre-arranged raises and bumps in pension contributions until the stock market returned to a certain level (I think it was 10,000 on the DJIA).

    The union rep summed up his view “I don’t recall them asking to give us a bonus when the stock market was at 14,000 – so why should we agree to give up anything now?”

    Unions are the only thing keeping employers even close to honest.

    Personally, I think there’s a glaring hole in the Fair Labor Standards Act in the definitions of what groups of workers are allowed to unionize. It’s a shame that more white collar people are forbidden.

  7. 7
    Steve LaBonne

    Henry, don’t trust the NYT’s reporting on these issues. It has been extremely biased for quite a while now.

    And you WILL lose things you now take for granted if unions are crushed once and for all. The idea that they are no longer needed can only be entertained by those ignorant of history (and devoid of any comprehension of how power works).

  8. 8
    randy pelton

    Henry: ” I don’t think a rational argument can be made for unions moving forward. The current purpose of a union today is not to protect their members. It is to protect their own existence.”

    Do you consider yourself a ratonal thinker and one who employes logic and reason? If you do then how can you possibly make such a statement. This is absurd opinion without any offer of evidence to support it. Yet you state it as though it were indisputable fact. Well, it is incumbent upon you to establish the truth of your claim. So I challenge you to provide the data, evidence and proof that unions work only to ensure their existence. And if you are unable or unwilling to do this then take your opinion and place it in the appropriate receptacle.

  9. 9
    Sean Estey

    All the arguments presented so far only list the costs and benefits of union members. But one needs to consider the total costs unions impose on non-union workers, as well as the employer, to properly judge if, on balance, unions do more good than harm.

    The economics argument states that by driving up wages above market level, these costs are passed along to the employer. This causes either reduced employment or higher price of goods, or both. Reduced employment forces those who could work in said industry to seek employment elsewhere or be unemployed. Higher price of goods causes the employer to be less competitive than rivals, which further reduces employment. As an example, look at how the high costs of automakers in Detroit reduced their competitiveness, creating all the current fallout.

    Are the costs imposed by unions worth the benefits? I don’t know. But I do know that people rarely look at the *total* and *long term* costs when having this discussion.

  10. 10
    Scott

    I think the current attacks on unions will, in he long run, serve to make them stronger. When workers see their rights being eroded they will increasingly see unionization as their best defense.

  11. 11
    Peter

    Henry, I can’t agree with your position.

    I can only speak to the union I’m a member of, but your assertion is dead wrong.

    The executive board of the union, as well as all but two of the trustees of the pension system, are drawn from within the local membership. We manage our own affairs (except for legal issues and the administration of the health & welfare plan). The board was recently granted a raise by the membership – the first raise in almost 12 years. It was the first time they had asked for a raise in at least 4 years.

    Granted, this is not a large union, I think the total membership is around 750 people. But we are effective at negotiating for a decent standard of living, job safety, and better working conditions for non-union people as well: It is the unions that determine the ‘Industry Standard’, not the corner-cutting, profit-seeking, take-no-prisoners employers.

    By establishing those de facto standards, the non-union companies have to raise their pay scales, safety procedures, work rules, etc.

  12. 12
    henry

    I didn’t offer any evidence because this isn’t my blog. Also, when I provided a link that source was attacked.

    Clearly pro-union people are much like religious zealots. No proof is good for them.

    I worked as a union employee (Teamsters local 880) and my father was a union employee for over 30 years. My statements are based on my knowledge of the inner workings of the union establishment.

    Unions do not care about the business in which their members are employed. They only care about maximizing their grab.

    I am not talking about the role of unions historically, but looking forward unless the corruptions and self-serving nature is addressed then unions are, on balance, a big negative.

  13. 13
    Peter

    Once again, I can only speak to my union. It does care about the businesses that employ us insofar as if an outfit folds (which happens quite a lot on Broadway), then there are few members employed and paying dues. It’s in everyone’s interest for the businesses to succeed. That’s a no-brainer.

    And I’ll argue against the religious zealot jab, as I don’t see how my position is based on blind faith. I was anti-union before I joined; now that I’m a member, I see first-hand how membership has its benefits (as the saying goes).

    At best, we can only speak to what we know. Your experience is clearly different from mine, which is unfortunate. But it’s certainly not intellectually honest to paint with such a broad brush if your experience is as limited as mine (or yours).

    “… They only care about maximizing their grab. [snip] …unless the corruptions and self-serving nature is addressed then unions are, on balance, a big negative”

    If we flip this around, and make Employers (or Corporations) the subject instead of unions, would you still agree with the statement?

    That’s the essence of my support for Unions: There has to be a strong counter-balance acting to restrain the self-serving greedy mania of Employers. Whatever corruption may or may not exist on the unions’ end doesn’t hold a candle to what employers get away with every day.

  14. 14
    Marc

    The controversy surrounding unions of late has mostly been focused on public service unions. I have no issues with unions per say, however there seems to be a disparity between these public sector workers and private sector workers. A majority of public sector workers contribute next to nothing towards their health care and pensions which leaves the bill for the American taxpayer. It is estimated that unfunded pension liabilities is in the trillions of dollars for these public workers. This is simply unsustainable. I see nothing wrong with the current push to increase the contributions required by public workers to bring it in line with the public sector. Pensions are in fact unavailable to most private sector employees and instead they contribute to 401k retirement programs.

  15. 15
    Jared A

    I think this statement from Peter is the most important one:

    “That’s the essence of my support for Unions: There has to be a strong counter-balance acting to restrain the self-serving greedy mania of Employers.”

    It seems to be a good policy to disrupt excess power accumulation of any form.

    Marc:
    401k retirement plans weren’t always predominant in the private sector. They became so because they are cheaper for the employer than a pension. However, they also are much riskier for the retiree because we don’t know whether or not the market will be “good” when you retire.

    What we see mostly now is not a real pension – where the company continues to pay you after you retire and no investments are made. To CUT COSTS the employer is making investments with the money that will eventually got to a pension instead of taking from the regular salary budget. If those investments go well then they save money. If not then the employer loses money. Thus, it is the greed of the “poor taxpayers” of not wanting to pay the full taxes necessary to support the government that causes these problems.

    It is absolutely silly to pretend that changing the contribution from income to a retirement or health plan is making it “more fair”. All benefits are considered part of your total income in terms of comparing jobs because it is dollars you will get one way or another. So in order to balance it you’d have to increase their wages. Or are you suggesting pay cut? If that’s the case than call it what it is.

  16. 16
    Marc

    Jared,

    Not even sure where to start?

    You say “Thus, it is the greed of the “poor taxpayers” of not wanting to pay the full taxes necessary to support the government that causes these problems.” An overwhelming majority of America pay zero taxes. And the Government is a bloated, wasteful entity spending more money than it takes in.

    But that’s not what your article is about. We were talking about Unions. The average union salary is $1800 higher than it’s private sector equal. So, pretty close. Where we lose parity is in the pension and health care contributions. Why should someone in a public union contribute 1/4 of what a private sector employee contributes?

    I’m am absolutely not suggesting a pay cut for public union members. I’m suggesting that their pension and health care contributions be on par with the rest of the work force. Why is that such a horrible idea?

    With the massive influx of baby boomers entering retirement age, the number of public pensioners will likewise increase. It is unsustainable. As I mentioned before, and you did not address, is the fact that we already have trillions of dollars of unfunded pension liabilities and without changes this will become exponentially worse as more and more people enter the system.

  17. 17
    Luqman Hakim

    All workers and labor unions should take this moment as the best time to strengthen their position.
    US government has to treat labor unions as partner in creating better economical conditions that are required by businesses.

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