Post-New Deal America Needs Unions

Those who think workers only needed to organize in the bad old days need to face the hard truth: We're living in them.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the still more unfortunate failure of the unions’ effort to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker earlier this month is the gloating and schadenfreude that’s come forth from labor’s enemies. Some comes straight up, as in this column from Charles Krauthammer. Some comes with the caveat that private sector unions are fine in their place, but public sector unions have no place at all, an opinion expressed in this blog post from Chuck Lane. (I confine myself here to offerings from my Washington Post colleagues, but they’re representative of the breed.)  As I noted in my response to Lane, it would be nice if these defenders of private-sector unions had bestirred themselves to join the battle for labor law reform in 2010, since under the current labor law, workers effectively have no protection from being fired when they seek to join a union. As it is, Lane, Mickey Kaus and their fellow union critics endorse private-sector unions in the abstract, but actual unions invariably draw their condemnation.

One of the most common arguments against unions is that they were necessary in the bad old days, when sweatshops abounded, wages were low, and the wage-and-hour legislation of the New Deal was yet to be enacted. They were needed in the pre-New Deal economy, but have been superfluous since. What the argument misses is that we’re now deep into a post-New Deal economy, and the low-wage work, wage theft, unpaid overtime and job insecurity—in the technical parlance of economists, the shit jobs—that abounded before the New Deal have returned in full force. Among the occupations that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says will have the most job growth between 2010 and 2020 are cashiers (median annual wage as of 2010, $18,500; projected growth 250,000 new jobs), childcare workers ($19,300; 262,000 new jobs), home health and personal care aides (roughly $20,000; 1.3 million new jobs), food prep and fast-food workers ($17,950; 398,000 new jobs), and retail sales workers ($20,670; 707,000 new jobs).

According to a paper from the National Employment Law Project [April 2012 Issue Brief, “Slower Real Growth, Declining Real Wages Undermine Recovery], 30 percent of this decade’s job openings will have a median wage around $20,000. According to a report issued earlier this month by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a survey of food workers—from farm workers to processing workers to kitchen workers to servers—found that just 13.5 percent made a wage that was at least 150 percent of the regional poverty threshold. And need I point out that the nation’s largest private-sector employer, with more than 1.4 million workers (excuse me, associates) based in the United States, is WalMart? And that many thousands more work in Wal-Mart’s low-wage supply chain, among them port truckers who struggle to break even and warehouse workers who make just over the minimum wage?

In short, shit jobs abound. The shit jobs that are often the only jobs that workers who’ve lost decent-paying jobs as American manufacturing can find. And for all we hear about American wages having to come down as a result of globalization and low-wage foreign competition, none of the jobs I’ve mentioned are subject to foreign competition. Alan Blinder, the Princeton economist who was deputy Chairman of the Federal Reserve during Bill Clinton’s presidency, has set the number of American jobs that can be offshored at a little over 40 million – meaning, roughly twice that number of jobs cannot. That’s one thing that happens when you shift from a manufacturing-dominated economy to a service-dominated one.

Have there been efforts to unionize these jobs? Many—and yet the vast majority have failed due to the dysfunctionality of the laws that nominally protect workers’ right to organize. Port truckers, for instance, lost their employee status and were rendered “independent contractors” by the deregulation of the trucking industry. Absent an employer of record, they barely get by. Wal-Mart has many thousands of warehouse workers who take the products off those trucks, sort and  stack them on pallets bound for WalMarts all over the nation, but WalMart has arranged a system by which those workers are employed by a bewildering array of temporary employment agencies. Unions have been trying to organize the port truckers and the warehouse workers for years – in the case of the truckers, for decades – but the byzantine employment arrangements have proved too steep a climb.

When unions representing home care and nursing home workerss, hotel and restaurant employees, supermarket employees, truckers and laborers left the AFL-CIO in 2005 to found a consortium of their own, Change To Win, they had one thing that united them: they all represented and sought to represent workers in industries that were not part of a globalized labor market. To date, however, none of Change To Win’s organizing campaigns has succeeded, because the odds against unionization remain so steep. The organization’s paramount objective remains WalMart – a company so anti-union that when butchers at one store in Texas voted to unionize, WalMart shuttered its fresh meat department not only at that store but at every store in Texas and the five surrounding states.

Tens of millions of Americans work in WalMart’s America—in a low-wage labor market not subject to foreign competition. That’s a primary reason why economic inequality has soared in recent decades, why intergenerational economic mobility has fallen behind the levels in presumably sclerotic Europe, why wages are at their lowest share of both GDP and corporate revenues since the end of World War II. The shift in income from wages to profits is above all the result of the weakening of unions. Anyone who says that America needed unions once but doesn’t today is willfully blind. Those who defend the right of private-sector workers to unionize—in theory, anyway—should open their eyes and look around them. There’s a nation out there in desperate need of unionization.

(From: American Prospect -

Harold Meyerson

Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large at The American Prospect and a columnist for The Washington Post