A Union Fable


Playing off Barack Obama’s inspiring book title, “The Audacity of Hope,” let’s take a moment to consider something that, for organized labor, which, seemingly, has lain dormant for decades, is not only audacious and hopeful, but wildly tantalizing. 

Let’s consider the following scenario: 

(1) Obama becomes president;

(2) the Democrats win an additional 20-30 seats in the House of Representatives;

(3) they secure a minimum of 60 seats in the Senate; and

(4) they have the moral courage to do something institutionally audacious to help working Americans.

For openers, Obama winning the presidency and the Democrats taking 20-30 additional seats in the House is not only reasonable, it’s quite plausible.  In fact, by October, with all that Obama vs. Hillary hostility having long ago melted into the political landscape, such an outcome might even be likely, given how difficult it will be for John McCain to overcome the toxic legacy of the Bush administration.

Getting those 60 senate seats is another story.  It will be a longshot, at best.  The reason “60” is a magic number is because it’s the minimum number of senate votes required for cloture (the ability to break a filibuster), thereby giving the party in power an enormous advantage. 

And even with 60 seats secured, there are those who would argue that getting the Democrats to go out on a limb for labor, despite all that congressional muscle and arithmetic to back them up, will be a miracle, that faced with a genuine opportunity to rejuvenate organized labor, the Democrats will ultimately chicken out.

But let’s remain optimistic, and speculate.  Let’s say the Democrats win the White House, increase their majority in the House, get those 60 seats in the Senate, and then (stay with me) go off on a holy crusade to restore organized labor’s once substantial role in the American economy by repealing the Taft-Hartley Act and passing a law prohibiting the permanent replacement of striking workers.  What would happen?

With Taft-Hartley repealed, the impediments removed, and a new “worker’s consciousness” in the air, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to expect organized labor’s national membership to rise from its current 12% to something closer to 30%, which would be fairly close to its all-time high of 35%.

Where would these new union members come from?  With all the obstacles and bad vibes gone away, they could be expected to be drawn largely from retail clerks, culinary, and clerical workers, many of whom had never considered organized labor a viable option; from coal miners (shockingly, only 27% of which are unionized) and truck drivers (only 19% are union); and from the 13.7 million American factory workers who are not currently signed up. 

Besides representing a sea change in our national consciousness, what would the result be?  How would having 30% of the American workforce suddenly belonging to labor unions affect the economy? 

For one thing, given organized labor’s exemplary record of providing safe working environments (check out union coal mines vs. non-union), industrial accidents would drop significantly.  For another, productivity could be expected to improve.  When Henry Ford famously raised his workers’ pay to $5 per day, he expected production to rise more than proportionately . . . which it did. 

A fact that’s often overlooked in all this globalization rhetoric is that Americans are extremely productive workers—some say the best in the world.  Moreover, it’s been demonstrated that businesses offering superior wages and benefits (i.e., union shops) tend to attract a higher caliber worker than those offering inferior ones.  Think about it.  Which job will attract better people—the shabby hole-in-the wall, or the classy enterprise?

For another, with businesses now forced to negotiate benefits packages that include employee medical insurance, there will likely be pressure placed on the government to adopt some sort of national health care reform, which would be a monumental step in the right direction.

Of course, the counter-argument will be that a vastly increased union membership (and the 10-15% increase in wages and bennies that go with it) will force business owners to seek drastic remedies.  It will be argued that they’ll be forced to move to a cheaper state or even a foreign country, or have to shut down their businesses altogether and go on welfare. 

But with the barriers removed, these hysterical scare tactics will be exposed for what they are.  The obscenely high salaries of company executives may be dinged a bit, and the stock market might take some time to readjust, but paying workers a livable wage won’t result in a cataclysm or full-scale migration.

First of all, businesses don’t move to foreign countries to avoid paying a union wage; they move to avoid paying an American wage.  You don’t pull up stakes and move to Guatemala because your forklift drivers go from a non-union $14.50 an hour to a union $16; you move there because you can hire drivers for $2 per hour.

In more innocent and wholesome times, an American businessman who was selfish and unpatriotic enough to move his operation to an impoverished foreign country run by an unenlightened government (thus leaving his workers and their families in the lurch) would have been called a “traitor.”  In today’s corporate-dominated climate that same businessman is considered “shrewd.”

Secondly, as for moving to an anti-union region of the U.S., with Taft-Hartley repealed, the Deep South will be in danger of losing his longstanding amateur status.  Many of those time-honored intimidation and propaganda techniques that were used to keep employees at bay simply won’t work anymore. 

The realization will be dramatic.  It will be like perestroika in the former Soviet Union, or dogs let out of the yard for the first time.  With the skids now greased, employees will be able to decide freely and openly whether or not they wish to join a worker’s collective.  It could happen.

Alas, a reality check.  As promising as this scenario sounds, let’s be honest.  It could turn out to be little more than an ambitious dream, a fantasy.  Indeed, there are many people who believe that American politicians, despite their noble promises and egalitarian oratory, favor keeping the American worker in a permanent state of “neediness.”

There are people who believe that not only the Republicans, but the Democrats as well, fear giving the working class anything close to the strength-in-numbers hegemony it had during the 1940s and 1950s, because increased numbers bring increased influence, and increased influence can be dangerous.

In any event, two things are certain:  Americans are extremely good workers, and the working man or woman’s only realistic hope for a better life is by applying pressure to those who control the payroll.   And, for now, the only way to apply that pressure is by organizing.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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