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Race to the Bottom

What Would a Country Without Labor Unions Look Like?

by DAVID MACARAY

What would a country without unions look like?  Before answering, we should clarify labor’s role, both historically and presently.  The purpose of a labor union is and always has been  to raise the standard of living for working people.  Simple as that.  And by “standard of living” we mean wages, benefits, and working conditions, all of which are acknowledged by federal labor law to be legitimate topics for discussion in collective bargaining.

Of course, anti-labor propagandists like to pretend that unions are cesspools of greed, corruption and ineptitude, and that the only things they care about are consolidating power and living high on the hog off the membership’s monthly dues.  That’s the rancid and misleading version of unions they try to peddle.  Unfortunately, misleading version or not, many people believe it.

Take my case, for example.  I was president of a local union for nine one-year terms, representing 700 employees at a Fortune 500 manufacturing plant.  Although we were hard-working, dedicated employees, we were also a fairly militant union who wasn’t averse to going on strike when the company got stingy.  Hard-working employees and frisky union members….a perfect combination.

Monthly dues were roughly $30, and my salary during my first term was $100 per month.  By the end of my ninth and final term, it had risen to $150.  Admittedly, compared to the salaries of local presidents across the country, mine was probably on the low side.  The average was closer to $200.  Still, even at $200, no local president was living large.

If there were no unions, working people would have no means of resistance.  Obviously, having no means of resistance is tantamount to having no leverage, and without leverage—without some form of bargaining power—we become sheep.  If there were no unions, the arrangement would devolve into your classic “buyers’ market,” with management in the driver’s seat, and working men and women along for the ride.

Historically, market forces tend to push wages downward.  If there was no union apparatus to prop up wages, working people would find themselves more or less in free-fall, eventually dropping all the way down to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour (which, if you worked 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, and never missed a day, pencils out to $15,080 per year).

As for the minimum wage, a significant portion of the Republican Party, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, would like to repeal it, believing the minimum wage to be an “artificial constraint,” and the people who rely on it to be more or less “takers,”  too afraid or too lazy to take their chances in a free and open market.

Virtually every industry in the country—from bottle cap manufacturers, to cauliflower growers, to guided missile makers—has lobbyists or trade organizations representing their interests.   What do working men and women have in the way of lobbyists?  Other than unions, nothing.  Other than unions, nothing and no one.

Indeed, even with unions, they usually find themselves out-manned, out-spent, and out-gunned, which is why the accusations of unions being “too powerful” are so ludicrous.  People have actually said to me with a straight face, “Unions were necessary back in the old days, but now they’ve gotten too powerful.”

Really?  Too powerful?  Here’s a stunning fact:  Only about 7-percent of all private sector jobs are unionized.  Consider that figure.  Seven-percent!!  That means that 93-percent of all private sector jobs in the United States are non-union.  Yet anti-union propagandists continue to portray organized labor has this gigantic, rampaging monolith.

It’s no wonder that statistics show the American middle-class continuing to disintegrate at an alarming rate, and the top 2-percent continuing to get richer every year.  The fact that the rich are getting richer makes eminent sense when you consider that, without any resistance, everything is going to be funneled upwards.  Why wouldn’t it?  Think of the phenomenon as “reverse gravity.”

Moreover, if there were suddenly no unions, even those well-paying non-union jobs out there would soon decline in quality as well.  Why?  Because with America’s businesses no longer having to compete with union wages, benefits, and working conditions, they would be free to jettison whatever the hell they wanted, and the whole enterprise would quickly become a race to the bottom.

Again, this is all about leverage.  It’s all about resistance and maintaining a healthy standard of living, and it’s all about our once vaunted middle-class being systematically assaulted and bled-out, and the country being transformed into one vast gladiatorial arena where everyone is treated as either a winner or loser.

In the 1950s, the U.S. was prosperous, optimistic, and buoyant with confidence.  During that period union membership was a staggering 34-percent.  Today, we’re struggling, polarized, and pessimistic.  And union membership barely moves the needle.

Yet you still hear people—not just conservative pundits and free market fundamentalists, but regular working folks—blame the unions for our problems.  It’s true.  Regular, good-hearted working folks are now hostile to the only institution capable of representing their interests.  How bizarre is that?

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition), was a former union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net