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Why America Needs Labor Unions

“The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor.”

—Thomas Donahue

As Detroit’s multi-millionaire executives continue to mix it up with the struggling UAW, arguing over how to resuscitate a dying and woefully mis-managed industry without totally annihilating the wages and benefits the union spent 60 years fighting to get, the Obama administration agonizes over what to do next.

Of the Big Three automakGM seems to be in the worst shape.  In fact, on Feb. 14, it was leaked that GM plans to announce this week that unless it receives more federal loan guarantees (in addition to the $13 billion it already received), it will declare bankruptcy.

When the conversation turns to the topic of unions, it’s discouraging to hear people praise organized labor’s historical role in reshaping American society—more or less “inventing” the middle-class—and then, in the same breath, declare that unions are, at best, anachronisms, or, at worst, unwieldy obstacles to economic progress.

Many of the same folks who glowingly acknowledge labor’s contributions—equal pay for women, abolishing child labor, the 8-hour day, the 5-day week, overtime premiums, paid vacation, sick pay, pensions, maternity leave, mandatory safety programs, and company-paid health insurance—will sigh and announce that, alas, we don’t really need unions any more.

Presumably, because we now have all those goodies, they’re unable to think their way to the next level.  And that next level yields two truths:  (1) Relations between Labor (those who work) and Management (those who pay for work) will always be adversarial; and (2) because Management possesses the lion’s share of the wealth, resources, power, education, prestige and government patronage, Labor’s only hope lies in organizing.

With the post-New Deal federal government having demonstrated that it is slavishly accommodating to Corporate America (despite the occasional crumb thrown labor’s way), it should be apparent even to those who are uncomfortable with “collectivism” that the only entity capable of taking on Big Business is Big Labor.  The choice for working people is either accepting “genteel poverty,” or joining together and rising up.

Corporations are predictable.  They hate paying taxes; they hate paying wages (the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent millions lobbying against raising the minimum wage, which, even today, at $6.55, is pitifully low); they hate unions; and they more or less hate the federal government, which they view as an impediment—until they need bailouts or regulations to stifle their competitors.

Kevin Phillips, former Republican strategist and speech writer for Richard Nixon, and author of the book, “The Politics of Rich and Poor,” is no friend of labor.  Far from it.  But Phillips believes that citizens should be given the opportunity to prosper; and having watched in disbelief and disgust what happened during Ronald Reagan’s two terms as president, he’s afraid that, unless something reverses the trend, the phenomenon known as Middle-Class America will vanish forever.

What alarms Phillips is not only the “financialization” of the economy (the move away from manufacturing and into the credit industry), but the staggering gap that has developed between the wealthy and those in the middle and at the bottom.  The rich are not only getting richer, they’re manipulating the means by which they continue to broaden that gap.

Which brings us back to unions.  As Phillips notes, the average worker’s income hasn’t risen in real dollars (taking into account cost of living) since 1973.  Two incomes are now required to support a standard of living previously supplied by one.  Polls show that while only 12.4  per cent of the workforce is organized, close to 60 per cent of America’s workers say they’d be interested in joining a union.

But why the discrepancy?  Why only 12.4  per cent membership when so many more would like to join?  While the abandonment of the manufacturing sector has, undoubtedly, resulted in the loss of many union jobs, Big Business is largely to blame for it.  In collusion with Republicans and gutless Democrats, corporations—through stalling and intimidation tactics—have made it extremely difficult for workers to unionize.

Again, corporations are, by nature, neither altruistic nor generous.  They are acquisitive.  They are selfish.  They are predatory.  Corporations resent anything that stands in the way of making money, which is why they regard taxes as “robbery,” and wages and benefits not as an investment in the workforce, but as “overhead.”

And because union wages and benefits are roughly 15-20  per cent higher than non-union wages and bennies, Corporate America dreads labor unions and does everything in its power to neutralize them.  Meanwhile, that staggering gap between the rich and the rest of us continues to grow.  Even hardcore Republicans are alarmed by it.

Given the direction of the country, shouldn’t labor unions be seen not only as relevant, but as absolutely vital?  Without the unions propping up wages and benefits, who would do it?  Arguably, without unions, the U.S. would become a glorified post-industrial oligarchy.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Borneo Bob,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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