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A regular CounterPunch reader who’s written me several times—an African American ex-Steelworker from Pittsburgh, now an aspiring playwright—laments that the younger workers he meets not only believe that Ronald Reagan was one of the greatest presidents America ever had, they blame labor unions for our troubles. They blame them for ruining the U.S. economy by driving out so many of the good jobs.
Mind you, this isn’t Wall Street or the Chamber of Commerce talking. These are regular working people. But instead of viewing organized labor as the one institution capable of propping up the middle-class by offering decent wages and benefits, they’ve reached the startling conclusion that America’s unions are a detriment, not an asset. Sadly, this ex-Steelworker said he can’t recall a time in his life when unions were less respected.
How badly have things deteriorated? Just consider the well-publicized event that recently occurred in Maine. Paul LePage, the state’s Republican governor, was so opposed to the contributions of the American labor movement being made public, he insisted on removing an 11-panel, 36-foot long mural that depicted the history of Maine’s working people, arguing that it didn’t give equal time to the state’s corporations and business interests.
According to Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage’s office, the governor believed the mural (painted by noted artist Judy Taylor and installed in the state’s Department of Labor building) was “too one-sided,” too sympathetic to labor interests—at the expense of business interests—particularly at a time when LePage was pushing a singularly pro-business agenda.
If the move weren’t so bloody depressing, it would be comical; indeed, it would be hilarious, the basis for a zany Saturday Night Live skit. It would be tantamount to the History Channel yanking a program that glorified the life of Harriet Tubman or Fredrick Douglass, arguing that the show was too “pro-Negro,” and didn’t give the slave-holders or white supremacists equal time.
Another indication of how bad things have gotten is the condition of the auto industry. Bob King, president of the once illustrious United Auto Workers (UAW), recently announced that his union was going to undertake an historical, massive organizing drive in the American South, and that this campaign was going to amount to a “do or die” effort on the part of the union.
Why would King portray the effort as “do or die”? Because the UAW is effectively fighting for its life. The non-unionized South already accounts for almost half of all the vehicles built in the U.S., and that figure continues to grow as more auto companies relocate to Dixie. Since 2007, the number of auto industry employees who belong to a union has dropped 46-percent. In 2007 there were 345,407 unionized car makers in the U.S.; today there are only 185,522.
As Detroit continues to sink, the South continues to rise. Astonishingly, prior to its opening, in 2009, the Kia plant in West Point, Georgia, had more than 100,000 applications for 2,100 jobs. But in order to keep the union from gaining a foothold (and counter to the law of supply-and-demand), Kia wisely offered high wages and generous benefits. To the folks of West Point, the Kia plant was a godsend, the best manufacturing job anyone had ever seen.
Of course, what organized labor—and, apparently, few others—realizes is that once the American union movement is more or less neutralized, the economy will not only turn into an extravagant and lopsided sellers’ market, the clamps will come down harder and more brutally than anyone could have imagined.
Without having the unions to use as leverage, the South’s oblivious “free riders” (non-union workers whose wages and benefits are artificially propped up by the existence and threat of the unions) are going to find out exactly what a true “free market” labor pool looks like, up-close and personal….and it ain’t going to be pretty.
Consider: With more than 100,000 applicants fighting and thrashing over 2,100 jobs—and with no worries or fears about having to compete with union wages and bennies—why on earth would a company pay more than it was required to pay? Why would a company, any company, part with one nickel more than it absolutely had to?
Without the resistance of organized labor, the law of supply-and-demand will spur an inexorable race to the bottom. And instead of Alabama becoming the New Detroit (as the glossy brochures advertise), it will, in time, resemble the New Bangladesh.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org