Unions May Be Flawed, But They’re Needed

vonhoffman julia louis dreyfus1v Unions May Be Flawed, But They’re NeededThis is no time for trade union idiocy, but we’ve got it anyway. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees are back at work, but employers succeeded in making the case that this union struck for what used to be called featherbedding. Featherbedding is a union contract that includes paying workers for not working. In the overworked and perpetually exhausted society that is our current-day America, news of such goings-on confirms the idea in many a head that unions have little to offer.

The television and movie writers strike has not been much of a help either. Though the strikers may have good and sufficient reason to walk out on their jobs, the way they did it came through on television as some kind of celebrity lark being pulled off by overpaid people feeling indignant that their cushy life is not cushy enough. In fact, as just noted, the writers may have a real case, but they did not present it well, and as a result, unionism took it on the chops yet one more time.

As if that were not enough, the generous coverage of the French transportation strike has also reinforced the opinion that unions exist to defend the entrenched privilege of a few lucky workers. The issues in the French strike make it appear, perhaps correctly, that the striking unions are fighting to retain such bennies as full and permanent retirement at age 50. This is coming at a time when all of American automobile workers have just suffered cuts in their compensation of a third or more, and that is with a union.

Americans are bombarded by anti-union messages, explicit and implicit, about as often as we are hit with TV pizza ads. One of our two major political parties is openly dedicated to the destruction of all trade unionism, while the other sells out unions whenever the mob of K Street corruptionists passes out the bribes.

Unions are such public institutions that when they go wrong, which they did often enough in the past, everybody sees it. They are unlike the banks, hedge funds and Wall Street brokerage houses, which get away with murder and are exposed only when something like the subprime disaster threatens to destroy the finances of hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people.

John L. Lewis, who was to the labor movement of the 1930’s what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, was to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, is supposed to have said that a bad union is better than no union. For practical purposes, we have been living the past 40 years in a near-no-union society. During these past two generations, each year has seen more employees or workers of whatever stripe and occupation limp on with less and less representation.

One view of how that has worked out for us is provided by Elizabeth Warren, a professor of law at Harvard University. This is how Professor Warren describes the, ahem, progress of the past 40 years:

“In the second half of the 20th century, the single most important economic thing that happened is that millions of mothers poured back into the workforce, and that’s the only thing that kept family income rising. Starting in about 1970, a fully employed male’s wages completely flattened out, and in fact, a fully employed male today, on average, median, earns about $800 less than his dad earned a generation ago. … Wages flatten for men and the family does better only if they can put two people on the workforce, and the norm switches from a one-earner family to a two-earner family, for those who are lucky enough to have it. Now if that were the only thing that’s happened, you’d think we should be richer. We should have more savings; we should have very little debt. But expenses in the same 30-year period far outstripped what the families are spending, and I’m not talking about consumer price index.

“Here’s the division. I want to compare a mom, dad and two kids today with a mom, dad and two kids 30 years ago, when you started a family in 1971, as I did. What happens on spending? Start with the consumption. This is what everyone [supposes], again, in the popular media, why are people in trouble: too many GameBoys, too many iPods, too many $200 sneakers. In fact, families today, adjusted for inflation, spend less on clothing; less on food, including eating out; less on furniture; less on appliances, than they spent a generation ago. Where they spend more is for [a] three-bedroom, one-bath house. The median family is spending 80 percent more on mortgage payments, adjusted for inflation, than they spent a generation ago. They’re spending about 75 percent more for health insurance than they spent a generation ago. … They’re paying for child care, which of course, they didn’t a generation ago.”

Professor Warren also points out that when one paycheck supported a family, there was a built-in safety net in case of illness or unemployment or some other urgent domestic need: The stay-at-home parent could temporarily take a job. Now, if there is a sudden financial jolt, it is a disaster for the family. The changes that she describes occurred simultaneously with the enfeeblement of organized labor. With the near demise of organized labor, it was not as though the great number of employees had exchanged the old representation for something different and better. They exchanged the old representation for precisely nothing.

The churches and “faith-based” organizations that put up a perpetual wall of sound bemoaning the weakening of family life do not address these questions, which have a hell of a lot more to do with fracturing the nuclear family than gay marriage.

There are no end of others lamenting what’s happening to the middle classes, but they offer little beside sympathy. You have amiable news celebs like Lou Dobbs on the case, but he has no program that might be of real help. You also have your Hillary Clintons, and they, too, are good at indignation without purpose, unless it is to get reelected.

If a reversal of direction is to come, it must be started by the affected themselves. The only way to do that is through collective action, which, by any name you wish to call it, means organizing unions.