It’s harder to reach the American dream if you’re reaching all alone

By Robert L. Borosage
August 29, 2014

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“Hours of chaos” is how the New York Times described the work reality of more and more Americans. It highlighted Jannette Navarra, a Starbucks barrista, who is regularly forced to work part-time with fluctuating hours. She usually gets her work schedule three days ahead of the workweek, so she is always scrambling to arrange childcare for her son. Any hope Navarra has of advancing by pursuing a degree is shattered by her inability to schedule classes.

These sorts of lousy jobs are the increasing reality for many American workers. They are labeled “contingent” workers — part-time, temporary, on contract, on call. They generally earn lower wages than fulltime employees, with little or no benefits, and constant insecurity. They now represent one-third, perhaps as much as 40 percent of the workforce.

The Times focused on new technology that allows Starbucks to micro-manage worker hours to fit outlet demand. This really isn’t about technology, however. It’s about power. Workers have less power in the workplace in part because of continued high unemployment. When jobs are scarce, workers have learned to accept what they can get.

It’s is also due to the absence of a worker voice on the job because of the virtual disappearance of unions, particularly in the private sector.

No job is inherently marginal. Lousy jobs in places like non-union Phoenix are middle-class jobs in unionized New York City. Economist Robert Kuttner, writing in the American Prospect, described the very different reality of New York hotel workers, represented by the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union. New York employers, faced with variable demand for rooms, would also want workers to be on-call. But as Kuttner notes, in this case workers have a union to speak up for them. Through tough negotiations the union has guaranteed workers regular hours, decent pay (a housekeeper gets roughly $50,000 a year), paid vacation, pension and health benefits

Commentators often blame globalization and technology for America’s growing inequality and declining middle class. The former forces workers to compete with low-wage workers across the world; the latter displaces low-skilled workers with machines. What is missing in this scenario, however, is the central force behind the creation of America’s middle class — strong, independent unions.

Describing the decline of high-paying jobs without focusing on the decline of unions is like describing why an airplane can’t deliver goods — the runway is too short, the weather is bad — without noting that a major engine is broken.

Evidence of the importance of unions is overwhelming. Due to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, wartime mobilization and the need for “labor peace,” unions came out of World War Two representing more than a third of the private labor force. At the workplace, unions negotiated wage, benefit and work standards, helping to spread good pay, pensions, health benefits, paid vacations, and overtime pay across the economy. Non-union employers had to compete with those standards to keep good workers and avoid the threat of organizing.

In the political arena, unions provided a powerful voice for full-employment policies, raising the minimum wage, fair labor standards, Social Security and Medicare, affordable housing, public education, progressive taxes and more. They were an affective counterbalance to corporate lobbies and big money in politics.

For 30 years, America grew together. Wages on the bottom went up faster than those at the top, and a broad middle class was created. Wages rose with productivity — as workers gained a decent share of the profits and efficiency they helped create.

None of this was easy. It took often tough negotiations, strikes, organizing drives and brutal struggles to make progress.

And labor’s victories were far from complete. The South passed laws that made sustaining unions virtually impossible. Seasonal, agricultural and many low wage jobs were left out of protection.

Yet, as unions fared, so fared the middle class. When union membership stalled, and then declined as a percentage of the workforce, the middle class lost ground and the rich captured a far greater percentage of the income growth. Productivity and profits continued to rise, but workers no longer gained a fair share.

America started to grow apart. Today, with less than 7 percent of the private workforce represented by a union, the share of national income going to workers is near record lows. The share going to corporate profits is at record highs.

Yet, for many today, unions are regarded as an outmoded part of an old economy — a horse-drawn buggy in a mach 10 world. But as inequality hits new extremes, and more and more workers are forced into low-wage jobs, this seems risible. The need for workers to have a larger voice at the workplace and in our politics is clear. And workers express the desire to gain representation.

Some attribute the union decline to globalization. It is true that unions flourished when the United States dominated the world coming out of World War Two. Once other countries recovered and began to compete, global corporations starting shipping good jobs abroad in search of cheaper labor.

But globalization isn’t an act of nature. Its terms are defined by tax, trade and corporate laws. Germany, among other advanced industrial countries, has strong unions and a strong middle class — while making itself into an export powerhouse.

U.S. unions declined in part because they confronted unrelenting attack by corporations, aided and abetted by conservative politicians. Corporate lobbies largely wrote the rules of globalization. They launched aggressive “right-to-work” campaigns to undermine unions and their leaders. They fought to weaken labor law enforcement at the federal and state level. They used the threat of moving factories to a state with fewer work regulations or abroad against workers looking to organize.

Yet Unions can also bear some of the blame. They devoted too few resources to organizing new workers. Corruption and scandals provided grist for corporate lobbyists. Liberals’ attention focused more on the social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s — civil rights, environmental regulations, women’s rights, anti-war efforts. They didn’t mobilize to defend unions against the political assaults.

As for the New Democrats, this more conservative wing of the party increasingly scorned unions as outmoded in the economy, and unnecessary to the Democratic coalition.

What’s clear is that in today’s workplace, the rules are rigged against workers. Deprived of a voice at work in a high unemployment economy, they have little bargaining power — and corporations are increasingly willing and able to exploit that. This is one reason why median household incomes have fallen in the five years after the Great Recession — even as corporate profits (and CEO pay) have soared to new heights.

Turning this around will take new forms of political organizing. Democrats must once more make empowering workers central to their program.

In Los Angeles, for example, the city government has used its procurement and zoning powers to exact pro-worker jobs agreements with contractors — with decent wages and adherence to fair labor standards.

Meanwhile, new forms of worker organizations will have to be invented to respond to the modern workplace — where workers work at one company but are paid by another, as with many temporary workers. The fast-food walkouts, supported by broad coalitions of community groups, offer an early example.

Rebuilding a broad American middle class will be difficult. One thing is clear, however. We won’t be able to revive widely shared prosperity without strengthening the voice of workers at the workplace and in our politics. What was once scorned as an archaic leftover of an old economy is now clearly a vital ingredient to reviving American democracy – and the American dream.

 

PHOTO: Jon Brooks of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union 617 holds aloft a worker’s hardhat as participants take their seats for the White House Summit on Working Families in Washington June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
14 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Since the buying population wants to buy cheap Chinese goods at Walmart, union employees are not affordable nor employable.

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

U.S. unions declined because they grew too corrupt and power crazy. They shuttered companies until they consented to often unreasonable demands (or else!). That increased wages artificially high so that the cost of union goods made many American products uncompetitive. In addition, union wages were often far in excess of other wages. For example, one electricians union forced a 35 hour work week with very costly overtime rates and with a base salary that exceeded that of many professional jobs. And that’s before any conversation about costly retirement plans. Lots of non-union companies came into existence as a consequence.

So, you are very misleading when you say “U.S. unions declined in part because they confronted unrelenting attack by corporations, aided and abetted by conservative politicians.” Socialism has been discredited already so get real.

Posted by Margaretville | Report as abusive

We need a balance, going overseas for cheap labor is not the answer, nor is selling off our food supply to the highest bidder overseas, so we at home can pay$5.00 for a loaf of bread. The computer was the most wonderful invention to come along since sluiced bread, but did cause a loss of alot of middle class jobs. Corporate Americas “need for greed” is wrong, and does not do the right thing in trying to work within the borders to help fellow Americans. The Feds should look a the corporate income tax rates and lower them, because a percentage of something is better than nothing. If we continue on the same path, this country is heading toward civil war, as more and more have nothing to lose, the regular folk will turn to no good.

Posted by cheeze | Report as abusive

Oh look. Another pro-union puff piece completely devoid of facts. Stories about rigid work schedules in no-skill jobs are not evidence that a job destroying union is needed.

Posted by Kenny4Truth | Report as abusive

Regardless of who to blame and the future of American unions, we will see 10′s of millions of people locked into social and economic castes . The haves and have not’s are going to grow further apart and resent each other. At some point there is a danger for everyone. Those of you who “have” will probably just move to gated and guarded communities and hope the police can keep you safe. The “have not’s” can only hope to become a large enough political force to make change.

Posted by dorfenheimer | Report as abusive

Mr. Borosage, I have one thing to say to you about unions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Yabl onski

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Margaretille: If the decline of unions (and thus, the decline of the Great American Middle Class) was not caused, in part, by unreleting attacks by corporations and conservative pols, then why did those corporations and conservative politicians launch such an aggressive and sustained attack against unions? And they surely did, as you would well know if you know anything about the Powell Doctrine and its aftermath.

You have also failed to address the growing disparity between workers’ wages and corporate profits. Why should we have an economy where only a small minority enjoys mounting profits while the vast majority is left struggling just to survive? Until corporations do a better job of sharing their profits, your argument regarding corporate America’s struggle to compete is an empty excuse, a prevarication used to scare the masses into opposing unions.

Posted by carnivalchaos | Report as abusive

WELL WRITTEN AND !00% ACCURATE! THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS!

Margaretille: If the decline of unions (and thus, the decline of the Great American Middle Class) was not caused, in part, by unreleting attacks by corporations and conservative pols, then why did those corporations and conservative politicians launch such an aggressive and sustained attack against unions? And they surely did, as you would well know if you know anything about the Powell Doctrine and its aftermath.

You have also failed to address the growing disparity between workers’ wages and corporate profits. Why should we have an economy where only a small minority enjoys mounting profits while the vast majority is left struggling just to survive? Until corporations do a better job of sharing their profits, your argument regarding corporate America’s struggle to compete is an empty excuse, a prevarication used to scare the masses into opposing unions.

Posted by ineeditbad | Report as abusive

Reuters controls the conversation by censoring and butchering our comments. Shame.

Posted by carnivalchaos | Report as abusive

Isn’t Everyone Shocked by the High Prices at the Supermarket???Weights of Products go Down, Cost goes Up on the new Weights. A Ploy to make you Think that even Food Prices are not affected by Inflation…Yeah, Right…

Posted by ineeditbad | Report as abusive

@carnivalchaos, yes, the first time in six years I have written a comment *not* posted by Reuters. I am in no way an abusive or obnoxious poster; I merely asked Mr. Borosage to consider the horrific violence exhibited by unions before extolling their virtues so. I guess he didn’t want to.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Curmudgeon: Labor unions, like government and corporations, need regulations and oversight. The fact that unions have had corruption problems in the past doesn’t mean they’re no longer needed. Our government is excessively corrupt, in large part because of corporations. I wouldn’t recommend doing away with government and corporatons. Reform unions, government and corporations. Fix the problems and get them functioning like they were meant to. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

Posted by carnivalchaos | Report as abusive

It appears a number of comments were censored including mine. I thought this was “The Great Debate?”

Posted by GSH10 | Report as abusive

Your high points on unions are inspiring but you are missing something. In my experience as a member of more than one, unions protect people whose skills range from competent to truly awful. Let unions protect wages but not people.

Posted by JimTheDiver | Report as abusive

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