Labor Day special--Still delivering: The people who brought you the middle class

by: Paul Rosenberg

Mon Sep 06, 2010 at 09:00


My grandparents were immigrants.  My paternal grandfather escaped from a Tzarist prison camp.  According to family legend, he was the only one who escaped who got out of Russia alive. He settled first in Philadelphia, where my father was born, and then moved to Los Angeles.  He joined the ILGW, and became a shop steward. He bought a car, and a house.  He became part of the middle class.  His son--my father--went to a state university--UCLA--and eventually became a college professor of English, one of seven or eight languages my grandfather spoke.

This is not an unusual story.  It happened tens of millions of times.  It is how the American middle class was made. It wasn't capitalism that did it. Capitalism was doing just fine with a relatively tiny middle class of managers, professionals and small business owners.  Well, except for that whole Great Depression thing.  And repeated "panics" throughout the 1800s, as they called them back then.

No, it wasn't capitalism that made the modern American middle class.  

It was unions.

Money wasn't all they brought.  There was dignity. Pride.  Security.  Respect. Solidarity.  All those intangibles were extremely important.  And guess what?  Money spoke to all of them, as well.

We all know that unions aren't as strong as they used to be.  But how many of us realize that they are still creating America's middle class?  The difference between a union and a non-union job doing exactly the same sort of work averages more than 25%.  And for Latinos it's double that: 50%.

Here's a chart from the AFL-CIO's website, from the section. "The Union Difference":

But unions don't just improve the living standards and the lives of their own members. They change the entire tenor of the economies and communities of which they are a part.

Paul Rosenberg :: Labor Day special--Still delivering: The people who brought you the middle class
One example of that is the relationship of laws allowing for stronger unions, rates of unionization, and rates of pay.  This can be seen in the following chart, also from the same section of the AFL-CIO website:

And, finally, you can see the difference that working union makes by comparing pay across a wide range of occupations:


This is just a taste of the tangible difference that unions make.  The tangible difference is the easiest to measure.  But it's the intangible differences that are the greatest.   Without the strength, unity and security that union solidarity provide, everything a working family has is always at risk, even the bonds of family. Parents can work all their lives providing for their children, only to see everything swept awy by forces beyond their control.  This happened repeatedly to millions of families throughout the 19th century, even though it was a century of fantastic economic growth overall.

Unions have helped to make that world utterly foreign to us--even for non-union workers, who enjoy many benefits and protections that organized workers helped to secure... such as Social Security and Medicare.  And yet, that world of radical insecurity could well return again, if we forget what it took to put an end to it, what it took to create the world we know now....

A world infinitely far from the Tzarist prison camp that my grandfather escaped from as a young man.


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No, it wasn't capitalism that made the modern American middle class. It was unions. (4.00 / 5)
Neoliberals talk about how class consciousness doesn't make any sense anymore because we're all middle class now, at the same time that they are systematically dismantling the institutions (formed in response to class-consious militance) which make that relative equality possible.

Besides unions, higher education is another democratizing institution which is on the chopping block.* About 30% of Americans have college degrees now, and my bet is that 40 year from now it will be below 20%. Already, if I had a kid going into the labor force without family financial backing, unless they got a free ride I'd recommend a carefully-selected two-year degree in a vocational over a liberal arts education.

*Though as I've argued before, getting an individual a college degree putting them up in the middle class doesn't change the class system at all, and real equality requires decent pay and benefits for non-collegiate workers driving truck and so on.  


Thanks Paul (4.00 / 5)
I do not get why so many young people (many who call themselves progressive) are so anti union.  All (some) they seem to know are the right wing memes that the media has pumped out: unions are corrupt, mafia related; you can't change a light bulb; they protect bad workers.

Few know the monetary results you have given; few know the history.  

In the case of the middle class, workers and youth; ignorance is NOT bliss when it comes to unions.


Collective bargaining is a form of free enterprise. (4.00 / 3)
There was a US Postage stamp in the 1970s that celebrated that fact, as if it were common sense knowledge. However, since then that knowledge has been lost among most citizens and we progressives need to hammer it home once again. Collective bargaining is a natural outcome in free labor markets that have been made less free with the creation of the limited liability public corporation, a legal entity that was created by government legislatures and courts. Conservatives are happy with how government created the rapacious corporate form we are stuck with today. They also love government intervention in labor markets to make collective bargaining difficult in this country ie "Right to Work" for less laws. However, conservatives especially like it when US govt endowed corporations set up shop in cheap labor hell holes like China where that government intervenes often brutally in labor markets to quell collective bargaining efforts, while at the same time undermining US workers bargaining power.  

Follow the Money (4.00 / 1)
Every dollar that comes into a business has at least three groups with equal claim that has to be sorted out: the investors who put money in to make the company happen and to keep it going, the managers who plan and direct the company, and the workers who actually do the labor required to make products and deliver services. You need all three to make a viable company over time. To pretend workers don't have an equal right to some part of every dollar that comes into a company, or to say their wages are sufficient, is to deliberately hobble a key part of the company. This includes receptionists who make clients feel welcome and the people who clean the toilets and make the work spaces livable.

Unions simply give workers a shot at claiming their fair share of the benefits a company generates. And they help other workers who are non-unionized lay claim to their fair share. Managers and investors use their power to get a share of what companies generate. Workers have the same right. Unions are not perfect, of course, but we are all worse off without them.

What strikes me this Labor Day is that we're in the midst of an ongoing transition in our economy where the largest corporations, some of them alive only because of taxpayer funding (aka welfare queens), are in the process of shipping tens of thousands of jobs overseas in spite of a desperate need for jobs in this country. While companies might not have a heart, the people who run the companies do have the choice. And they continue to choose short term artificial profits gained by offshoring over supporting their country and its workers.

We need to vote this fall for politicians who will fight for the middle class. That's not Obama, so far, and it certainly is not alot of corporate Democrats and Republicans. We also need to get out the vote among our like-minded friends.


[ Parent ]
My only disagreement... (4.00 / 2)
with your post is that managers of corporations don't really have a choice, because of how the corporate entity is legally constructed - it is a legal person whose only responsibility is to maximize profits for its shareholders at all times or face extinction. In such an environment where all publicly traded corporations are structured in this way, managers have to keep up with the competition regardless of how good human beings they personally may be. In this highly competitive growth-at-all-costs environment it is the ruthless managers who are most rewarded and sought after by corporate boards. The behavior of the largest monopolistic public corporations also defines the parameters within which the smaller non-publicly traded corporations must operate. Progressives need also to focus on amending the laws that define how corporate persons behave - to make them responsible for the externalities of their behavior, and make them responsible for more than just maximizing profits. Eurpoean corporations are legaly structured to include trade union representatives on their boards of directors. I hope I have succeeded in explaining how corporations do not exist in a free market despite the conservative rhetoric.    

However, it is the government that allows our corporations to move productive operations overseas to take advantage of cheap unable-to-organize-by-their-govt labor and lax regulations and then import their products back into this country for sale without paying tarriffs. This is a result of conservative policies aimed at breaking the back of the middle class in this country.


[ Parent ]
A lot of good points here (4.00 / 4)
I have one small dissent (that doesn't take away from your larger point, but it is important).

managers of corporations don't really have a choice, because of how the corporate entity is legally constructed - it is a legal person whose only responsibility is to maximize profits for its shareholders at all times or face extinction.

This is a fair description of the legal state of things in theory. In reality, many corporations tend to be driven by a concern with the interests of top officials, especially CEOs, which is why their pay has skyrocketed, without being tied to any massive increase in long term stock values.  What that means is that corporations have become a means for maximizing top managers income, rather than shareholder profits.  Thus, shareholders, which include institutions that serve lots of people who are not otherwise in the market, are being screwed as well, and thus we all have an interest in changing the incentives and rules.  

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


[ Parent ]
"If I'm going to violate my fiduciary responsibility, it'll be for ME, buddy, not for YOU." (4.00 / 5)


[ Parent ]
Boy Howdy! (4.00 / 3)
How many times do you have to be told? The laws are for little people!

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
That's the theme of Glenn Greenwald's forthcoming book (0.00 / 0)


[ Parent ]
Yes and No (4.00 / 1)
It's not in the investor's interest to contribute to the destruction of the middle class and a customer base. Every job offshored, for example, that is not balanced by a job created here, is one less person able to afford to live here. Clearly that's not in the interest of any company, any investor, or the government and society.

Indeed, governments exist (in part) to draw these lines within an economy to avoid a race to the bottom. As we've seen, the US government has been extremely lax for decades in setting minimum boundaries for appropriate corporate behavior. And these boundaries don't have to be regulations per se. They could be tax breaks for creating and keeping jobs in the US with heavier taxes for every job offshored.

Otherwise, I agree with all your points. But I think companies and investors hurt their interests by destroying jobs in the US while taking taxpayer funds.


[ Parent ]
Mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living (4.00 / 4)
Every Labor Day and every May Day I make it a point to see the best movie ever made: Matewan. In my view, the best work by America's best director.

The movie subtly and not so subtly engages all the critical issues we faced as a people in the period it depicts and that we face still today. Labor vs. Capital. Strike! Racism. Immigration. Sexism and chauvinism (less effectively). Emancipatory vs. authoritarian religiousity. Violence vs. Non-violence. Solidarity. Desperation. Organizing. Workplace safety. Provocateurs and spies. It's all there.

Brilliant direction, script, and acting to boot.

This clip I selected because it is of a higher quality than those depicting only the ~5:40 minute union meeting scene I wanted to share today, but some of the other elements wrapped around it are compelling as well.

Went to a party the other day and sat next to an older women in whose kitchen May and Walter Reuther met. As she was in the kitchen, her mother and May and other women were preparing food. As she related the story, in walked Walter who asked "what can I do to help?" And they put him to work. As my new friend said, "That's just the kind of person he was."

Many great stories I heard for the next hour as she as her compadres traded memories about their younger years.

I am reasonably well informed about American labor history, certainly more than most. Nonetheless, no one, at least not me is aware of or can appreciate all the many episodes of tragedy and courage that define that history. To wit, on vacation in the UP several years ago my partner and I paid a visit to the new Keewenaw National Historic Park that is spread across the peninsula and whose heart is the Industrial Calumet facility (I strongly recommend a visit).

I am fanatical about industrial and labor history when travelling. We went in part because that small part of my family from America were Cornish hard rock miners and spread themselves across the UP and into Northern Minnesota. (Grandma made many a delicious pastie growing up).

And a colleague who grew up in Calumet had recently been hired as the park archivist. We lucked out in that the still-new park became open to us via his kindness, including access to their enormous vault of records and material objects (boots, head lamps, knick knacks of every shape and variety). A truly moving experience in every possible way.

But while in Calumet I learned of the Italian Hall Massacre on Christmas Eve 1913, captured in song by the immortal Woody Guthrie. First I'd ever heard of it, and I am both a fan of the study of labor history and of Woody Guthrie.

The point is not my ignorance, though it's always good to learn new things of importance and to be taken down a notch, so to speak. The point is that the massacre, while extreme in some sense, was/is routine: there are so many such episodes even one who is generally alert cannot possibly know of them all.

And the bigger point is that these are the folks we honor today and on May Day.

Politicians routinely gesture to the sacrifice of our soldiers, as if more than a few of them know what sacrifice is. And they are right to recognize the sacrifice of American soldiers and their families even as it is the politicians and the generals - Dylan's Master's of War - who  sacrifice the soldiers in pursuit of their bloodthirsty neo-imperalist objectives.

But they are not the only soldiers and they are not the only ones to have sacrificed.

Those 73 men, women, and, children who were assassinated by company thugs every bit as despicable as Al Qaeda are also soldiers. A brigade of 73 in an army of millions. Soldiers in the Class War, killed fighting for their futures and ours.

It is they we should keep in our minds today and every day. It is they I try to keep in mind whenever I am tempted to sit back and enjoy the privileges their struggle and those like them have afforded me.

To them and the countless millions much like them: "Thank you, thanks to you all." Know that we appreciate that the fight continues and we continue to join that fight.

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? And cold comfort for change?


To put it a bit more succinctly... (4.00 / 6)
If government is going to allow capital to organize into a corporation, and confer upon that corporation privileges and protections such as limited liability, personhood, unlimited life, the ability to purchase other corporate persons, the ability to influence politics etc., then in the name of freedom, workers should be able to organize into collective bargaining units with equal priviledges and protections as corporations, no? Further, in the name of protecting our free market, we ought not be granting US corporations the ability to exploit less free labor market conditions in developing countries (where governments intervene to prevent workplace democracy) without corporations paying tariffs when importing goods back to this country for sale.  

"I do not get why so many young people (many who call themselves progressive) are so anti union. " (4.00 / 3)
Part of it is the separation between social liberals (personal freedom and minority rights) and economic liberals (majoritarian egalitarianism), whose alliance was always a bit fragile. Many social liberals are upper middle class and contemptuous of labor, and the labor force has also been transformed (fewer miners, auto workers, steelworkers, etc.), so many individuals who really are labor don't think they are. The transformation of class into "lifestyle" (U and non-U, highbrow-middlebrow-lowbrow) was a project of the fifties liberals (my bete noir Hofstadter and many others). It looks pretty trashy now, pretty much in the pop psych area, but they took it very seriously.

The unionization experience has receded into the past (my father's era, and I'm 64) and many young liberals, even if they do pay lip service to the labor issues, have no vivid memories or images of what happened, and furthermore have few and often negative images of unions based on the ones which were corrupt, homophobic, sexist, or racist. (At this point I usually say: it was Democrats who busted the crooked Teamsters, whereas Republicans made deals with them. But that's wasted breath most of the time).

In general, a lot of young Democrats (under 45), without overtly renouncing egalitarian goals, are doubtful about many of the institutions promoting equality, and positively reject the kinds of political action that gained it. Centrist Broderism was already latently there in Hofstadter, and most young Dem pros really don't like populist rhetoric, direct appeals to popular feelings, unions and the things they do to gain representation, and contentious politics.  And less political liberals  seem to gravitate to nonpartisan single-issue movements which don't require you to take sides on the economic issues.

As I've said, a kind of gentility and a misreading of Gandhi, Orwell, and Camus are a part of this. Those three were asking for the rejection of bloodthirsty revolutionism and nationalism, whereas genteel liberals have rejected even the kind of strong rhetoric that Truman or FDR used. (Republicans have even tried to steal Truman.)

And then there's the idea (which I think is the result of bad social science) that the President is the super-wonk, and super-technocrat. A lot of people think of the President as a cool administrator, and Obama plays to that. But that model doesn't work with enough people.


I'll add one more general point (4.00 / 2)
is that there is a general lack of connection to our progressive and / or liberal roots.  It's true many politically engaged progressives today don't know much about what does or its history, but a few days ago we were making that same point with respect to the Civil Rights Movement.  No doubt we could pile more on.

Neoliberalism rejects the New Deal, the Great Society, Radical Reconstruction, etc., and they have a good deal of control over the discourse.  The ideas behind them are simply illegible to many today.  The issue silo interest group approach to politics makes it difficult to make sense of our past or see why it's necessary.  I agree that the disconnect with the labor movement is particularly problematic, but the problem is a general one.

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


[ Parent ]
A Number of Things (4.00 / 4)
I'm 22.  I work in what you could call the 'worker center' or 'labor support' field, so not unions per se, but we collaborate constantly with the union labor movement (though there are serious pressures to stop doing so- due to some foundations' pretty explicit lack of interest in funding projects that collaborate too closely with unions).  I'd attribute a few things to most of my peers' utter lack of understanding of what a union means (or can, under ideal circumstances):

1. I was born in 1987, well after PATCO and Reagan, and I grew up in a period where all I knew was the utter demonization of unions.  Even in a liberal household, it's not as much that there was overt hostility as much as a constant implicit concession to the conservative hegemonic line- that unions had a lot of major glaring faults and had become ossified, corrupt, and in many cases no better than the management they challenged.  That was it more than anything else, the triumph of conservative hegemonic thought, such that unions lacked context in my world.  We don't know where they fit, how they're placed, because whereas balance between labor, management, and government used to be a value, that balance is now wholly maligned.

2. Both of my parents (a self-employed lactation consultant and a computer programmer) worked in fields that had very little affiliation with unionism, so it had almost no direct obvious bearing on my life.  My primary exposure to unions was the times they went on transit strikes in New York.

3. To be perfectly frank, a lot of liberals my age (at least those on the east coast) hold pretty stupid views of working class people that- while they may have a grain of truth to them situationally- lead them to paint all unionists as equally bigoted or parochial.  For a generation where liberalism is identified primarily with the Civil Rights movement (which somehow erases the labor goals of that movement- ESSENTIAL to understanding present misunderstandings of that movement), environmentalism, feminism and gay liberation; unionists are often portrayed as antagonistic to all those interest groups.

4. Finally, we don't know what a powerful union movement looks like, we've never seen one.  That sounds really harsh, but I mean it both because it's undeniable that labor's influence has been waning since my birth as it tries to figure out how to be more effective and because it's pretty abysmal at getting good press and effectively countering conservative hegemonic thought.

Figuring out how to be a progressive college graduate transplant to Ohio:  http://citizenobie.wordpress.com/


[ Parent ]
Grumpy Timberman? (4.00 / 1)
That's not the Timberman I have come to respect in these parts.

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? And cold comfort for change?

[ Parent ]
Fixed (0.00 / 0)
Not grumpy. Sleepy, maybe. Dopey, for sure.

Typos are tolerable. This is not. Apologies, joelfrominwood.


[ Parent ]
So True! (4.00 / 1)
You've returned to 50s liberalism again & again, but this has special resonance for me:

The transformation of class into "lifestyle" (U and non-U, highbrow-middlebrow-lowbrow) was a project of the fifties liberals (my bete noir Hofstadter and many others). It looks pretty trashy now, pretty much in the pop psych area, but they took it very seriously.

I remember being exposed to this as a kid. I read everything, and my parents subscribed to the Saturday Review and the New Yorker, among others, both of which were into that kind of thing, which I found somewhat interesting, but also sort of embarrassing, as it seemed to be somewhat adolescent.  Perhaps it was my first brush with pseudo-"Adult" discourse.  I also recall thinking that this sort of talk really didn't measure up to my grandparents' class struggle politics, or the emerging civil rights politics that I was also being exposed to.  I didn't have a sophisticated context to put all of these things into.  It was just an intuitive sense at the time.  But it's amazing, now that you remind me, how strong that sense was way back then.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Why do educated people mistrust unions? (4.00 / 3)
1) This isn't always the case.  In New York City, at least the most creative people are in unions and are fairly militant, e.g. the musicians and actors.  Richard Florida, what do you have to say about that?

2) Educated people have their own unions, i.e. professional associations such as the AMA and ABA.

3) Educated people engage in many other forms of labor restrictionism unrelated to job performance.  Wall Street hasn't outsourced accounting, unlike IT.  Why is this the case?  Accountants successfully argue that interaction with US regulators requires US accountants.  Wall Street workers are also notorious for carrying out job actions similar to unions (e.g. relatively large groups of workers threatening to quit the day a project goes into production).

4) College degree requirements are often a form of unnecessary restrictionism.  This has the effect of bolstering the divide between educated and "non-educated" workers on the basis of "meritocracy".  I would argue 90% of jobs in Finance could be carried out by people educated through OTJ training programs.


That's Exactly Why! (4.00 / 1)
"We're not like them!"

The less true it is, the more strongly it is asserted.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
State bar associations provide another form of protectionism (0.00 / 0)
If you are a lawyer in one state you can't set up shop in another state without passing the bar exam there.  

[ Parent ]
Racism among the Educated "liberal" elite (0.00 / 0)
If anyone thinks racism is the monopoly of the white working class they are laughingly mistaken:

- converse with any gentrifying Yuppie scared that his precious new neighborhood might be "tipping back".

- listen to any conversation of, e.g. young Manhattan career types, and count the number times the word "ghetto" is spoken.


I think the whole idea of "unions" is nostalgic (0.00 / 0)
unfortunately.  I think those days of the 1930's - big manufacturing in the U.S.- will never come again.

What sort of unions do we have today? We have SEIU, the federal workers union...anything else? Oh yeah, mine workers union....are there unions for BP, Shell, Exxon...those workers on the drilling rigs?  I don't know offhand. Maybe they do have unions. What good does it do them? I think unions are necessary and good, but the state of our marketplace makes unions sort of passe. I mean what good are they?  We have OSHA, we have minimum wage laws, we have laws around large employers, those with over 50 workers (?) must provide health care....Auto workers with GM gave up so many concessions over the years to sign new contracts and maintain their health care, only to lose their pensions in the Great Recession...

My father's father was a union electrician in Manhattan, New York City. He had brothers who joined the union and followed in his father's footsteps, but my father married my mother and moved to Pennsylvania. My mother's father was an escapee from the anthracite coal mines of northeastern Pennsylvania. He started his own business and my father, after he married my mother, joined him in it. My mother's father was a "capitalist," so to speak. So were many other immigrant Americans in the land of opportunity of America.

Anyway, I've also witnessed first hand in Pittsburgh, PA, unions of steel companies going down the tubes along with the companies they belonged to. In the end, it wasn't that the unions asked for too much..it was the global marketplace - global capitalism - taking over.  

And that's the way it is.  On this Labor Day I celebrate all workers - union and non-union. Trouble is, I think, it's way beyond labor's ken to figure out a solution.  It's global, it's IMF, it's late capitalism.  It's anybody's game.


"late capitalism" (0.00 / 0)
is managed by actual capitalists.  They have names, and there is nothing wrong with treating them as opponents.  They are not simply automatons of the market.  As they was pointed out to Obama by the Wall Street chieftans, they "enjoy what they do".

How many inspectors does OSHA have?

Is the minimum wage enough to support a family?

And even if your profession or industry hasn't been "hit" yet by "late capitalism" it will, and at that point you will regret not having some "push" on your side.  


[ Parent ]
"push" for what? (0.00 / 0)
higher salary? Groups have been fighting for years to no avail for a "living wage." better working conditions? health care? Sure, I'd like to have some "push" on my side. I just don't have much faith collective organizing could actually get anything.

Sure OSHA should have more inspectors, so should the USDA. Where are the unions today fighting for these sorts of things? Unions today seem like just another special interest group. Where are the unions today for oil rig workers?  Do they have any?

I'm not against unions.  I wish I belonged to one. I wish I had some Big Brother - okay, that's what I think of them - in my corner.

Unions just don't pack the punch they used to. What's to negotiate..and who with, who for?  Workers are just workers today..The days of unions fighting for workers are gone, unfortunately.  We have laws now.


[ Parent ]
What is the basis for this? (0.00 / 0)
There are unions are out there, fighting, winning victories.  For example, they have actually won living wages in localities where they are strongest. Working conditions are better in union workplaces, and safety is still a major concern.  I don't know why you think that unions seem like just another interest group. Since you don't base that on anything specific, it's hard to discuss your claim.

Also, the laws you point to only happened because of union political power and are continually being weakened because that power has been diminished.  There is no way to ensure such laws will protect workers absent unions.  

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


[ Parent ]
You're right, I know you're right (0.00 / 0)
Thank you for pointing out how it is due to the work of union organizing that we have minimum wage laws and worker safety laws, etc.

I'm sure there are unions out there, fighting and winning victories, but there isn't a large part of the electorate anymore that belongs to a union. I still think the days of union power are gone. They are just a special interest group, for those workers lucky enough to belong to a union.  

I'm not basing this opinion on anything specific, except general knowledge that Walmart, one of the country's largest employers, successfully fended off attempts to unionize its workers and the fact that U.S. manufacturing, the typical unionized workplace in America, barely survives.

Where was the union for coal miners in the Massey Energy mines of West Virginia when 25 coal miners lost their life due to conditions? Massey was working on court appeals to fend off its safety violations.


[ Parent ]
Here is the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) (0.00 / 0)
http://www.wsws.org/articles/2...

The struggles of coal miners led to a major increase in living standards, health care and other improvements. Today only Mississippi is poorer than West Virginia. Some of the most impoverished counties include McDowell and Mingo, two former strongholds of the UMWA.

The UMWA betrayal of the 1984-85 strike at what was then known as AT Massey set the stage for a drastic rollback in the working conditions and living standards of coal miners throughout the industry.

In September 1984, Massey refused to sign the Bituminous Coal Operators Association agreement-which set the standard for wages and benefits throughout the industry-and insisted that the UMW bargain separately with 14 different subsidiaries, maintaining the legal fiction that these were independent enterprises.

Historically coal miners would carry out a national strike and shut down the entire industry until every operator signed the BCOA agreement, following the principle that "an injury to one is an injury to all." In December 1983, however, newly elected UMWA president Richard Trumka (now the head of the AFL-CIO), and the rest of the union leadership abandoned the principle of "no contract, no work" and industry-wide strikes in favor the policy of so-called selective strikes against individual companies.


emphasis added

[ Parent ]
Times change (4.00 / 1)
But the core dynamics of the class war do not change so much. Maybe unions are passé, maybe not. I think not, though clearly they are weaker, much weaker. I don't think you are really saying their need is gone...OSHA is largely a joke, and a bad one at that. Minimum wage is less than it was in real terms 30 years ago and millions of workers don't get even that. The word is still out on health care. And Rosenberg pointed out that even in current circumstances union workers make on average significantly more and enjoy a range of non-material advantages as well. And their success elevates non-union workers as well.

Change affects more than one side in the class war and it is not clear to me the owners have forever resolved the system's contradictions and they have hardly banished worker resistance. That resistance will take new forms and be expressed in new ways. Is already.

And I think unions are and will remain a part of that dynamic, as evidenced by their activism in emerging sectors and their continued importance even in declining manufacturing. Even today - not saying it will happen - but if 5-6 key unions simultaneously struck we would see a de facto general strike that would show just how much workers remain the gravediggers of capitalism. That power is latent and cannot be extinguished, at least not permanently.

Moreover, it is I think inarguable that even weakened, there is nothing comparable in terms of translating the power of individuals into relatively effective action in the US. Even weakened, the left/progressives/liberals have no comparable institution of strength on which to draw resources of every kind. Think things are bad now? Imagine how much worse they would be without our anemic unions. That's not nostalgia, that's the reality outside my window and yours.

Your argument and mine are also largely confined to the US context. Unions in Europe face great stresses but remain strong and have much greater institutional roles in political and economic decision making. It is not clear to me the "US model" will win out in the war among those in the core. In fact, I think the US model is losing out faster than it is being taken up.

Then there are the great unknowns: Whither real worker power in China, in India? Will the sindicato be reborn in Latin America? Will the leftist turn in South America continue or be reversed? How will global capitalism fare in the coming age of resource scarcity? These are huge unknowns and I think to dance on the grave of organized labor is extraordinarily premature.

As capital goes global, so must labor. I think it will. I think we better fight like hell to make sure we do.

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? And cold comfort for change?


[ Parent ]
You make a good point about (0.00 / 0)
whether unions will develop in China, the current center of manufactured goods in the global economy. Probably someone has studied this, and in India as well. I'm not up on this research, nor do I know the state of European unions, though I have passing knowledge about European countries that are social democracies and don't require unions to secure advantages for workers.

My quarrel is with the nostalgia of Rosenberg's entire post. As you point out, Rosenberg says that "even in current circumstances union workers make on average significantly more and enjoy a range of non-material advantages as well. And their success elevates non-union workers as well." That might be true for a minority of workers in a minority of unions.  It's just not true for the majority of American workers. And, furthermore, I don't think it can be. The power of unions, I think, is history.


[ Parent ]
cause or effect? (0.00 / 0)
Like all commerce, labor is strongly affected by the makeup of the market...The higher percentage one part of the field controls, the larger their influence in that field. Today the nonunion controls the vast majority of the labor in all occupations, thus the trend continues downward for workers.

This situation was and is created by the forces of greed, seeking, as always "cheep labor". Political war, of course, but also, all of the media methods being used aginst the Dems were first fashioned for and used against unions. The result of this ocean of lies is the public miseducation regarding organized labor, that you expressed. Few know, for instance, that unions are by far the cleanest orginzations in the U.S. This is due to the federal government enforcing on unions much more strictly than other institutions...to please the anti worker section on the right.

This (painting the white knight black) by the media has been less effective in the workforce. A recent survey found that over 60% of nonunion workers would be union if they could without illegal obstruction by law breaking employers.

I agree that collective barganing has been reduced in effectivness by decades of brainwashing and rise of money power in politics, but it still is the only thing available to workers to avoid third world working conditions and poverty.

What we need is another way to use collective action for workers benifit. Perhaps a real consumers union?

 

Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob..... FDR


[ Parent ]
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