Published on Sunday, March 7, 2004 by the Maine Sunday Telegram
Capital Gains, Labor Losses
by Peter Kellman
The leadership of organized labor has taken different paths in working to rid the White House of George W. Bush. Last fall, leaders of the unions that make up the AFL-CIO split. Some groups, like the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, two large government and service-sector unions, endorsed Howard Dean as the Democratic nominee to unseat Bush. Many of the industrial unions went with Richard Gephardt, while others like my union, the United Automobile Workers, remained neutral.
After Gephardt and Dean threw in the towel, the unions of the AFL-CIO endorsed John Kerry. Assuming Kerry, now the presumptive Democratic nominee, beats Bush, where does that leave organized labor? Worse off than when Clinton left office, and the prospects for growth are dim.
For many reasons, I will vote for the Democrat running against Bush. But I can't delude myself into thinking that this election will turn around the fortunes of unions in the United States. To do that, labor will have to reinvent itself as a social movement and take on the corporate oligarchy that's so influential today in America.
The national unions of the AFL-CIO need members to stay active. Their leaders reason that if a Democrat is elected, he will appoint National Labor Relations Board members who will be favorable to labor, and in turn their rulings will help unions gather more members. The problem is this theory hasn't materialized.
Let's look at the presidency for the years 1976 through 2000 - 12 years overseen by a Republican president and 12 by a Democrat. The loss of union members, as a percentage of the work force, has been greater under Democrats (4.1 percent) than Republicans (2.8 percent).
I am not trying to make the case that labor should back Republicans, because under them labor hasn't hemorrhaged quite so much over the last 24 years as under Democrats. On the contrary, over the last century the only major increases in labor membership took place during the Democratic presidencies of Woodrow Wilson - 2.3 million new members - and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman - when membership jumped by 13 million.
The labor decline as a percentage of the work force began in 1953. Two results of the decline is that inflation-adjusted wages are lower now for working people than in 1973, and hours of work have increased to the point that U.S. workers labor approximately three months more a year than do workers in Germany.
So the problem for labor is much bigger than who is running for president this year. The conundrum is that it's almost impossible to talk about these setbacks because we have just about lost the language to describe them. Here is an example:
"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never exist if labor did not exist first. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." So said Abraham Lincoln in his first State of the Union message in 1861.
It's difficult for people today to think about labor and capital - better understood as wealth - in terms that people did in Lincoln's time. The shadow capital casts is so strong, the juxtaposition of labor and capital has all but disappeared from our language. The influence of that wealth now dominates in the press, in the courts, in the legislatures, and on the campaign trail. Sadly, when a society loses the words to express a concept - such as worker rights - the society loses that concept.
For example, we don't talk about "run-a-way shops" anymore, we say the company's "outsourcing." We don't say 1,000 people lost their jobs, we explain that a corporation is "downsizing." And when the corporation downsizes, its stock goes up. More and more, the words we use focus on a corporation's health and not the worker's.
Today, everything is viewed from the perspective of capital. What used to be called "labor" is now called "human capital." If we were to switch labor and capital in Lincoln's State of the Union message - "Capital is the superior of labor, and deserves much the higher consideration" - and attribute it to almost any of today's political leaders, few would question the statement.
The complicity of labor unions in the present practice of corporate governance began when the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and the political climate of that period, changed labor from the social movement it had been to an interest group. This led to what has mistakenly been called a "social contract" between labor and management in which labor negotiates with executives over wages, hours and working conditions, but doesn't question their right to manage - or, more accurately, to govern. Since then, capital has been referred to as management, and labor as human capital. Management extracts human capital, the way it does any other of the Earth's resources, with little regard to human health, happiness, justice or the environment.
The candidate unions back for the presidency will become important the day unions stop being an interest group and take the lead in a social movement that challenges capital's role in the governance of this society.
To do this, labor must lift the veil on the problems the corporate elite would like us all to believe don't exist: poverty, unemployment, homelessness, lack of health care, and a prison population seven times greater, per capita, than that of Western Europe. And we need to talk about issues that haven't been raised in a long time, like how do we create meaningful work for all? How do we move from corporate education to democratic education? Why don't we have universal single-payer health care, a national pension plan for all, and the eight-hour day? We also need to come to grips with why our nation is often at war.
These problems, to name a few, need to be addressed not as single, unconnected issues, but from the perspective of a social movement built on human rights. A movement that promotes cooperation and gives a pink slip to those whose only interest is profit margins. A movement fueled by the hearts, minds and soul of the American working class.
Peter Kellman (email@example.com) is a labor activist, historian and writer who lives in North Berwick, Maine. He's the author of "Divided We Fall - The Story of the Paperworkers' Union and the Future of Organized Labor," recently published by Apex Press.
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