No Holiday for Labor Unions

Labor Day this year comes draped in mourning. More than half of all workers have experienced a spell of unemployment,
taken a cut in pay or hours, been forced to go part-time or seen other
such problems during and after the Great Recession. Collapsing stock and
house prices have destroyed a fifth of the wealth of the average
household. Nearly six in ten Americans have canceled or cut back on
holidays. Amidst all this, workers increasingly don't even have labor
unions as a potential answer to their insecurities -- despite the fact
that, of all the institutions in America, they more often than not got
it right on the big issues facing the country, generally in the face of a
bipartisan political and elite consensus.

Unions are in trouble. They represent less than 13 percent of the
workforce and less than 8 percent of private workers. Union workers
still receive higher wages and are more likely to have employer-provided
health insurance, pensions
and paid sick leave than non-union workers. But when unions represented
over 33 percent of all private workers in the 1940s, they drove wage
increases for everyone -- non-union firms had to compete for good
workers. Now, unions struggle just to defend their members' wages and
benefits. Over the past decade before the Great Recession, productivity
soared, profits rose and CEO pay skyrocketed, but most workers lost

Unions face constant attacks from corporations and conservatives. The
most recent campaign -- designed as always to divide workers from one
another -- assails the pay and particularly the pensions of public
employees. Why should they have pensions, when many workers have lost
theirs and get, at best, a retirement savings plan at work? In fact, in a
civilized society, we would ask the reverse question. How do we create
pensions -- beyond Social Security -- for workers across the economy,
leveling up, rather than down?

Indeed, if we had listened to unions more often in the past, America
wouldn't be in the predicament it's in now. For years, labor warned
about the dangers of growing trade deficits, the folly of letting Japan
and China and others play by a different set of rules. But a bipartisan
consensus forged by Wall Street and embraced by both Presidents Bush and
President Clinton championed corporate-defined free-trade accords.

The results are calamitous. U.S. trade losses totaled $5.8 trillion over the past decade alone. The U.S. manufacturing sector lost nearly one in three jobs.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke notes that the global trade
imbalances helped create the bubble and bust that drove the global
economy off the cliff. Now growing imbalances impede recovery from the
Great Recession. Last quarter's disappointing 1.6 percent growth would
have been a robust 5 percent except for the increase in the trade
deficit. Now even Intel's Andy Grove and GE's Jeff Immelt agree that we've been feckless in shipping manufacturing jobs and production capacities abroad.

On corporate governance, a bipartisan consensus preached the cult of the
CEO, championing "linking pay to performance" with stock options. Labor
unions were scorned as impediments to "flexible labor markets." Union
leaders argued strongly that corporations should be responsible to more
than the next quarter's financial statement. They pushed unsuccessfully
for stakeholders, including labor and the community, to have a greater
say on corporate practices. The result: CEOs launched a crime wave.
Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Adelphi. Hundreds of corporations
"restated" earnings reports once the CEOs were made personally
responsible. Dozens of executives were caught backdating stock options.
Big banks made bigger and bigger bets, with taxpayers covering the
losses. Executives were given multimillion-dollar personal incentives to
cook the books; it isn't surprising so many found creative ways to do

On government regulation, labor fought a pitched battle against
privatization and deregulation that Reagan conservatives and New
Democrats made fashionable. Now in one area after another, privatization
has been revealed as a source of waste, fraud and abuse -- from
Halliburton to Blackwater. Deregulation contributed directly to the
corporate and financial debauch that brought the economy down, with the
human costs apparent from the Gulf of Mexico to Appalachia to the eggs
we eat.

Last Saturday in Washington, Glenn Beck tried to lay claim
to the civil rights movement. That same day in Detroit, we saw the real
thing: The UAW, SEIU and AFSCME joining with the Rainbow PUSH
Coalition, the NAACP, the Urban League, ministers and civil rights
activists to march for jobs and justice.
Union support was vital to the Rev. Martin Luther King's march on
Washington 47 years ago. And union support is vital to civil rights
movements -- from immigration reform to equal pay for women to the fight
for jobs -- today.

For all of their flaws, unions give voice to workers, and not just their
members. Their "small d" democratic strength is a vital counter to the
special-interest big money that has so distorted our politics. And their
revival is central to building a new foundation for this economy, one
that will ensure that it works once more for working people.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 Washington Post