The Bitter Consequences of Corporate America's War on Unions

Verizon workers held coordinated marches, rallies, and picket lines up and down the East Coast last year. But even as some unions try to claw back political power, most workers in the United States remain unorganized and at the mercy of a political system that pays little more than lip service to its needs and demands. (Photo: Reuters)

The Bitter Consequences of Corporate America's War on Unions

Last week, Oxfam America published a report in which it was revealed that, across the United States, workers at giant poultry factories are being denied basic human dignity in the name of productivity and corporate gain.

Last week, Oxfam America published a report in which it was revealed that, across the United States, workers at giant poultry factories are being denied basic human dignity in the name of productivity and corporate gain.

Among other abuses, Oxfam found that some workers have been "reduced to wearing diapers while working on the processing line" after their requests to take bathroom breaks were repeatedly denied.

American poultry workers, furthermore, "incur injuries at five times the national average" without compensation that justifies such risk; workers subsist, as a result, in a state of perpetual anxiety, resentful of their situation but powerless to do anything about it.

In a climate of intense insecurity, cultivated by both the hostile corporate setting and the wider economic context of the United States in the 21st century, workers hesitate to speak out against their employers for fear of losing their jobs. "Lives depend on these wages," the report notes. "Usually, there are few other options in the area, and these options likely pay lower wages."

Outrage sparked by horrendous working conditions is thus overshadowed by intense shame and, ultimately, resignation. "Workers clearly get the message that they if they want to keep their job, they need to endure what happens inside the plant -- or, in the words of many, 'alli esta la puerta' ('there's the door')."

This sense of helplessness is felt across many industries and is largely the result of a ruthless, decades-long effort by highly class-conscious elites to dismantle unions and undercut potential threats to the accumulation of profit.

The effort has been a devastating success: "Union membership," observes Ana Swanson of the Washington Post, "has plummeted in the U.S., from nearly one-third of workers 50 years ago to one in 10 American workers today."

And as many have pointed out, union membership and the middle class are very much intertwined. "It was unions that made the American economy work for the middle class," writes Kevin Drum, "and it was their later decline that turned the economy upside-down and made it into a playground for the business and financial classes."

Indeed, researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggested a link between the sharp decline in union membership and the waning health of the middle class in a paper released late last year. Summarizing the paper's findings, the International Business Times reported, "From 1979 to 2012, union membership slid by more than one half, from 24 percent of all workers to 11 percent. Over that same time, the size of the middle class shrank by more than 10 percentage points, to 45 percent of the population."

According to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center, "the American middle class is now matched in number by those in the economic tiers above and below it."

Given this backdrop, the conditions endured by American poultry workers are not surprising. On the contrary, they are a predictable consequence -- the natural outcome of a system dedicated to serving the interests of the wealthy.

The poultry industry is booming, as Oxfam's report observes, but even as profits soar, the most vulnerable workers remain stuck in an untenable scenario -- horrified by their conditions but lacking an outlet through which they can voice their discontent.

There is a reason, then, that economic elites are waging unabashed class war: They understand that organized labor is a threat to corporate power. Unions are a redistributive force, one that endangers the ingrained paradigm of concentrated wealth.

The American poultry industry is "squeezing profits and productivity out of these workers," Oxfam's report points out, an observation that applies to corporate America generally. Productivity continues to grow, but the fruits of that productivity end up not in the hands of workers toiling under appalling circumstances, but in the pockets of CEOs who have, broadly speaking, seen their compensation grow by 997 percent since 1978. Workers, by contrast -- as a recent report by the the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley points out -- are forced to rely on federal assistance to compensate for their minuscule wages.

If these trends are to be reversed and the conditions of millions of workers improved, labor must regain its voice.

Unions, once a major force in American politics, are now an afterthought in the face of massive financial institutions and self-interested corporate executives dedicated to an agenda that runs counter to the interests of ordinary Americans.

The campaign of Bernie Sanders has done much to bring the demands of working people to the national stage, where they are otherwise only granted a dutiful but shallow nod.

Sanders has resoundingly backed a $15 minimum wage and has revived Franklin Delano Roosevelt's condemnation of the "economic royalists" and "money changers" who exploit the American political system and the economy for their own gain.

It should be remembered, though, that organized labor did not achieve its meteoric rise as a result of a president (in this case, FDR) who was favorably disposed to their interests; laborers, through grassroots activism and unmatched tenacity, forced his hand.

America's most profitable corporations and the government they have purchased will not heed to moral indignation; they are, by definition, driven by profit above all else. And corporate executives will not eagerly relinquish the progress they have made over decades of sustained assaults on the very concept of solidarity as expressed by the act of organizing and collectively bargaining.

The opposition to the revival of working class movements, in short, is fierce.

Republican elites and their patrons have made antagonism toward labor a defining characteristic of their platform. And as Connor Kilpatrick argues, American liberals, far from filling the vacuum left by a party devoted to the wealthy, have adopted a thinly veiled attitude of condescension toward the working class -- an attitude that coincides with the rise of neoliberalism, with its favorable view of big business, deregulation, and free trade.

"It becomes clearer every year, particularly with Sanders's popularity," Kilpatrick writes, "that the American ruling class has made out like bandits simply by keeping portions of the large (and potentially powerful) working class from uniting in a single political party behind even a social-democratic program. And that such a scenario would be nothing short of a disaster for them."

As Democratic Party leaders -- and, indeed, the party's likely nominee, Hillary Clinton -- rely on high-profile fundraisers featuring celebrities and fat-cat executives and peddle an agenda championing incremental reform as the means to achieve revolutionary ends, working people are left isolated, angry, and without a platform.

Bernie Sanders, despite being shunned by the party establishment for his efforts, has provided them with such a platform, and his remarkable campaign can serve as a foundation from which the working class can build sustainable movements that will be necessary to subvert the horrendous trends embodied by the conditions experienced, on a daily basis, by American factory workers.

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