Aljazeera America reports that Senator Bernie Sanders and progressive allies in the Senate and House are proposing a new measure to help working Americans. The Workplace Democracy Act would make it easier for employees to unionize. It would also require that employers negotiate with unions within 10 days of a request to negotiate. This measure is a good thing, but it’s more of a political statement than a realistic attempt to change law. Republicans control the House and Senate, and they are very pro-employer. That said, Democrats and Independents like Sanders need to present a new vision for how working people will be treated. This bill along with the Fight for $15 is part of that vision.
P.S. John Nichols of The Nation connects this issue to changes in the TPP and other international agreements that protect the right of workers to form unions.
Max Rust of the Chicago Sun-Times has produced a concise overview of right-to-work laws and their impact on states and workers. In short, the picture is not pretty. In right-to-work states, wages are lower, infant mortality rates are higher, fewer people have health insurance, and the average level of education is lower. Several states, mostly in the South and Southwest, have had these laws in place since the 1940s. More recently, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin have passed such laws.
Right-to-work laws hurt the ability of workers engage in collective bargaining. Yes, they do give a few people the freedom to avoid union dues. Many others, however, have seen hourly wages in these states go down over recent decades. Unions are far from perfect. In fact, today’s Chicago Sun-Times also features a great investigative article on the family of a local Teamsters’ official. Even so, unions enable workers to bargain for better wages and working conditions. If unions are so bad, why do corporations and billionaires participate in groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Club for Growth, and ALEC? If the richest people in American can collaborate to protect their interests, shouldn’t working class and middle class Americans have the same right?
Today is the 110th birthday of the Industrial Workers of the World (a.k.a., the Wobblies). Labor History in 2:00 offers a brief overview of the union and its famous founders. The Wobblies were persecuted by the federal government and their own policies of not signing contracts hindered their ability to grow. That said, the organization still exists and has carried out several successful organizing campaigns in recent years. As American workers struggle to have better pay and working conditions, it is important to know the history of groups like the IWW and other heroes of the American labor movement. Nothing will be won without solidarity and struggle.
In today’s Daily Kos, the great labor reporter Laura Clawson examines the wealth of an average worker compared to Sam Walton’s offspring. According to research by the AFL-CIO, the six Walton heirs total wealth is the same as that of 52.5 million American families (42.9%). The study points out that some families have negative wealth. Adjusted for that, the number of families needed to equal the Walton wealth drops to 1.7 million. However, that adjustment also indicates that many American families have issues with “negative wealth.” Clawson also notes that a Walmart worker being paid $9 per hour would have to work 1,036 hours to make what the company’s CEO Doug McMillon makes in one hour.
Do the Walton heirs deserve to be very rich? I believe they do. Their father created an innovative business model. The bigger question is how much wealth should anyone – rich heir or CEO -- have. What is the cost to society of an economy where a few are very rich and secure and many working class and middle class families are falling behind and less secure?
Today's Chicago Sun-Times reports that Sam Zell has donated $4 million to a PAC that supports the agenda of Governor Bruce Rauner. Columnist Mark Brown sees this donation as part of a movement that he describes this way: "Rich people, no longer satisfied with the privileges of being rich, are going for complete control." This isn't simply a matter of politics. Much of Governor Rauner's agenda targets union employees. Brown quotes Zell as saying, "The 1 percent work harder." That may be true, but in a time when most American face flat wages and poverty is growing, it's hard to see how the hard working 1% are helping the rest of us. Working people need to decide if they support making people like Zell even richer or if they want to have a society where children from the middle class and the working class will have opportunities to be successful. Rich people have always had disproportionate control. Are we moving to a point where their voice is the only one that matters?
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has announced that he will sign what is called “right to work” legislation. To be clear, this legislation enables workers at union work places to opt out of union membership and dues. Under this law, some workers will be able to benefit from union negotiation without paying dues. Eventually, no one will want to pay dues, unions will disappear, and workers will be left on their own to take what management will give them. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) cheered the law saying: "The public widely supports worker freedom and the potential positive impact to the state's economy can no longer be ignored."
In reality, as union membership has fallen in the U.S., so have wages. Take a minute and review the chart in this article from Huffington Post. From 1968 to the present, middle class income and union membership has declined at almost the same pace. I could call that many things. It is not freedom.
P.S. Daily Kos's great labor writer Laura Clawson gives her take on the parallel decline of unions and wages while also critiquing Nicholas Kristof for being late to the the party.
David Cay Johnston is one of my favorite writers on economics. He presents complex issues in language that is easy to follow and compelling to read. In a commentary published by Al Jazeera, Johnston notes that the recent growth in the U.S economy has not led to a growth in income reported on income taxes. In fact, average income reported dropped from $63,297 in 2012 to $61,668 in 2013. Johnson also presents a chart that tracks labor’s share of income since WWII. Since 2001, capital has been taking a bigger and bigger piece of the pie. He points to political factors, such as the outsourcing of factory jobs due to trade deals. He cites President Obama’s 2011 deal with South Korea as costing “thousands of manufacturing jobs.” He also demonstrates that all working people have been losers recently. While those making $250,000 or more a year did see a 4.8% increase in their reported income in 2013, their total income fell by 8.6% and average income by 12.8%.
What’s the moral of the story? The investor class is king. Workers are more productive than ever. Unemployment is down. Somehow, reported income is declining for all working people. As Johnston warns at the end of his commentary, “The American economy is getting bigger, but average incomes are shrinking. If that trend continues, it will eventually spell economic, social and political trouble for the country.” Johnston’s words frighten me more than ISIL. The real terror is economic.
Buzzfeed reports on an interview between Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times. The good news is that Blankfein recognizes the problem of inequality. The bad news is that he implies that it will get worse. He talks about a new economy that will employ labor in “new ways.” From capital’s perspective, that means the best return for investors, which has traditionally result in process improvements, automation, and offshoring. I’m not condemning Blankfein. As a leading investment banker, he is saying what he should. Working people and unions need to walk up to this reality, or the current good news on the job market will be temporary. We need a real workers’ bill of rights that provides realistic security for labor as well as capital.
Writing in Huffington Post, Amy Traub, an Analyst at Demos, notes that the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that McDonald’s workers could organize as one union because of the corporation’s rules for franchisees. This ruling will be appealed. However, if it is maintained, fast food workers have won a great victory in their fight for a living wage. Traub also notes efforts in the U.S. Senate and House to introduce new legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize. Given the current structure of the Congress, it’s hard to imagine these measures becoming law. That’s the bad news. The good news is that strong progressive voices like Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Keith Ellison are speaking out and presenting alternatives to “right to work” [for less] schemes. As Traub states, this has been a good week for workers. May there be many more.
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