The Struggle Continues for Organized Labor

In what is being called a “free speech issue,” the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday “that public-sector unions for state and local employees can’t force nonmembers to pay a fair-share union fee.” Per The Hill, the ruling “overturned a 1977 court precedent that allowed public-sector unions to accept fees from nonmembers to cover nonpolitical union activities like collective bargaining.”

Effectively, this ruling turns America into one giant right-to-work state, where union employees are still represented but not required to pay union fees. While logically it seems fair that workers should have the right to choose whether or not they pay union dues, the reality is that right-to-work laws have crippled the collective power of labor. As Dave Jamieson of The Huffington Post writes:

Allowing workers to opt out of agency fees leads to what unions call the “free-riding” problem. A worker can choose not to pay them but still reap the benefits of the union’s bargaining and grievance process. A downward spiral can ensue: As more workers decide not to support the union, the union becomes less effective, giving more workers reason to bow out. [Emphasis mine.]

I have never been part of a union, and my experience talking to union members have yielded a mixed bag of opinions and criticisms. Generally speaking, the people I’ve talked to who don’t like paying union fees feel that way because they believe the union protects only the least capable workers, and not them. They see it as a contribution making it harder for their employer to fire someone, and since they believe that doesn’t apply to them — because everyone feels they are proficient at whatever field they are in — they see the union dues as a waste.

But then I ask about wages, or health insurance or retirement benefits, and they tell me the wages are great, the health insurance is great, and the 401K is fantastic. So more than anything I think it’s just a matter of how they frame in their head the function of unions: When it comes to making $35 an hour, or solid health insurance, or retirement, they view it like I earned this. They see unions only for the things they do for others, rather than making the connection that the union itself is responsible for why their wages and working conditions are so much better than the average non-union employee.

The 5-4 ruling of the Supreme Court is an extremely conservative decision. Where unions are weak, owners and corporations are strong. This judgement can only further this already-lopsided model of American economics. Out of every advanced Western society the United States has by far the lowest union participation rate, which goes a long way in explaining why the average American worker is so poor and why corporations are doing as well as they ever have. I have a hard time believing the grossly imbalanced relationship between labor and ownership isn’t chiefly responsible for why this is.

But this is hardly how the right is going to cherry-pick the matter. In their eyes, what is so wrong with giving workers the “freedom” of whether or not they want to pay union dues? Why should Conservatives be forced to contribute to a “liberal” political agenda they don’t agree with?

To an uninformed — or misinformed — union employee, these talking points make a lot of sense. If they feel the union doesn’t look out for them, all they know is that $40 or $50 is missing from their paycheck every two weeks. I mean, just think of all the things they could buy with that money. That’s, like, four or five fast-food trips, or several slurpies from 7-11.

The reality, however, is much simpler: Unions are bad for business. That’s all this is. Unions hurt the bottom line of the ownership class. It’s too bad that so many people don’t seem to know this, but it’s not like I can blame them. The news is pro-corporate, so media outlets like Fox News, MSNBC and CNN usually just ignore the issue altogether. (The most recent example of this were the teacher’s strikes going on all over the country. How much coverage did any of them receive?)

But people don’t forget. There was a time when organized labor was a juggernaut force in American politics, and since FDR’s New Deal social policies helped to strengthen unions, and benefit workers, they pretty much always sided with the Democratic Party. That’s why even to this day, they still side with them. The only problem now is that the Democrats don’t reciprocate.

It wasn’t until Bill Clinton’s anti-worker economic policies of the 1990’s — which included the ongoing free-trade agreement that is NAFTA, deregulation of the banking and telecommunication industries, as well as slashing welfare for single moms and children — that the Democrats finally, and completely, shifted from being a Party Of The People to a party of the professionals. For over 50 years organized labor was the main constituency of the American left, and it supported the Democrats faithfully. Under Clinton’s watch, whose policies were continued under the Barack Obama administration, labor got taken for granted.

Unfortunately for America, in 2015 Donald Trump exploited the angst and unrest of the labor class. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Trump actually went out and campaigned in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio, and he sold a bill of goods to the working class that he heard their cries, and felt their struggle. He said the game was rigged, and that NAFTA had sold them out. He was right. (Whether or not he had any intention of following through with helping these workers is an entirely separate matter. The fact that he tried, or at least paid them lip service, was all it took to earn their vote.)

Of course many of us knew, at the time, that Trump’s hilarious ascension to being the face and voice of the forgotten working class was bullshit, but you have to think about it from the voter’s shoes. Having witnessed firsthand the outcome of Bill Clinton’s economic and free-trade policies, and having witnessed how Barack Obama didn’t change anything, and how Hillary basically campaigned as Obama’s hand-picked successor — i.e. nothing was going to change — I’ve argued that that absolutely created an opening for Trump.

To that point, Hillary was caught in a Catch 22: she could have done like Trump, and promised to improve the lives of all these workers who were left behind. But to do so would admit that NAFTA, her husband’s greatest achievement when he was in office, which Hillary herself was an enthusiastic supporter of, was a complete failure. To gain their support she would have needed to tear to pieces the model of the Democratic Party that her and Bill were responsible for building.

I know I’ve gotten way off track in talking about unions, and why unions are important. But it’s worth understanding that unions are hardly a partisan issue anymore, because both the Republicans and Democrats are against them. Why is that? It’s like that because both parties are in the pockets of corporations, and it’s in the best interests of those corporations if workers have a harder time organizing.

The Republicans are a pro-business party. That’s always been their bag. It wasn’t until Bill Clinton got in office that the Democrats became so aggressively pro-business themselves. As such, my criticism isn’t so harsh for the GOP, since they are very clear about whose interests they represent. It’s the Democrats who should be ashamed, because they still play pretend during campaign season that they give a shit about labor. Once they get in office, they vote alongside their Republican friends to make it harder on the working class.

In the afterward of his book, Listen, Liberal, author Thomas Frank sort of puts a bow on everything I’ve written in this article. He concludes:

We will never know precisely what issues sank Hillary Clinton, but trade certainly bulked large among them. According to 2016 exit polls, those who were skeptical about free trade — and there were more of them than there were trade optimists — went for Donald Trump by 32 points. What makes this result so poignant, of course, is that trade was where it all began for the Clintons: This was the issue, during the NAFTA debate of 1993, where white-collar liberalism defined itself. Trade was the spot where smart young liberals who knew how to run an economy first stuck the knife into organized labor. Over the years, trade became the space where liberal columnists and prize-winning economists would get together to celebrate the way their enlightened worldview coincided with their amazing prosperity. And now trade has become the junkyard where it all came apart, where blue-collar America finally got even with the Clinton dynasty.

I don’t really have much else to say, other than all the things I’ve already said, on this blog and all the others. Workers have to come together to fight against the bastards. The longer they wait, the worse it’s going to get, and the bloodier it’s going to be when the revolution inevitably takes place. There is still time to make this work in a peaceful way.

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