By Joseph O’Shaughnessy
We’ve written about unions here before, about how unions gave us the forty-hour workweek and weekends and pensions and a lifestyle that allowed kids to get started in college. Unions gave us really good health care and job security that was as good as possible in a world where global economics forced many companies to send jobs abroad and enticed many others to do so for outrageous profit.
While trying to save a company and keep some jobs in the U.S. is only human nature, what is not human nature is to send jobs abroad when your company is making money. In Europe, sending jobs abroad simply to make more money for the biggest shareholders doesn’t happen. And why is that? Because in many countries in Europe union participation is about 23%. The United States is supposedly about 10.5 percent but that includes the government unions which are under attack constantly.
The only countries in the OECD, the European Union of advanced countries with union participation and support lower than the U.S. are Turkey and Estonia. The most prosperous countries, from the Netherlands to Denmark to Sweden are all have union participation above 50%, most above 60%.
The reason their jobs don’t go abroad is because those countries provide skilled education and retraining so that they can manufacture products and sell them cost-efficiently. Capitalism thrives on sales. Make something and sell it at a profit. The profit does several key things. It encourages people to invest in the company to get it started. Then, it allows the company to put aside money to grow, to pay bonuses, to improve the size of the company and therefore the profitability and therefore the wages of the workers.
The workers in Europe, because they are strong enough, have actual representation on the boards of corporations. Half of all seats on boards of directors on the largest companies are held for unions. And union workers in Europe therefore have far more benefits, far fewer working hours and far better working conditions. Where do American workers stand now?
We just elected a new Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, whose views on corporate America are pretty clear. The son of a Nixon-era Right Wing Conservative, the notorious Ann Gorsuch Buford, he was raised to believe in a corporate America. His lower court judgments support that view. There is no reason to believe that there will be any legislation in the future on which he will not rule for corporations and union busting. He is the fifth and deciding vote for corporate America and he will be for years or decades to come.
Here is the perfect demonstration on why unions are important. Thanks to the lack of common sense on the part of the American people and thanks to their failing to heed our warnings about ALEC and the Koch brothers, Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Snyder in Michigan preside over completely Republican-controlled legislatures. In these two gerrymandered states, over 200,000 individuals, most presumed to be Democrats, have been kicked off the voter rolls. At the same time, those two governors and their state legislatures have decimated the government unions, using divisive tactics during the rough economic years to set one homeowner against the other. Rather than finding ways to create new industry, Walker and Snyder set the working men and women against the teachers and other public employees of the state, insisting that they lose their union rights to negotiate better wages.
Using ALEC-inspired legislation, Walker and Snyder forced out the unions, cut their membership to the bone, reduced thee income of public school teachers and others and made Wisconsin and Michigan virtual right-to-work states.
Foolishly, the majority of the people in Wisconsin and Michigan supported state legislators and a governor who would introduce laws that would eventually reduce public worker wages rather than increasing private industry jobs. Without union power to help the people, state legislators backed by ALEC, were able to continue their neo-Fascist march through the laws of each state, cutting taxes for the rich, removing environmental standards for air and water, cutting regulations on corporate pollution, and giving huge tax breaks to corporations, like the one owned by Senator Ron Johnson’s father-in-law.
The result was predictable. In the 2016 election, without union power, boots on the ground to go door-to-door, or hand out flyers to get the truth to the people, the Republicans swept both states. No one was there to watch the voting booths when the electronic voting machines said that Ron Johnson had won, even though former Senator Russ Feingold was far ahead in the polls. No one was there to remind people to get out and vote for Hillary Clinton, and despite a 3 million lead across the country, she lost Wisconsin by fewer than ten percent of the names that the Neo-Fascist Walker Right Wing Pacs had cut off the voting rolls. And the same in Michigan. Now, as a result of the small numbers of questionable voters in these two states, we have President Donald Trump.
The Balance of Power in a Democracy
Unions help to maintain the balance of economic and political power. In Europe, corporations have far less power than they do in the United States. The average CEO makes 354 times more than the average worker in the U.S. The country most like the U.S. in Europe is Germany, where the average CEO makes 154 times the average worker. But the average worker in Germany makes basically $40,000 per year where the average worker in the U.S. makes about $34,000 based on average hourly wages. In Germany, health care is part of taxes, which are about ten percent higher than our income taxes, less than that if all our taxes are combined and all their taxes. But from those taxes they get health care, 100% covered, four- week annual vacations, guaranteed re-training, longer, higher unemployment and higher retirement pay.
In Germany there is no minimum wage. Unions comprise 50 per cent of all boards of directors of corporations over 2000 employees and one-third of all boards of directors of corporations under 2000 employees. Germany is the high-water mark for corporate power in Europe. France is perhaps a more service, people-centered society than Germany, with free schools and free health care and a thriving economy, including an infrastructure better than ours….and they have only 8% average union involvement. Why more service from government and yet fewer unions? Because the threat of increased union involvement (Germany over 20% or Scandinavia over 50% ) is sufficient, but it is not even necessary. The fact is that government in Europe responds to the people. Government in the United States responds to corporations.
In our country, where hugely wealthy people have gone completely out of control, with no association to or with the people at large, the media issues propaganda from paid, Right Wing sources to tell us how wonderful things are here. But they are not. Our support of unions and workers, according to the international scale set up by international rating guidelines, is on a par with Iran, Iraq and Mexico. We are not merely below Europe in caring about workers; we are at an entirely lower level than Europe. We live in a country now where the principal function of electronic media is entertainment. We live in our homes like cubicles, in isolation. We do not participate in a fight for democracy. And that is why rabid racist and anti-Semitic and pro-militant White Supremacists feel strong enough to mount night marches through out cities.
Of the 24 hours per day of television time, only one half-hour is devoted to national news. Local news encompasses another half-hour in the morning and in the evening. Radio provides the bulk of daily information. This was not lost on the rich Right Wing Republican billionaires of the Clinton era.
Right Wing radio has provided the greatest support to the Neo-Fascists of any propaganda group in the history of this country. Their commentary has influenced average Americans to vote against minimum wages, against public education, against welfare for truly needed people, even, at one point, against veteran’s benefits.
Right Wing radio has done more than any other organization or group to foster envy and division among different ethnic and income and religious groups within the American population. From its lies about Hillary and Bill Clinton, which began in 1989 and continue to this day, culminating in an opinion of the recent candidate to the point that…without any evidence whatsoever—merely lies and innuendo—and only the constant barrage of Right Wing radio hate-mongers, like Michael Savage, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity and, of course, Rush Limbaugh to substantiate them….the Clinton candidacy in 2016 was doomed from the start. Not because she did not have a vast following of educated and intelligent people who could quickly sift through the detritus left behind in the wake of these highly paid anti-American, pro-Corporate fabricators. She lost because a combination of Right Wing radio commentators in Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania combined with the forces of anti-voter legislators to find small pockets of fools where the message of hate could prevail in just sufficient numbers to defeat the democratic process.
In the past, unions were able to spread out on the ground with messages delivered personally to homes and stores and other public places in numbers greater than those persuaded by the huge number of Right Wing radio commentators. There are a thousand of these paid hacks around the country, like Dennis Prager and Hugh Hewitt and Michael Medved, who, because of the support of the advertising of very wealthy corporations and Right Wing ownership of radio networks, have maintained an almost legitimate appearance among the hundreds of thousands of honest news people and reporters in both print and electronic media around the country.
Unions are losing ground. Decreased membership and decreased revenues from union dues mean that we as a people are not able to keep up with the constant bombardment of television commercials from the unlimited resources of those who would steal your country, your jobs, your retirement and your health care for their own enrichment. Even when willing corporations, like Volkswagon, hold union organizing votes outside union-busting public relations firms are hired by Right Wing Pacs to create public campaigns to discourage workers from voting for their own best interests. These are corporations that have unions on their boards of directors in Europe and welcome unions. But the Right Wing rich, ever worried about their tax bills and their ravenous need for more, always more, tax cuts, fear any union that would support the people.
The fact is that the job losses of the last 40 years have had little or nothing to do with unions nor could unions have done more than they did to prevent job losses. When 10.8 percent of the workforce lost their jobs in 1981 under Reagan or when 10.8 percent of the workforce lost their jobs in 2008 under Bush II, unions could do nothing to save the large mass of those unemployed. Catastrophic job loss, job loss caused by sudden and severe Recession, job loss as the result of changes in global manufacturing or structural job loss as the result of rapidly oncoming technological change are beyond the help of unions to do anything but slow the declines in the work force and to mitigate the financial costs to individual workers.
Some things unions can do. In the mid 1950s, 33% of workers were members of unions. Today about 10% of workers belong to a union. It is no surprise, therefore, that individual wages are the same, adjusted for inflation, in 2017 as they were in 1980, at the beginning of the current Republican era. In Europe, however both wages and benefits have continued to grow, as has the power and influence of unions. Workers in a union can fight for better wages, and better wages for union workers help raise wages for all workers.
You constantly hear Republicans singing the praises of states where “Right-to-Work” legislation has passed, which is now about two thirds of all states. What does that mean, really? It means nothing. Everyone has a basic God-given right to work. In real terms it means only that unions have a hard time getting started and so most of the jobs in these states, public or private are non-union. In these states, workers can work in a union shop and get the benefits without paying union dues. So it kills incentives for unions to start.
In addition in most of these states, it is much harder for those who want to start a union. They often cannot hold a secret ballot, which means that owners of companies merely have to threaten to fire one or two workers, or lay everyone off for a few days once they hear about the possibility of a union. That usually causes the initiative to fold, simply from the economic consequences to the workers involved. The term “Right-to-Work” has nothing to do with the right to work or not to work. It has to do with whether an individual must pay union dues to work in a company that is unionized.
It’s time we began to look for ways to organize large numbers of people against the now dominant power of the Plutocracy. Unions are a great starting point and a great model. Unions can start as clubs, as athletic teams, as simple social devices for interaction among workers and their families. Unions must start again along simple, clean lines, growing larger and stronger as a group before taking on even small er corporations. The union busting industry is very strong and has enormous resources behind it. But the power of public opinion is also growing stronger in favor of union activities and political necessities.
Trump backs thugs. Torch lit parades through the streets are designed to show power and solidarity and demonstrate implicit violence against opponents. There are enough veterans and athletes and simply strong men and women among the People to counter this threat. We saw that in Charlottesville. But we need the organized strength of unions, not only for political power, but for the economic power that collective bargaining can bring to wages and working conditions.
It may be time to tell the CEOs of America that without economic balance, the down and out Fascist may be as much of a complication to their lives as a down and out worker, the condition they have fostered for forty years. Perhaps it is time to sell unions to corporations on the very honest notion that a large, well-ordered, civil society with good jobs, good education, good health care is better for everyone than crazy, racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic nighttime torch marches of armed thugs.
Who would have thought until now that the selling point for a union was that it could be our next big antidote to the common “thug.”