Union blues

"Fifteen million Americans bring you Edward P. Morgan and the news." From 1955 to 1967, that line, heard on the ABC radio network every weeknight at 7 P.M., heralded the nation's best news broadcast. Those fifteen million Americans were the members of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., a federation that included nearly every union in the land. Organized labor was powerful and, for the most part, respected. Its economic and political muscle had played an indispensable role in insuring that the benefits of postwar prosperity were widely shared, transforming much of what many had unironically called the proletariat into an important segment of the broad American middle class.

Labor has come a long way since then-a long way down. At the outset of the nineteen-sixties, one in four workers had the protection of a union. By the early eighties, after President Reagan destroyed the air-traffic controllers' union, the proportion was down to one in five. Now it's one in eight. In a workforce twice the size it was in Edward P. Morgan's heyday, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s onetime fifteen million has shrunk to twelve million, with a couple of million more in unions unaffiliated with the federation.

Organized labor's catastrophic decline has paralleled-and, to a disputed but indisputably substantial degree, precipitated-an equally dramatic rise in economic inequality. In 1980, the best-off tenth of American families collected about a third of the nation's income. Now they're getting close to half. The top one per cent is getting a full fifth, double what it got in 1980. The super-rich-the top one-tenth of the top one per cent, which is to say the top one-thousandth-have been the biggest winners of all. What is always called their "compensation" (wage workers lucky enough to have a job simply get paid) has quadrupled.

Over the same period, the composition of the labor movement, as it still defiantly styles itself, has radically changed. A few weeks ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, for the first time, more union members are government workers, not private-sector employees. The Times quoted an official of the United States Chamber of Commerce as pronouncing himself "a little bit shocked," and he wasn't the only one. Yet this development has nothing to do with some imagined spike in public-sector unionism. It is entirely a function of the collapse of organized labor in the private sector. For the past four decades, the portion of the public workforce belonging to unions has held remarkably steady, at a little more than one in three. In the private sector, just one worker in fifteen carries a union card.

The causes of the disparity are many and mostly familiar, the hollowing out of American manufacturing notable among them. Unlike factories, government agencies cannot be relocated to China. Nor can government agencies flout the (notoriously weak) labor laws with the insouciance of private employers, many of whom, guided by anti-union "consultants," regard it as their fiduciary responsibility to fire troublesome workers illegally now and, in the rare cases where a worker tries to get justice, pay a trivial fine years later. In short, union-busting has traditionally been a matter for private business. But this winter it has suddenly gone public, and its weapon is not flouting laws but making them.

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Last Friday-in the wee hours of morning, after two weeks of tumult and protest demonstrations-Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly passed a bill that is breathtaking in its fealty to the ideology of the far right. The bill, dictated by the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, strips the state's employees of their half-century-old right to bargain collectively-except over base pay, which can never be increased above inflation without a public referendum. It makes union dues purely voluntary and prohibits their collection via paycheck deduction. It requires the unions to face a certification vote every year-and, to get recertified, a union must win a majority of all employees, not just a majority of those voting.

The bill has not yet passed the Wisconsin Senate, because all fourteen members of its Democratic minority decamped for Illinois, thereby depriving the chamber of the quorum required for legislation of this type. Governor Walker claims that his bill is needed to close a budget gap. That is false: the unions have already agreed to all the cuts and givebacks he has demanded. Anyhow, Walker has called his dedication to deficit hawkery into question by pushing through large tax cuts for business (with more to come) and a law forbidding tax hikes without either a two-thirds legislative majority or a statewide referendum.

Liberals who applaud the Wisconsin senators' interstate flight have been accused of hypocrisy, given that these same liberals indignantly reject the undemocratic use of the filibuster in the Senate of the United States. The analogy is as clever as it is flawed. The Wisconsinites are not trying to kill the bill (they can't stay away forever); they merely want to delay a vote in the hope of mobilizing public support for compromise. And, instead of simply declaring an intention-the only effort a modern filibuster requires-they have to do something; to wit, camp out in cheap motels at their own expense, away from their families. They even have to forgo their own salaries: the Republicans have halted direct deposit to their skedaddling colleagues' bank accounts. If they want to get paid, they have to come back to Madison to pick up a paycheck. And the Democrats have another point: although Walker now claims that he ran on curbing collective bargaining as well as cutting employee benefits, no one has been able to find any record that he ever said anything of the kind.

What's getting awfully difficult to deny is that what the Wisconsin Republicans are doing-and they have plenty of imitators and admirers-is solely for a partisan purpose, and a potentially lethal one. Of the five biggest non-party organizational contributors to political campaigns in 2008, the top two were unions, both of them pro-Democratic and both composed partly or wholly of public-sector workers. The other three were pro-Republican business groups or PACs. In 2010, after the Supreme Court threw open the cash sluices in the Citizens United case, only one union made it into the top five, and it came in fifth. And from now on, thanks to five Justices, corporate campaign spending will be literally limitless.

Yes, unions will have the same freedom. But unions are already maxed out-and their resources, stretched to the breaking point, are diminishing. If, as Anatole France observed, the law in its majesty forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, the Supreme Court, in its majesty, permits both to spend as much as they can lay their hands on. If a Republican Party that has lately become rigidly, fanatically "conservative" can succeed in reducing public-sector unions to the parlous condition of their private-sector brethren, then organized labor-which, for all its failings, all its shortsightedness, all its "special interest" selfishness, remains the only truly formidable counterweight to the ever-growing political power of that top one-thousandth-will no longer be anything close to a match for organized money. And that will be the news, brought to you by a few very rich, very powerful Americans-and many, many billions of dollars.

New York, Mon Mar 7 2011
Byline: Hendrik Hertzberg

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