We have been swayed by a concerted propaganda effort
At the risk of sounding paranoid, our country has been victimized by a very effective propaganda effort aimed at demonizing unions. Why? The reason is simple: money.
If you don’t believe me that the powers that be help shape our perceptions to their advantage, then consider the following true story. When I was practicing Bankruptcy law in the middle of the Great Recession, I represented literally thousands of people who could not pay their debts due to loss of employment. One of my clients was a couple where the wife worked as a receptionist at a doctor’s office, and the husband had been a very senior executive at a national lending institution — the kind of institution you would know if I told you the name. Due to the collapse in lending, he was laid off from his high six-figure job, and could no longer afford his mortgage payments on his mansion or his large payments on his luxury cars. I’m sure some of you may be crying him a river, but he was actually a nice guy who was very down-to-earth. He just had certain skills that were very much in demand — when the economy is good.
Anyway, as I was discussing Bankruptcy with this couple, the wife was in tears. This happened a lot, and so I had Kleenex readily available in my office. The husband, though, who had been a senior executive at a bank, was totally OK with it. He said, and I quote him, “it’s a business decision.” He even said that banks have done their best to convince people not to file Bankruptcy because it hurt their bottom line. Again, this from a senior banking executive. We went through with the case, it was successful, and as the economy has recovered, I’m sure he has once again prospered.
The point is, however, that banks and the other powerful institutions in our society have given the idea of Bankruptcy a negative connotation. It is perceived among most people as a sign of failure, rather than what it really is, which is a business court that adjudicates the rights of debtors and their creditors. By the way, our President, who has filed Bankruptcy multiple times, understands this well.
Thus, the powerful financial interests that dominate our society have created impressions in our mind about various ideas. Bankruptcy is one of them. Unions are another. Like Bankruptcy, unions hit the bottom line of shareholders, providing a means of shifting resources from the wealthy to the working class.
Consider the following facts. Wherever workers are represented by unions, those workers enjoy a 20% higher level of pay than unrepresented workers in similar situations. This union premium has been extremely durable and long-standing since the 1930s. Also, the increase in wealth concentration in this country over the last 40 years can be correlated almost directly with the decline in union membership. Union membership is at a low point since the NLRA passed in the 1930s. Similarly, wealth inequality is currently at its highest point since the 1920s. That is not a coincidence.
Confronting arguments against a higher minimum wage
Since today is Labor Day, it seemed appropriate to write about a subject near and dear to the hearts of most working…
In the 1950s and 1960s, unions were an accepted part of American society. It was understood by everyone, including the wealthy, that broad-based prosperity, to which unions contributed, was good for our country. That all changed in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of movement conservatism in the Republican party.
People forget what a shock it was when President Reagan, as one of his first official acts, fired and replaced the air traffic controllers who were striking for better working conditions. Now, the use of replacement workers for strikers is common, following Reagan’s example. That, combined with other legislation and court decisions by conservative judges have whittled down the power of unions relative to employers, to the point that now economist Mike Belzer says that we have essentially made unions illegal in this country.
The efforts to demonize unions were well-coordinated and effective. Unions were painted as corrupt and no longer needed. Consider Ayn Rand’s quote that “[t]he artificially high wages forced on the economy by compulsory unionism imposed economic hardships on other groups — particularly on non-union workers and on unskilled labor, which was being squeezed gradually out of the market.” Rand, of course, was the spokesperson for the conservative movement, and was revered by prominent conservatives including former Federal Reserve Board Chair Alan Greenspan.
Look at the language used in that quote. “Artificially high wages,” “forced on the economy,” “compulsory unionism” are powerful statements. As George Orwell pointed out, “[i]f thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Thus, the choice of words help frame how we think about what Rand said. Furthermore, her statements are blatantly untrue. One of the most powerful reasons we should all support unions is because of their impact on the wages of non-union workers. Consider this: since non-union employers want to keep the unions out, they are motivated to provide good wages and benefits to their employees. Thus, just the threat of unions makes employers pay more. The defanging of unions has made it so employers no longer fear their power and feel free to abuse their workers.
Similarly, another argument against unions has been that they promote laziness and reduce productivity. In fact, as union membership has declined, so too has overall worker productivity. Between 1973 and 2017, the period during which unions have been under attack, productivity has increased at half the rate as during the period between 1948 and 1973. And this is despite the productivity explosion as a result of the digital revolution. As a result, arguments that unions are bad for the economy do not stand up to scrutiny.
Are unions perfect? Certainly not. There are examples of union corruption and unethical behavior. But such behavior also exist in banks, for example. Bad behavior has not stopped Congress from defending the banks from efforts to further regulate them in response to the Great Recession — which was largely caused by their bad behavior. Whenever proposals emerge to protect unions, however, fingers immediately point at the few bad apples who give all the other union activists a bad name.
And consider one more point. Perhaps the most corrupt union leader was Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters. Indeed, in 1987, the Reagan administration took control of the Teamsters Union based upon accusations of corruption. It is worth noting, however, that Hoffa was revered by his workers, and his son was overwhelmingly elected the union’s president once control was given back to the union members. And he has been repeatedly re-elected. The reason for this enduring support of the allegedly corrupt Hoffa Sr.? He may have abused funds within the control of the union itself, but he delivered good wages and benefits to his members. That is what they remembered, and that had a far-reaching impact upon the economy as a whole.
Despite the claims of labor’s enemies, unions just want to be treated the same way as big business has been, which up until now has gotten all the privilege and none of the responsibility. If we are serious about addressing wealth inequality, a place to start is to return some power to unions. But before we can accomplish that goal, we need to call a spade a spade and clear the good name of unions that has been so soundly slandered.
If you liked this post, you might also like: