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“Right-To-Work” And Labor’s Wrongs

George Fish May 19, 2012

On January 31, 2012, as is commonly known, after a fierce battle against proposed “right-to-work” legislation in Indiana that pitted Indiana’s labor unions and their supporters, mobilized in the tens of thousands at the Statehouse during the sessions of the Indiana General Assembly to rally, lobby and press legislators to defeat the legislation, the Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House passed “right-to-work” legislation through riding roughshod over both the Democratic minority and these mobilized masses of workers and their allies, despite Democrats’ efforts to delay vote on the bill; Democratic legislators even risked $1,000 per day fines apiece by absenting themselves on certain days to deny a quorum. This fierce fight was watched closely nationwide as a possible harbinger of more defeats of organized labor at the hands of hostile legislators who made Indiana the first new “right-to-work” state since Oklahoma, which became one in 2002—and with more “right-to-work” legislation pending in other Midwestern industrial states.

In the wake of this major defeat, all Indiana’s union leaders and the Indiana AFL-CIO itself would say is “Just wait till the 2012 elections!” Appeals to defeat “right-to-work” during the legislative session were made on strictly economistic grounds (i.e., “right-to-work” won’t bring the economic growth and increased numbers of new jobs its proponents tout; it’s just the “right to work for less” when, as of January 2012, Indiana’s unemployment rate was 8.7%, which meant 279,000 workers were without jobs, period!), and this ineffectiveness was seconded by labor allies such as the chapters of Jobs with Justice and other social movement forces. No appeal whatsoever was made to Indiana’s 88.7% of the workforce who are non-union (11.3% of Indiana’s workforce is union) to join in solidarity on this issue that vitally affects all Indiana workers, but which Indiana organized labor saw as only affecting itself and made appeals only to others to come down to the Indiana Statehouse to join organized labor’s rallies and lobby their state legislators—much of this activity taking place during Super Bowl Week, when simply to park one’s car in downtown Indianapolis cost $20 per vehicle, where even normally metered parking (if one could find a spot) is $1.50 an hour, where public transportation in Indianapolis is glaringly inadequate and frequently nonexistent, and where, except for fast food, all downtown restaurants are upscale and expensive—effectively freezing out many supporters (among them, myself) who had the “leisure time” to participate because of unemployment, but not the cash or credit/debit card wherewithal to make their physical presence felt.

In both 2011 and 2012 Indiana’s organized labor movement relied only on its own forces and Democratic Party members of Indiana’s General Assembly. The result was a standstill on “right-to-work” in 2011 and a major defeat in 2012, as an aggressive, Tea Party-dominated Republican majority used every method available, scrupulous and unscrupulous, formally democratic and blatantly undemocratic, to ram through “right-to-work” legislation in both House and Senate of the General Assembly and present it for eagerly-awaiting Republican Governor Mitch Daniels’ signature.

The Indiana AFL-CIO is hidebound by current national standards, and merely reflects, rather than tries to change, the generally right-wing, Red State nature of Indiana’s political climate and economic policy. It deliberately eschewed and stood apart from the several Occupy movements that had grown in Indiana towns, cities and campuses, and tolerated their involvement on “right-to-work” only as long as they followed where the union leadership wished to lead (one Central Indiana DSA member of my acquaintance once complained that the labor movement here is still mired in the Henry “Scoop” Jackson “Guns and Butter” model of cold War anti-communist liberalism).

But organized labor elsewhere and at the national level is not much better, and is certainly not really trying to be a voice for the U.S. working class as a whole, including the vast majority that is non-union but needs to be brought under organized labor’s umbrella. All this was made palpably clear here in Indiana during the struggles against “right-to-work,” but the problem goes far beyond the failures and foibles of just organized labor in Indiana. Despite a greater verbal militancy on the part of certain labor leaders, notably AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and even public statements of support and identification with the Occupy movements, organized labor as a whole is still mired in the discredited, complacent policies of the Meany/Kirkland era; still devoted to the stale “union philosophy” of Sam Gompers, “More!” and still not actively reaching out to and building alliances with non-union forces who understand what organized labor has yet to really grasp—that “An injury to one is an injury to all” and that the vital need of organized labor is to “Organize the unorganized.”

Here we must look at the nature of organized labor both in Indiana and in the U.S., and grasp the relationship between this small minority of the U.S. workforce (11.8%), organized labor, and the vast majority of this workforce, the 88.2% who are unorganized. (For every unionized worker, there are a little less than seven and one-half workers who are non-union; organized labor is less than 1/8 [12.5%] of the total U.S workforce, public-sector and private-sector. Compare this to organized labor’s peak membership as a percentage of the U.S working class in 1955, when organized labor represented about 35% of the workforce—then there were only a little less than two non-union workers for every union worker.) Associated Press reporter Sam Hananel notes, “And public-sector workers had a union membership rate of 37 percent, more than five times that of private-sector workers.” “About 7.6 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union last year [2011], compared with 7.2 million workers in the private sector.” Further, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the number of union workers increased by around 50,000, with the loss of 61,000 public-sector union jobs offset by the growth of 110,000 private-sector union jobs mainly in construction and manufacturing, bringing total union membership to 14.8 million workers, actual union share of the workforce dropped from 11.9% to 11.8%, “the lowest percentage of union workers since the Great Depression of the 1930s.” Moreover, this slight increase in union membership comes after a loss of nearly 1.4 million workers in the last two years, alone, with steady declines in union membership since the 1990s and before.

In his 1991 book, Which Side Are You On? labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan writes, “At the present time unions barely organize 0.3 percent or the workforce annually” and “As a result, the unionized share of our work force drops every year. The share is now 16 percent of the total workforce and a bare 12 percent of the private sector work force. And here Geoghegan is already decrying as a dismal situation these much better percentages from 1991 as compared to two decades later! In Indiana, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, organized labor lost 99,000 members between 2001 and 2011, and had lost 122,000 members between 2001 and 2010, offset by a gain of 23,000 union members from 2010 and 2011. The rate of unionization in Indiana dropped consistently from 14.6% in 2001 to 10.9% in 2010 (it stayed the same in 2006 and 2007, at 12.0%), only gaining by .4% from 2010 to 2011, when it stood at 11.3%—below the national average. New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse notes that while the percentage of union workers in Indiana’s private sector, 8.2% in 2011, was above the national average of 6.9%, this was down by nearly 20% since the 1980s because of Indiana’s loss of manufacturing jobs. In Indiana and nationwide, then, slight gains for organized labor after three prior decades of heavy losses.

In that not-so-long-ago past that now seems like an eternity, even non-union workers benefitted from organized labor’s relative strength vis-à-vis capital through those much-touted gains that unions had made possible—the weekend, the 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, a minimum wage that tended to increase over time, relatively high wages coupled with benefits and real pensions that made industrial workers part of that “middle class” whose purchasing power sustained a general prosperity. Significant economic and social gains were made even by the least well-off sectors of the working class—African Americans, women, and Hispanic and other minorities—which, though still unequal compared to those gained by white males, opened doors of opportunity that had hitherto been closed, and fueled social and political militancy coupled with organizational savvy, much of it learned from organized labor itself.

All these past gains are now under fire and face demands for massive cutback, even elimination, with unionized workers forced increasingly into purely defensive battles just to sustain what they once had without question. Clearly, there is an aggressive class war being waged against U.S workers, and the lines of battle have been drawn in crucial states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. Some labor leaders are even publicly doubting whether there will be labor unions five years from now. A massive reversal of social, political and economic history and policy that had been in place since the New Deal, when gains for labor and “a seat at the table” for organized labor vis-à-vis capital had been implicitly, and frequently explicitly, had not only been assured, but even taken for granted.

Organized labor “lifted all working-class boats” when it was a force with strength; now, with its palpable decline, union workers’ boats sink along with those of non-union workers. Just as the strength of the organized minority benefited the working class as a whole, today the decline of organized labor threatens the working class as a whole. But organized labor hasn’t seemed to have gotten the message—it still narrowly organizes on its own parochial turf of organized workers going it alone and looking out for the interests of only union workers, even in the face of massive support from non-union forces who realize that more is at stake than just organized labor’s ability to provide high wages and substantial benefits and protections for its own membership. Forces such as students, activists and others who understand that organized labor is bigger than itself; that it is a beleaguered, steadily shrinking army in the class struggle, of which the attacks on unions are only a part, although the most visible part—that the class struggle against the visible union movement is but a sustained war by capital against U.S. workers as a whole,” union and non-union alike.

But despite this obvious war, organized labor is only partially mobilizing the troops available, relying only on its own ranks and not reaching out beyond them. Consider the way that the International Association of Machinists (IAM) organizes UCubed, the “union of the unemployed” it founded. UCubed organizes the unemployed only as a voting bloc to pressure politicians to vote for “pro-labor” legislation rather than as an actual, grassroots organization of the unemployed; and on the issue of unemployment, despite occasional calls for a new WPA which are never advanced seriously, only follows Obama’s lead as advanced in his tepid “jobs program” that would provide 1.2 million jobs when there are still 13 million workers unemployed, many of them long-term. (Also worth noting in relation to organized labor’s decline both in clout and in numbers: many of the unemployed today, and for some time now, are former union members themselves, now permanently furloughed from their now-nonexistent union jobs by plant closings and relocations to low-wage states and foreign countries.) It’s now the case that “help” for the unemployed consists mostly of websites for unemployed workers on how to fine-tune their already-useless resumés for a job market where, despite some recent job growth, there is still 8.3% national unemployment. In some states, of which Indiana is one, because the official unemployment rate is below 9%, extended unemployment benefits will no longer be available; and it’s become increasingly fashionable to blame the unemployed for their unemployment, and to require new, humiliating screening of the unemployed (such as mandatory drug tests) in order to “qualify” for the “privilege” of receiving unemployment (which is capped in Indiana at the princely sum of $390 per week, or the equivalent of an 40-hour work wage of $9.75 an hour; but for many unemployed workers, the amount they can receive is much less).

Indeed, the currently fashionable cry for “right-to-work” legislation and other punitive measures against the very idea of union representation and collective bargaining is yet another capitulation to the “race to the bottom,” where the “high wages” achieved by unionized U.S. workers allegedly render the U.S. economy “uncompetitive” with low-wage powerhouses such as the People’s Republic of China. Organized labor’s chief response to the “Chinese threat” has been only to decry “unfair trade practices” and “deliberate undervaluation of the yuan” and call for sanctions against the Chinese government, not call for solidarity with the overworked, lowly-paid Chinese proletariat. But U.S. workers’ greatest need is to stand in solidarity with their Chinese and other foreign counterparts, and the U.S. labor movement should be taking the lead in organizing this solidarity—after all, if one wants to look for the actual U.S. manufacturing workers, they are in these countries that are making the goods that are sold in U.S. markets. Instead, organized labor focuses on “Buy American” campaigns and other displays of narrow nationalism.

While the Republican Party generally is the most vociferous in beating the drums of “free trade” and blaming unions for the U.S. economy’s “uncompetitiveness,” this is truly a bipartisan effort, with not only many leading Democrats but the Obama Administration itself supporting new “free trade” agreements and touting the return of jobs to the U.S. in low-wage (and “right-to-work”) states such as Arkansas.

Of course, the spurious charge of being “uncompetitive” doesn’t even apply to those unionized workers under attack in the public sector, who certainly don’t even indirectly compete with workers employed by the governments of China and elsewhere. But it is precisely in looking at the U.S. workforce as a whole, and the poor and marginalized within it, that we can most directly see where organized labor has gone amiss—and thus undermines not only what it can gain for its own members, but the position of all U.S. workers generally, union and non-union alike. (Hint: past complacency and accommodation has a lot to do with it!) Created, then, is a situation where not only are those who are worst-off usually excluded from, even shunned by, the unions themselves, but also one in which matters become worse for all, and unionized workers themselves are undercut by organized labor’s default. Some recent postings on the left news Portside and publications from left-of-center think-tanks such as EPI and the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), plus additional reportage, especially bring this out.

Bill Quigley’s posting on Portside of January 19, 2012, “Working and Poor in the USA,” points out,

In 2011, the US Department of Labor reported at least 10 million people worked and were still below the unrealistic official US poverty line, an increase of 1.5 million more than the last time they checked. The US poverty line is $18,530 for a mom and two kids. Since 2007 the numbers of working poor have been increasing. About 7 percent of all workers and 4 percent of all full-time workers earn wages that leave them below the poverty line….One third of the working poor, over 3 million people, work in the service industry. Workers in other occupations are also poor: 16 percent of those in farming; 11 percent in construction; and 11 percent in sales….Women workers are more likely to be poor than men. African American and Hispanic workers are about twice as likely to be poor as whites. College graduates have a 2 percent poverty rate while workers without a high school diploma have a poverty rate 10 times higher at 20 percent….Ten percent of US workers earn $8.50 an hour or less according to the US Department of Labor. About 12 percent have health care and about 12 percent have retirement benefits. Nearly one in four get paid sick leave and less than half get paid vacation leave.

These are certainly an integral, numerically significant part of the “proletariat as a whole.” They are also certainly among those least likely to be unionized, and that’s important—unionization of a significant part of the U.S. and other countries’ workforce was crucial to creating the broad “middle-class prosperity” that characterized the U.S. and Western European economies in the 1950s and 1960s, and in expanding the “welfare state” (tepidly in the U.S., more substantially in Western Europe).

We all know very well that starting in the 1970s the right and corporate interests launched a broad-scale and highly successful onslaught against income equality in the U.S. and Europe, which resulted in the massive economic and social inequality of our times: when CEO’s average salaries increased from 29 times that of an average worker to 230 times; when, despite increases in productivity and corporate profits, wage rates remained stagnant or even fell, and poverty increased significantly even before the 2007 Great Recession. We also know there was a deliberate drive to pit worker against worker, whites against persons of color, and men against women, cleaving the U.S workforce with animosities and resentments that was also successful and even avidly advanced by forces within organized labor itself (Peter Brennan, head of the New York Building and Construction Trades Council, serving as Nixon’s first Secretary of Labor, and George Meany’s comment that the New York delegation to the 1972 Democratic Convention had “six open fags” on it) —the “Culture Wars” that propelled Ronald Reagan, two George Bushes, and “liberal” Bill Clinton into Presidential office in the US., and their counterparts Margaret Thatcher, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angel Merkel in Europe, finally culminating in the little-concealed racial attacks on Barack Obama and “slut,” “castrator” attacks on many women of public prominence. Workers were busily fighting among themselves for crumbs and increasingly forced into purely defensive battles to hold onto what they had; and though some lost more (even much more) than others, even unionized white male manufacturing and construction workers lost as well. Just what happens when one sector of the working class is made to feel that its well-being can only be maintained at the expense of another!

Now we’re all feeling the brunt. Unionized UAW auto workers who are newly-hired make only around $15 an hour, down substantially from the average of around $28 an hour that used to prevail in the UAW-organized shops. Unemployed college graduates are as vulnerable to long-term unemployment now as high school dropouts. In 2010, only 56% of new college graduates found jobs. Young workers looking for entry-level positions will find that their salary prospects are much dimmer than they were a decade ago. Half of all U.S. workers made less than $26,000 in 2010, and Alexander Eichler wrote in the Huffington Post, “[S]ome 127.5 million people—are liquid-asset poor. If one of these households experiences a sudden loss of income, caused, for example, by a layoff or a medical emergency, it will fall below the poverty line within three months. People in these households simply don’t have enough cash to make it for very long in a crisis.”

Last, John Schmitt’s January 2012 report for CEPR, “Low-wage Lessons,” is a cornucopia of disturbing facts on low-wage workers in the U.S., who, of course, are overwhelmingly non-union. Schmitt states, “According to the Organization of Economic cooperation and Development, OECD (U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand) in 2009, about one-fourth of U.S. workers were in low-wage jobs, defined as earning less than two-thirds of the national median hourly wage.” (p. 1; Figure 1 on the same page gives the exact percentage as 24.8%, the highest in the OECD.) In Figure 7 on p. 6 Schmitt gives the threshold for low-wage work ( two-thirds of the national median hourly wage) he’s calculated, which is around $11 an hour, and notes on p. 5, “Over the last three decades…the minimum wage in the United States has been set at a level that is well below the threshold for low-wage work.” Schmitt notes further at length on p. 10 that low wages are “often among the least of the problems facing low-wage workers, especially in the United States.” He continues, and fleshes out his argument:

U.S. labor law offers workers remarkably few protections. U.S. workers, for example, have the lowest level of employment security in the OECD and no legal right to paid vacations, paid sick days, or paid parental leave. The low level of union coverage in the United States means that contractual obligations generally don’t make up for the lack of legal guarantees.

In the absence of legal or contractual rights, low-wage workers are the least likely to have access to core benefits. Almost half of private-sector workers in the bottom fourth of the wage distribution in 2010, for example, had no paid vacations. In the same year, about 68 percent of private-sector workers in the bottom fourth of the wage distribution had no paid sick days, compared to only about 11 percent of workers in the top fourth. In the U.S. context, however, probably the most critical problem facing low-wage workers is the lack of access to health care. Rho and Schmitt estimate that in 2008, more than half (54 percent) of workers in the bottom wage quintile did not have employer-provided health insurance and more than one-third (37 percent) had no health insurance of any kind, private or public. The 37 percent non-coverage rate for the bottom quintile of wage earners in 2008 was up from 15 percent in 1979.

In countries with welfare-state institutions and labor laws that provide significant rights and protections to all workers regardless of their wage level, a focus on the wage problems facing low-wage workers makes sense. In a country such as the United States, however, where welfare-state institutions and labor laws offer only weak protections, low-wage workers face a host of problems beyond low wages. In the U.S. context, raising wages at the bottom would certainly help. But, raising wages alone will do little to address these same workers’ lack of access to health insurance or to alleviate the “time bind” caused by a lack of paid vacations, paid sick days, and paid family leave.

Health insurance, paid vacations, paid sick leave, and paid family leave, not to mention “welfare-state institutions” and “labor laws that provide significant rights and protections to all workers”: these are things labor unions historically have won for their members and fought to extend to all workers! But with organized labor in the doldrums and preoccupied with purely defensive battles, those workers standing outside of organized labor are in a real bind—especially if poor, unemployed, or barely surviving the crisis of the current Great Recession. But too often it’s precisely these massive sectors that organized labor has defaulted on, and the left’s current preoccupation with organized labor to the virtual exclusion of those workers not in unions have only exacerbated the problems facing not only organized labor—but all those 88.2% who stand outside the unions! This means the left itself will have to do more to reach, organize and galvanize what Marx and Engels called “the proletariat as a whole” and not simply, naïvely, count on the tiny minority that comprises organized labor to finally do for itself what it should’ve been doing decades ago. 

This article was originally published by ZCommunications.

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