With economic inequality in the U.S. at its worst in more than 80 years, why do polls show limited support of labor unions?
When workers in California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) went on strike for five days in early July (they hadn’t gotten a raise in four years), it set off a wave of antilabor vitriol on the Internet.
Among the more than 600 comments on the San Francisco Chronicle’s lead story on the strike, the 10 most popular included “greedy unions holding the entire Bay Area hostage,” “fire them all and hire new people,” and “they should have happen to them what happened to the air-traffic controllers in 1981—gone, fired.” Similar comments were “they're already overpaid for jobs you could train a monkey to do,” “make them reapply for their non-union jobs at lower pay and benefits,” and “do they even have a CLUE how many people haven't had a raise in 10 years?”
Internet comments are often cybertoilet-wall graffiti, the rantings of trolls who thrive on vituperation, but they also present uncensored versions of common prejudices. These attitudes have been translated into policy quite frequently over the last few years, from North Carolina drastically slashing unemployment benefits to billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg denouncing school-bus matrons who make $11 an hour as a “special interest” after breaking their strike and forcing pay cuts.
Tea Party supporters are by far the most antiunion demographic group, with more than 80 percent expressing negative opinions in a Pew poll released in June. (What is the Tea Party but a well-organized bloc of trolls?) However, polls indicate that overall public support for unions dropped significantly after the recession began, though it’s recovered somewhat. The Pew survey found that 51 percent of respondents had a positive view of unions, up from an all-time low of 41 percent two years ago, but still below pre-recession levels. Gallup polls have found similar patterns, with 52 percent approving of unions in 2012—up from the all-time low of 48 percent in 2009, but down from 58 percent before the recession and well below the 65 percent of 1999.
So why, with economic inequality in the U.S. at its worst in more than 80 years, is there so much hate for working people—and relatively limp support for them?
Pete Castelli, executive director of Northern California’s Service Employees International Union Local 1021—which represents both some BART workers and the Oakland city employees who staged a one-day strike July 1—is baffled. “Why is it wrong that a worker makes sixty, seventy, eighty thousand a year? Why is it a bad thing if they have a pension and healthcare?” he asks. “What’s our country turning into? We’re almost in a race to the bottom with ourselves.”
Some possible reasons include the divide between public and private-sector workers, the weakening of labor unions and their connections to broader social movements, declining social solidarity and the rise of selfishness as ideology, and that few people with political power are standing up for workers. “All of the above,” says Michael Zweig, an economics professor at Stony Brook University and author of The Working-Class Majority.
Public vs. Private
Most U.S. union members now work for the federal, state and local governments. They are the biggest exception to the overall decline of American unions. In the 1950s, more than one-third of U.S. workers were union members. Today, less than one-eighth are, and less than 7 percent are in the private sector—the lowest since World War I. In contrast, 36 percent of public workers are union members, up from 11 percent in 1960.
The result, coupled with recession, globalization and greed, is that many private-sector workers haven’t seen raises in years or have suffered paycuts, and very few have real monthly-check pensions any more, as they’ve been replaced by 401(k) plans.
Even with the real-estate and stock markets rebounding, Castelli says, employers are still demanding concessions on the grounds of hardship. This affects public workers too—the Oakland strike happened after the city demanded further givebacks on top of the $122 million municipal workers agreed to in 2009—but it’s worse in the private sector. “Since the bottom dropped out of the economy, the private sector has gotten nothing,” he says. “Corporate America wants people to be contract workers, or part-time.”
Unions once provided a “virtuous circle of upward benefits,” says Zweig, pushing up wages, rights and benefits for everyone, but if only public workers are getting that, it’s easy to resent them, to ask “why should these people get that on your nickel?”
Antilabor forces are quite happy to encourage that resentment. During the New York subway strike of 2005, Mayor Bloomberg charged that the union was being “selfish,” hurting busboys, garment-industry workers, and owners of mom-and-pop businesses who didn’t get paid if they couldn’t come to work. Stereotyping union public-school teachers as “lazy, pampered bastards” helps the well-financed charter-school movement’s efforts to privatize education, notes Allan Ruff, a historian of social movements and a longtime Wisconsin activist.
“A lot of people don’t understand the union movement,” says Antonette Bryant, head of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents BART train operators and station agents. “We’re fighting for everybody. We are taxpayers ourselves. We’re not some elitist group. We’ve banded together for a common goal—better wages.”
Education about the labor movement has been diluted, she says, so people don’t understand that as unions erode, so do wages for everybody.
“The question should be ‘Why don’t we have what they have?’”
The debate over whether unions should primarily serve their own members or work for greater social change is as old as the labor movement. After World War II, American unions largely dropped class-struggle ideology, partly because the government forced them to purge Communists and “fellow travelers” and partly because they could share in the expanding postwar prosperity.
Ruff cites the “Treaty of Detroit,” a landmark 1950 agreement between General Motors and the United Auto Workers in which the company agreed to accept the union shop, raise wages, and provide pensions and health insurance, while the union agreed not to challenge the company’s power over how the workplace was run. This model helped American workers enjoy unprecedented prosperity for a few decades. But the purge of radical elements and the focus on short-term economic gains separated organized labor from the great social-change movements of the later 20th century, as well as splitting the U.S. left from its working-class base.
“Unions themselves have not been big champions of workers outside their own membership,” says Zweig. In his own union, the United University Professions, he says, the former president responded to proposed cuts in the New York state university system’s budget by drafting a statement that said, “our interest is in protecting our membership.” “How about protecting public higher education?” Zweig responds.
That’s not absolute, he clarifies. Though many building-trades locals remained segregated until the late 1960s, the UAW strongly supported the civil-rights movement. But the failure to deal with broader concerns, he says, is “coming back to bite the labor movement in the butt.”
The turning point came in the 1970s. The low unemployment of the 1960s encouraged union demands that squeezed profits, and the large and militant protest movements of the era seriously scared the nation’s ruling elite. Factions in that elite began planning ways for the empire to strike back, and Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 gave their counterrevolution its opening. Reagan’s mass firing of striking air-traffic controllers in 1981 abrogated the Treaty of Detroit model and inaugurated a new era of class warfare from the top down.
Labor’s failure over the last 50 years “to have a message that appeals to all working people is fundamental to the political weakness of the working class,” says Judy Ancel, director of the Worker Education and Labor Studies program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “We never should have been content to organize only a minority.” As union membership dropped, she says, it became easier to portray labor as a “special interest.”
Me-Me vs. Solidarity
A more nebulous reason is a broader decline in social solidarity and the rise of selfishness as an ideology. “People have gotten so entrenched in the me-me-me, it’s gotten lost,” Antonette Bryant says. She laments the loss of close-knit communities like the one she grew up in during the ’60s, and feels this had led to less political empathy for others. It should be “unacceptable in America” that Walmart workers make so little they have to rely on food stamps and Medicaid, she says.
For example, says Ruff, storekeepers in a factory neighborhood who knew workers as their customers would likely be more sympathetic to a strike than people who get their opinions from the media. He also cites the lack of pro-labor media to counter anti-union propaganda; the “animus” of religious fundamentalism; and the American myth of rugged individualism, the belief that we are a classless society where you can make it on your own if you really want to, and there’s no need for collective action. Even at its peak, the U.S. had a much lower rate of union membership than Canada, Britain, France, or Germany.
Racism and sexism also play a role, he adds, as most public-sector union members are black, Latino, or female. “What percentage of BART workers are people of color?” Ancel asks.
And much of the worst contempt for workers comes from the pervasive Ayn Rand acolytes, who believe that unions and minimum-wage laws force employers to pay the undeserving far more than they’re worth.
Who’s Speaking for Workers?
Ronald Reagan, despite his antilabor actions, won some traditionally Democratic white working-class votes, especially in the South, by casting himself as the defender of hardworking (white) taxpayers against lazy (black) welfare parasites. His contemporary followers who want to justify economic inequality have to deal with the inconvenient fact that most poor people work for a living. They get around this by claiming that if people lose their jobs or work for low wages, it’s because they lack “personal responsibility.”
The American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray is a notorious proponent of these themes, dancing along the borderlines of politically acceptable racism. In 1984’s influential Losing Ground,he argued for the abolition of government aid to the poor, and in 1994, his The Bell Curve claimed that black and poor people were genetically predisposed to have lower IQs. In his 2012 book, Coming Apart, he contended that white working-class people were losing ground economically because they’d started behaving like ghetto dwellers, dropping out of school and having kids out of wedlock.
But mainstream Democrats aren’t doing much to defend working people. President Obama’s 2008 campaign promise that he would push “card check” legislation, which would let workplaces become union shops if a majority of workers signed cards to join, evaporated quickly under a Republican filibuster the next year. In 2011, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was obliterating state workers’ collective-bargaining rights, Obama said it “seems like more of an assault on unions,” but added that in tough times, “everybody’s got to make some adjustments.” And his much-hailed litany of Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall in his inaugural address this year did not include labor-struggle sites like Lawrence, Flint and Delano.
“Politicians take money from unions, but then when you need their help, they’re silent,” says Castelli. In contrast, he notes, Franklin D. Roosevelt said that “if I worked in a factory, the first thing I’d do is join a union.”
“The Democrats don’t want to talk about working-class people,” says Zweig. “They don’t want to talk about poverty either.”
A more subtle way this plays out is that almost no one in American politics says “working class” or “poor”; instead, they talk obsessively about “the middle class.” Reducing unemployment and poverty is usually discussed in terms of educating and training people for more highly skilled jobs, to be “competitive,” instead of improving wages and conditions for all working people. What if there aren’t enough of those better jobs? The result, says Antonette Jones, will be lots of “very educated burger-flippers.”
What to Do?
“The labor movement’s done a very poor job of explaining,” says Castelli. “No one is developing a strategy to win the public.” Being “beaten up by the cacophony” of right-wing media, he adds, “is not an excuse.”
The Chicago teachers who went on strike successfully last fall were “really good at building the support of parents and families,” says Judy Ancel, and that’s a lesson that “public-sector workers have to reflect the needs of the community.” Some unions, she adds, have known that for a while, but others, particularly at the federal level, are just beginning to learn it.
Overall, she says, the labor movement needs to “be doing things that are good for all working people” instead of focusing on narrow institutional issues. In Missouri, she explains, unions earlier this year turned back a so-called “paycheck protection” measure that would have limited union spending on politics, by persuading not-so-extreme Republicans to agree not to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto. That prevented a major defeat for organized labor, she says, but it didn’t help the rest of the public.
It would be better, Ancel contends, if unions built coalitions to campaign for things like paid sick days for all workers. In 2006, a ballot initiative to raise Missouri’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.50 an hour won more than 75 percent of the vote. Last year, the Missouri Jobs With Justice coalition, an alliance of unions and community groups, campaigned for initiatives to raise the minimum wage by $1 and limit “payday loan” interest rates, which she says were polling well before they got knocked off the ballot on technicalities.
“We need to tap into the overall feeling of malaise,” she says.
“We’re working a lot harder to get our message to the public,” Castelli says. The BART unions are trying to publicize safety issues, such as reduced train inspections, track workers being injured because of inadequate lighting in the tunnels, assaults on station agents, and shuttered station bathrooms. They also note that BART gave its general manager a $20,000 raise on her $300,000 salary, and spent $399,000 to hire an outside negotiator, Thomas P. Hock, who has a reputation for busting unions.
Before their July 1 strike, Castelli says, Oakland city workers won public support by making the issue personal, by holding community meetings and presenting themselves as the people who provide essential city services from Head Start to street sweeping, not faceless bureaucrats.
“We did a campaign, ‘We deserve this.’ We focused on who we were,” he says. “This is Myra. She’s a fire dispatcher. She works 12-hour shifts.” During the one-day strike, less than five people crossed the picket line, and the union won a “complete victory,” fending off concessions and winning a raise.
“Every fight has to be a justice fight,” he says. “We need to aim the anger of the public at Wall Street and the banks, the real culprits.”
Steven Wishnia is a New York-based journalist and musician. He is the author of the novel "When the Drumming Stops", "Exit 25 Utopia," and "The Cannabis Companion."
This article originally appeared on Alternet.