Unions are down, but don’t count them out

Published in the Mille Lacs Messenger, March 9, 2011

If you recall your history, the second half of the 19th century was when the U.S. became an industrial superpower led by capitalists with names like Astor, Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie.
These so-called “robber barons” made their name by donating huge amounts of their fortunes to public works, but they often made their fortunes by unfair and sometimes brutal treatment of workers, be they Chinese on the railroads, Blacks and Mexicans in the fields, or European immigrants in the sweatshops and mines.
Mark Twain dubbed it “the gilded age” as a joke. “Gilt” is a thin veneer of gold that masks the cheapness of the underlying material. The age of the robber barons, much like today, looks good on the outside, but if you scratch it you find a rusty tin can.
It was during the gilded age that the unions got their foothold in the U.S. as workers responded to poor working conditions by organizing, striking, and demanding decent treatment.
Unions then, as now, were a correction against the greed of the ownership class, which inevitably leads to an increasing gulf between owners and workers.
We’ve seen a similar dynamic play out recently in the Middle East. People will put up with only so much abuse before they stand up to their oppressors — be they brutal dictators or smiling businessmen.
There are two views of the labor/ownership divide. One says the workers owe their jobs to the owners; the other says the owners owe their wealth to the workers. Both are true, flipsides of the same coin. But when the gulf between the two grows too wide, a clash is in the offing.
Unions gave us the 40-hour, five-day week, paid vacation, pensions, and health insurance. As unions have declined (from a third of the U.S. workforce in 1979 to 7.2 percent today), so have spending power and benefits of middle class workers.
The pundits on the right have portrayed public workers as pigs at a trough, drawing our attention away from the real pigs who are so unsatisfied with their exorbitant wealth that they whine about slightly higher tax rates — even though their rates are nothing compared to those in other industrialized nations, and their compensation dwarfs that of their counterparts overseas.
The pay of public and private sector workers is not that different. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich says public employees make 11 percent less than private employees with the same level of education. And by the way, they also fund 86 percent of their own retirement benefits.
What’s really at stake in Wisconsin is not a balanced budget. Many states without collective bargaining are facing huge deficits. Many with, aren’t. What’s at stake is the future of state politics. Union donations to Democrats are the only counterbalance to right-wing corporate money flowing to Republicans.
Gov. Scott Walker, with help from billionaire industrialists like the Koch brothers, is trying to create a permanent majority by killing unions in order to deplete Democratic coffers.
He and his friends in other states may succeed in the short term, but eventually, unions will come roaring back, when the ownership class fails to keep them happy with fair wages and decent benefits.
The rich could stave that off indefinitely if they’d share more of their wealth with the working people of America. Sadly, though, greed tends to rule the heart, and our top-heavy American society, with the wealth concentrated among a small group, will eventually crumble under its own weight.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.

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