Make Labor Great Again

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“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
– Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects

Perhaps using the Usual Suspects to explain the decline in the power of labor is a bit of a stretch, but when you examine the failing UAW vote in Canton, Missouri in early November, the roots of the destruction of labor’s power are as extrusive as those from trees that have been standing hundreds of years.

Since the mid-1970’s, labor unions have declined in membership, and as those numbers have declined so has labor’s influence on policy. In turn, so has the Democratic Party’s influence on American politics.

You can blame Reagan’s breaking of the air traffic controllers in the 80’s, but the reality is the Republican Party aligned with the forces of management to discredit the idea of organized labor. Look at the targets of particular delight of the GOP – teacher unions, public service unions, and, of course, the auto workers.

However, this goes to the mentality of where our priorities are as people. What makes us devalue the contributions of working people? When you align something that is a net positive for the working person – a labor union – with forces that are unseemly in the American ethos such as corruption and racketeering, that makes those forces of good actually into forces of evil. This systematic campaign of disinformation regarding unions has eroded their standing and has done more to damage labor’s reputation than the mismanagement of lucrative contracts ever could.

Labor unions were the driving forces of improved working conditions and salaries during the 20th century. In fact, one could argue that labor unions did more to elevate the standard of living of average Americans than any government program. Collective bargaining is a beautiful thing, and it is something management despises.

Perhaps, this is where the conflict arises in our society – labor vs. management. However, there has been great inconsistency here; Republicans have always represented management’s best interests while Democrats have an on-again, off-again relationship with labor. The Democrats are quick to criticize teachers’ unions and way too many Democrats support charter schools despite the fact that in an apples to apples comparison, charter school students lag far behind public school students in terms of test scores and overall college readiness.

Full disclosure – I was a member of the AFL-CIO when I was worked in a supermarket and was a member of a teacher’s union for 10 years. In that time I’ve seen the good and bad of unions.

The good: protection for all members and someone fighting to get you a living wage.

The bad: gross mismanagement and negotiating.

Ultimately, I kept paying my dues to the teacher’s union because the school principal would not have my back. He’d be looking for the best political move for him. The union, because I pay dues, is obligated to have my back. That message is lost today.

The vote in Canton was big loser for the UAW. The disinformation campaign waged by Nissan worked for this reason: Nissan’s $25/hour salary is so much higher than the surrounding jobs. It’s easy to scare people who have nothing to fall back on.

There is frankly very little in the way to pulling yourself up by blue collar bootstraps if you live below the Mason-Dixon line. This is supported by looking at the results of the last election. The Washington Post noted that 65% of America’s GDP comes from blue counties. In the South, there are a dearth of blue counties. Those that are blue are overwhelmed by the red counties. Look at Florida: 75% of Florida’s GDP comes from Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. These counties are receptive to unions; however because the rest of the state is charitably described as crimson, it’s impossible for the economic engine of Florida to guide policy.

Now, let’s go back to the $25/hour job and apply it to Florida. If there’s nothing else around why would you jeopardize that job? In Canton, MS, there’s nothing else you can do to make that type of money. In Florida, economic opportunity does not exist in red counties the way it does in South Florida. So, if you are one of the people who is lucky to have a good paying job, and your fellow employees look to unionize but management tries to squash that movement, it makes sense to side with management.

However, this is where Democrats screw up. Why weren’t they in Canton talking about all the good the UAW has done – including increasing workplace safety standards, something the Nissan plant is sorely lacking? Why weren’t Democrats in Canton talking about how collective bargaining means wages and benefits that will be stable and better? Why weren’t Democrats talking about how unions don’t necessarily protect bad employees, but give all employees due process?

The answer: since the 80’s Democrats were convinced they could be management too. And, since management makes more money than labor, it’s natural to want to move up. However, giving up on labor means giving up on the people who gave Democrats power from the 1930’s to the 1980’s. In that 50 year time period, America has never before seen the level of egalitarian prosperity it experienced then. Since the 1980’s, American prosperity is a myth. It’s the stuff of legends.

So, instead of convincing labor that management has their best interests in minds, Democrats need to talk about the benefits of organized labor. There is no devil here, but management pulled off an amazing con job by making labor think it truly cares about the individual worker.

If you believe that, I have a wall to sell you.

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