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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Refresher Course on Unions

Robert L. Borosage, president of the Institute for America’s Future, has an important post up at HuffPo, “The American Dream: The Forgotten Leading Actor.” It’s about the pivotal role unions play in creating a decent society.
No, it’s not a new idea to progressives. But, as Borosage notes, the bomb Newt chucked into the fray about relaxing child labor laws should serve as a potent reminder about the threat unions — and all American workers — face if the 2012 elections go the wrong way.
No one is surprised by the Republicans’ assault on unions. It’s more vicious than ever, but it’s been going on since Reagan busted PATCO, notes Borosage. But he also argues that the progressive narrative has largely neglected the labor movement, despite the recent uprisings in Wisconsin and Ohio.
Borosage cites recent speeches by Elizabeth Warren and President Obama, giving them due credit for their well-stated insights about corporate power and abuses, but faulting them for failing to cite the critical role of unions. He then reviews the contributions of labor:

We emerged from World War II with unions headed towards representing about 30% of the workforce. Fierce struggles with companies were needed to ensure that workers got a fair share of the rewards of their work. Unions were strong enough that non-union employers had to compete for good workers by offering comparable wages. Unions enforced the forty-hour week, and overtime pay, paid vacations, health care and pensions, family wages. Strong unions limited excess in corporate boardrooms, a countervailing power beyond the letter of the contract. As profits and productivity rose, wages rose as well.
When unions were weakened and reduced, all that changed. Productivity and profits continued to rise, but wages did not. The ratio of CEO pay to the average worker pay went from 40 to 1 to over 350 to 1. CEOs were given multimillion-dollar pay incentives to cook their books and merge and purge their companies. Unions were not strong enough to police the excess. America let multinationals define its trade and manufacturing strategy, hemorrhaging good jobs to mercantilist nations like China…The result was the wealthiest few captured literally all the rewards of growth. And 90% of America struggled to stay afloat with stagnant wages, rising prices, growing debt.
Unions were not the only factor in the rise of the middle class or in its decline. But they surely were central to the story of how the middle class was built and where America went wrong.

And, looking to the future, Borosage sees a still vital role for unions:

…Unions give workers practice in exercising their democratic rights. They elect their own leaders; they voice their concerns; they must learn to compromise and prioritize. They are true laboratories of democracy. They provide a democratic forum, and the organizing skills vital to challenging democracy’s opponents.
Unions are also essential to building a free market economy with shared prosperity. Unions help ensure that the rewards of rising productivity are widely shared. They help curb greed and lawlessness in executive suites. They help sustain legitimate order in the workplace, giving workers a way to express grievances, adjudicate wrongs. Their workplace success is vital to insuring that workers earn enough to generate consumer demand vital to economic growth.
In our current economic distress unions should be more important than ever. The net jobs being created in America are almost entirely in the non-tradeable sectors of the society — retail services, public employees, health care, education etc. These tend to feature low wage jobs — from the shop clerk to the hotel maid. But there is no intrinsic reason they are low paid. With strong unions, hotel maids in New York City make a middle class wage, with health care benefits. At least a part of countering the increasing income disparity in America is to empower workers to organize once more.

Further, as Borosage concludes:

…No major social reforms succeed in Washington without strong union support and mobilization…The spark was lit in Madison, Wisconsin, when students and farmers joined public workers demonstrating to protect their basic right to organize and bargain collectively. Occupy Wall Street turned that into a conflagration. As this fight intensifies, labor unions and the workers that they represent — reduced in membership, short of funds, savaged by their enemies and too often ignored by their friends — will by what they do or what they fail to do make a fundamental difference in what kind of society we build out of the ruins.

Regardless of what happens in the 2012 elections, progressives should commit to spreading the popular uprisings that took hold in Wisconsin, Ohio and OWS to restore the trade union movement as the engine of change and the Democratic Party.

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