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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Top Columnist Rethinks His Beliefs About Unions

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has an interesting column about his change of viewpoint towards labor unions. Kristof’s column is significant, not only as an admission that even the top commentators can be mistaken, learn and grow, but also because it is an indication that many Americans are beginning to understand that a healthy labor movement is essential for a stable middle class.
Kristof begins by explaining that he had “disdained” unions because of union members who are grossly overcompensated and the “corruption, nepotism and rigid work rules” he saw in unions. He cites the example of some stage hands earning $400K in compensation.
Such attitudes towards unions are understandable. Outrageous examples of abuse get disproportionate media coverage and are frequently repeated and exaggerated, giving the impression that they are more common than is the case. The role of unions in securing decent living standards for millions of workers, however, gets much less coverage. For every union member who earns $400K per year, there are hundreds of thousands who are earning middle class wages and struggling to pay their bills.
Kristof’s reading and research, along with recent economic trends, apparently lead him to rethink his earlier impressions. “I was wrong,” he states. “The abuses are real. But, as unions wane in American life, it’s also increasingly clear that they were doing a lot of good in sustaining middle class life — especially the private-sector unions that are now dwindling.” He notes, further,

Most studies suggest that about one-fifth of the increase in economic inequality in America among men in recent decades is the result of the decline in unions. It may be more: A study in the American Sociological Review, using the broadest methodology, estimates that the decline of unions may account for one-third of the rise of inequality among men.
“To understand the rising inequality, you have to understand the devastation in the labor movement,” says Jake Rosenfeld, a labor expert at the University of Washington and the author of “What Unions No Longer Do.”
Take construction workers. A full-time construction worker earns about $10,000 less per year now than in 1973, in today’s dollars, according to Rosenfeld. One reason is probably that the proportion who are unionized has fallen in that period from more than 40 percent to just 14 percent.
“All the focus on labor’s flaws can distract us from the bigger picture,” Rosenfeld writes. “For generations now the labor movement has stood as the most prominent and effective voice for economic justice.”

Kristof still condemns abusive union policies, but now adds,

But unions also lobby for programs like universal prekindergarten that help create broad-based prosperity. They are pushing for a higher national minimum wage, even though that would directly benefit mostly nonunionized workers.
I’ve also changed my mind because, in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite. One of the things you learn as a journalist is that when there’s no accountability, we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality. That’s true of union bosses — and of corporate tycoons. Unions, even flawed ones, can provide checks and balances for flawed corporations…Many Americans think unions drag down the economy over all, but scholars disagree.

That’s an important realization and the hope is that other Americans are also beginning to rethink the critical role unions have to play in restoring America’s economic health. “Historically, the periods when union membership were highest were those when inequality was least,” Kristof explains.
Kristof notes that “Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard labor economist, raises concerns about some aspects of public-sector unions, but he says that in the private sector (where only 7 percent of workers are now unionized): “I think we’ve gone too far in de-unionization.”
“He’s right,” concludes Kristof. “This isn’t something you often hear a columnist say, but I’ll say it again: I was wrong. At least in the private sector, we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them.”
If he did the necessary research, Kristof would likely find that the overwhelming majority of unionized public sector workers are not living all that high on the hog, either. Here as well, a relatively few well-publicized horror stories trump the aggregate reality too often in public perceptions.
Credit Kristof with having the integrity, smarts and candor to own his mistaken impression and share what he has learned with his readers. May others learn from his example.
For Democrats, improved public attitudes toward unions on a broader scale would be a welcome development, since the party’s prospects and goals are intertwined with those of the labor movement. Indeed, it’s hard to envision the Democratic party thriving independently of unions, which provide critical financial and volunteer support during elections, as well as being the most effective force for reducing income inequality. Educating the public about the inextricable relationship of unions to a healthy middle class in the U.S. should become a leading priority of progressives.

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