Free-Floating Hostility

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Labor Pains

BrooklynDodger informs me that Andy Stern, posited by the New York Times Magazine as the future of organized labor, disbanded the Service Employee International Union's Health and Safety Department. Since I think that's an important issue for union's to address, I have some concerns about him as a leader of the labor movement.

The issues that Stern says he wants to address within organized labor, primarily the steady erosion of its power base in the new economy, are certainly the most vital questions facing this country in the new century. The American middle class exists because of labor unions and social insurance. But with the former disappering and a sustained attack on the latter the primary goal of the current administration starting tomorrow, the American way of life is in danger. Stern argues that organized labor needs to question its internal structure, its alliances to the Democratic Party, and its commitment to New Deal policies that he dismisses as 60-year-old ideas. The AFL-CIO is composed of member unions and Stern wants it to act like a corporation and merge smaller unions into a larger groups. This, in his mind, makes organized labor more efficient. If one union represents all the workers within a given industry, the companies will have a hard time breaking it. Stern believes this is the only way for unions to be relevant in the 21st century. Opponents dismiss this approach as overly corporate. In what one might call an act of insidious conservative bias, author Matt Bai never touches on the idea that unions are democratic and representative organizations, not tools of the leadership. That belief, that union leadership acts without the support and consent of the members, comes straight from noted football fan Rush Limbaugh.

Stern is right, however, when he says that most of the labor movement is not built for the global economy. But that's not a surprise because the global economy was built to castrate the union movement. The game is rigged in favor of capital and (I started to put therefore here, but took it out and will leave that argument to those who believe it more strongly that me) against workers. Americans are being punished for the standard of living that unions helped create. Well-paying factory jobs, as part of the overall post-war economic boom, created the economic prosperity of the 1950s.

Stern is right when he says those days are gone. His solution is to start starving union beauracracy and and pouring that money into organizing the Wal-Mart's of the world. That's well and good, but it doesn't change the fact that a job at Wal-Mart in 2005 pays less than a job at GM did in 1980. That means an overall decline in the American standard of living. And while it may mean an increase in the standard of living somewhere else, the extent to which that goes up is limited by governments that don't enforce labor and environmental standards, and that don't allow workers to organize on their own to create better conditions.

So while unions have to do a better job of organizing in the future, they also need to demand that the U.S. government do a better of job of protecting its workers. The purpose of a corporation is to legally make money for its shareholders. That means, if necessary, setting up offshore to avoid corporate taxes, sending jobs overseas to make lower-cost goods and working to weaken regulations here. The Clinton economic agenda eliminated tarriffs through trade agreements in order to better facilitate the flow of capital around the world. Clinton's heart was in the right place and wanted provisions for worker rights and environmental protections in these agreements. Those provisions, of course, are completely unenforceable, meaning that labor standards in countries that now import goods into the United States never really changed. So while I'm very happy for Chinese factory workers or Indian computer programmers who have new jobs that pay better than whatever they were doing before, what do you tell the American worker who has lost that job? If the unions are dying and outsourcing is the official position of the government, who is left to speak for the 50-year-old factory worker, whose job has left the country?

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