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June 30, 2005

Gonna Party Like It's 1935?

I wish I could believe Ruth Milkman's optimistic op-ed on unions, but it's a little hard when it's peppered by omissions like this:

IT is a time of trial for organized labor. Only 13 percent of nonagricultural workers are unionized. The figure is even lower among immigrants who toil at unskilled jobs in the nation's newest industries. Employers have abandoned the paternalistic job security measures, pensions and fringe benefits of which they boasted only a few years ago. Instead, they are imposing wage cuts and speedups on their workers while the American Federation of Labor stands by helplessly.

This was the labor movement's plight in 1935. Like many Americans today, people back then believed that labor unions had become weak and irrelevant. In 1932, George Barnett, president of the American Economics Association, declared, "American trade unionism is slowly being limited in influence by changes which destroy the basis on which it is erected." Yet a few years later, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, an insurgent group within organized labor born out of a debate that few outsiders bothered to follow, set off America's greatest surge of unionism.

So what happened in 1935? Well, we were in a massive depression, and our president decided one way to effectively regulate the economy was by creating a powerful union movement able to exercise independent oversight in the workplace. As part of this, he signed into law the Wagner Act (which succeeded the weaker and unconstitutional NIRA. the first legislation to actually guarantee the right to organize), which guaranteed union rights, curtailed business's antiunion freedoms, and created the National Labor Relations board to oversee the whole thing. And that's why the CIO was able to succeed.

Then, of course, came Taft-Hartley, and decades upon decades of conservative efforts to chip away at union powers. Worse, the fines were rarely updated, creating a situation where the prescribed penalties for antiunion behavior are laughable -- pocket change for corporations unwilling to be unionized.

I want unions to revive as much as anyone, but let's not overstate the case. The last great flowering came out of the Great Depression. It was a mixture of favorable legislation, anti-capitalist sentiment, and worker desperation. The reason unions are dying today -- and Republicans are getting elected -- is that the economic situation is simply not bad enough to provoke a serious outcry for tougher corporate regulations and a more worker oriented regime. That's a good thing. At the same time, the Democratic party isn't good enough to create these issues on its own. That's a bad thing.

If we continue down this path, there's a fair chance we'll slam right into a severe recession, if not a depression of sorts. A housing crash, a terrorist attack on oil supplies, a trade war with China that makes them decide dollars aren't such a good investment after all...our room for error isn't high. But the better outcome would be a strong Democratic party that regains power, loosens the constraints on union organizing, institutes tougher corporate oversight and better fiscal management, and brings us back from the brink. In this, we're Batman*, unwilling to let Gotham be sacked no matter how far down the wrong path it's gone. We've got an economy worth saving, and if we could just get some of Spitzer's talent for corporate oversight, Hacker's understanding of risk-reduction economics, and Stern's epiphany on the importance of organizing, we could save it.

*Bet you weren't expecting that analogy to crop up.

June 30, 2005 | Permalink

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 16, 2007 9:00:38 PM

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