Unions: Getting Things Done for Workers

I have been a labor organizer for 11 years.  Periodically someone pronounces labor unions as dead or dying organizations, and we all put our heads together to think about ways to save them. Lately, I am much less worried about preserving this version of the labor movement. To me, preserving is about freezing in time and let’s be real: we are already starting to look a little moth-eaten. For most working people unions are something akin to a fairy tale character–either monster or superhero, depending your politics. Very few working-class people are now or have ever been members of a union.

Those unions that are left are under serious attack all over the county. It seems like the answer to those attacks can’t only be self-preservation. A movement of any kind is about moving–about being an instrument for change. It is about reflecting the people and struggle of today. I am very interested in figuring out how to make a labor movement that moves people forward. I keep coming back to a quotation from the late labor organizer and folk singer Utah Philips who defined a union as “a way of getting things done together that you can’t get done alone.” Nowhere in that definition is there a claim that there is only one way to get things done together. For that matter, the word “things” is open many interpretations.

During the last two months I have had little time to think about anything outside of the campaign I am working on here in Oregon. Workers who provide support for people with developmental disabilities are organizing for the first time to preserve the very programs that allow people with disabilities to exercise their civil rights and live independently. We have been visiting thousands of people to ask them what they feel needs to be done. The events in Wisconsin have broken through the bubble of campaign work and captured the imagination of organizers and workers alike. While the battle unfolding in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere is partly about preservation, what has captivated me and others across the country is more than that.

Having a union is not the end goal. It is a means to an end, a tool for working people to have power over their lives and work.   Now someone is trying to take away the best tool working people have for getting things done together. While working people themselves know what they want to get done, Wisconsin has shown a way it may be possible. Instead of becoming mired in an attempt to work through acceptable channels and follow a “process” that would have likely ended in crushing loss, people in Wisconsin took swift and direct action to confront the decision makers who were trying to rob them of their rights. That is a compelling lesson for all of us fighting to build a worker movement.

Recently, when a member of the union I work for was asked why she was volunteering to visit with non-union workers on her day off, she said: “I want to do a difference in the world . . . if not for myself then for others.”  Let’s start there, by redefining the labor movement that way.  What we do as a labor movement is to ‘do a difference’ for working people. If we are serious about organizing the working class, then working people need to decide what needs doing. With so few working-class people in unions we need to go far beyond our membership to ask what needs doing and then really listen to the answers.  Let’s start where every union organizing drive should start: by talking to workers–employed and unemployed–about what they want to improve about their work and this economy.

A union has meaning when it is the expression of what working people want or need to do. What has become glaringly obvious in Wisconsin is that the system we are supposed to use to get what we need is mostly used against us these days. As a result, the labor movement needs to be an adaptable tool, molded to fit the task at hand. The demonstrations in Wisconsin speak to the potential power of people getting things done together and the need to display that power more.

If a union is a tool to get things done, then we have often been going about this all wrong. We don’t need to run around convincing people about the virtues of unions, we need to start with workers’ experience. We need to find out what can’t get done without coming together and create a labor movement that gets it done.

Angela MacWhinnie

Angela MacWhinnie has been a union organizer for 11 years and currently works with SEIU Local 503 in Portland, Oregon.  She is also a member of the Working-Class Studies Association.

Timing Is Everything

Sometimes clichés become old clichés because they have enduring value.  Here’s one that puts the consequences of the 2010 election in perspective: “Timing is everything.”  That is because the Democrats didn’t just lose hundreds of important elections here in Ohio and across the nation, they lost the future as well.

Of course some may argue that I’m being far too pessimistic.  After all, we have elections every two years, and candidates always say that the next election is the most important one that’s ever been held.  Often such rhetoric is pure hyperbole.  But the truth is that there are elections and then there are ELECTIONS—like the one in 2010.

2010 was one of those elections because people around the country not only voted for candidates, they also decided who would control the process of drawing new state legislative and Congressional district lines based on the results of the just-concluded Census. And, as any student of American history will acknowledge, the party that draws the lines—that “holds the pencil” to use the vernacular–employing a combination of gerrymandering, state-of-the-art technology, and the exercise of raw political power almost always dominates public policy formation for the next decade, if not longer.

In case you haven’t noticed, the GOP won the pencil and the nearly limitless power that goes with it.

Was it just bad and/or dumb luck that caused the Democrats to catch a serious beating at the polls in this critical election?   Was it the brilliance of the GOP’s platform and marvelous campaigning that convinced working and middle-class Americans to once again vote against their own self-interest after two straight cycles in they seemed to have finally read and understood Thomas Franks’s seminal work, What’s the Matter With Kansas?

Of course not.

Fact is, Democrats lost because Democrats—and particularly the Obama administration–blew it.  Bad policies, worse messaging, and disastrous strategic planning and execution enabled the GOP, pronounced dead in the wake of the Democratic deluge of 2008, to convince voters that liberalism had failed—even though the Obama administration’s policies were abhorred as much if not more by the left than the right.

It didn’t matter that Obama was not a liberal, however, because Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and other conservative talking heads along with the GOP House and Senate caucuses and the business community, managed to convince the electorate that he was.  As a result, working- and middle-class voters in Ohio and other states with high jobless rates blamed liberalism for their troubles.  On November 2 they voted in droves for Republicans who displayed their gratitude by launching an all-out attack against them on November 3.

In some years the GOP might have feared so quickly turning it guns on the constituency that resurrected them, Lazarus-like, from the political hereafter. After all, screw up the way the Dems had, and the folks who put you in could just as easily toss you out a short 24 months later.  Yet, despite the threat of swift retribution at the polls, the GOP charged on boldly, fearlessly, and in the case of new House Speaker John Boehner, often tearfully, promising to do things, including revising Social Security, that would inevitably enrage the working and middles classes.

That’s where the old cliché “Timing is everything” comes in.  The GOP rushed ahead because they had just won elections in state after state that would enable them to institutionalize their hold on power and make themselves practically impervious to the changing mood of the electorate.  They knew they could safely blast away because they held the pencil and with it the power to draw legislative and Congressional districts they could never lose—no matter how irate the voters might become in the years ahead.  They recognized that all things being equal, they wouldn’t, they couldn’t really be held accountable in most states until sometime in 2022, which gave them plenty of time to do what they damn well pleased.

While the CWCS is researching and will release in the spring an extensive study on the effect the 2010 election will have on reapportionment and redistricting and the policy making process  across the nation, Ohio serves as a prime example of what everyone else can expect. On November 2 the Democrats lost all statewide offices —  they had held three of four going into the election — and with them control of the Apportionment Board.  Governor-elect John Kasich—again, why wait until you’re actually in office when you know you’ve got the state by the throat—warned everyone to get on his bus or be run over by it.

Not surprisingly, everyone Mr. Kasich really cared about was already on his bus—it’s a limo really. After all, the guy was a director at Lehman Brothers.  The people who have to worry about being run over are public employees including police officers, firefighters, and teachers, poor families who depend on Medicaid for health care, building trades unions and their members, seniors, local governments and libraries that depend on a variety of revenue sharing dollars from the state, and just about anyone else who looks to government for help.

Look closer and you’ll see that there’s a little more method than just an aversion to government in the new governor’s madness.  He and the rest of the Republicans know that while holding the power to draw the lines is great, being able to defund the Democratic Party by essentially gutting one of its primary funding sources, public sector unions, is absolutely marvelous.  Go after the public sector by privatizing everything in sight and the next thing you know the Dems won’t have the money they need to run even moderately credible campaigns in the few legislative and Congressional districts that may be created in when they draw the lines.

Now there’s a recipe for cooking up a permanent majority both in Columbus and in Washington that’s hard to beat.

And that’s why timing is everything.

Leo Jennings

Jennings is a political consultant who has worked with the Center for Working-Class Studies on research about working-class voters

$2 Trillion

I really have no conception of how much $2 trillion is, and I’m not helped much by knowing that it’s enough for a stack of 20-dollar bills to reach the moon.  $2 trillion is really, really a lot of money – I got that part.  I know that it is $2,000 billion, and that helps some because I have some sense of what a billion is.  I also know that $2 trillion is equivalent to 1/7th of the entire U.S. economy, which has a GDP of about $14 trillion.  So $2 trillion is a huge amount of money, but it is a relatively small piece of the whole, about 14%.

$2 trillion is the amount that businesses are currently holding in cash and short-term investments rather than investing in long-term productive activity that would create jobs and thereby spark our stagnant economy to life.

$2 trillion is also roughly the additional amount that full-time workers would earn each year if productivity growth had been shared since 1979 the way it was for more than thirty years before 1979.  (I get this from Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze, page 5, where he calculates that shared productivity growth would result in full-time workers earning about $22,000 more than they actually do.  There are about 100 million full-time workers, and multiplied by $22,000, that amounts to $2.2 trillion.)

I think these two different $2 trillion amounts are related.  That the $2 trillion lost to workers by the disappearance of productivity sharing has piled up in corporations where they cannot find a useful purpose for it.   And  because their wages have stagnated, workers do not have enough spending power to buy all that our economy can produce, and that this insufficiency of wages and salaries is the principal cause of our current economic stagnation.  If this is so, then raising wages (and quickly) would be the best way to stimulate our economy.

This is relevant because the business press is currently debating why that $2 trillion in corporate cash and short-term investment is being “sidelined” (meaning not just temporarily out of the game and ready to substitute for existing players, but in the football metaphor, that the economy is playing with only 9.5 players rather than 11).  One view says this huge amount of money is sidelined because of “business uncertainty” related to all the new regulations the Obama administration is imposing.  The other view holds that businesses are sitting on this money because there is insufficient consumer demand to assure businesses of profitable investment opportunities.  The second view believes that if consumer demand were “robust,” businesses would take that $2 trillion off the sidelines and even borrow money to invest in productive economic activity.  The vast majority of consumers are wage-earners, of course, the same folks who lose about $2 trillion a year because they have not been sharing in economy-wide productivity gains.

If these various $2 trillion amounts are related as cause and effect, it means that transferring some part of the $2 trillion in sidelined money – say just $500 billion – to workers in increased wages and salaries would result in more profitable opportunities, thus more business investment, millions more jobs, even more profitable opportunities, and an economy growing at 5% or 6% (for a while) rather than the hoped for 3% growth that is now projected.  At 3%, a good growth rate in normal times, it might take a decade to get unemployment down to below 5%, and meanwhile an enormous amount of permanent social and economic damage will continue to be done.

Though I’m not an economist, I am well aware that there is no existing mechanism for increasing wages that dramatically across the economy – a $500 billion transfer from the corporate pile to wages and salaries would amount to a $5,000 increase for every full-time worker.  Unions are now too weak to get substantial increases like that for their own members, let alone to have their traditional positive “spillover” effect on nonunion workers.  And the federal minimum wage is now so low (at $7.25 an hour) that raising it even very dramatically (to say $10), while highly desirable, doesn’t affect enough workers to get much of that corporate pile off the sidelines.

The point is that our economy is growing too slowly because workers don’t have enough consumer spending power, and as a result, businesses don’t have enough investment opportunities to put all their capital to work.  Investors have too much because workers have too little, and vice versa.  Transferring a sizeable chunk of it would probably be good for everybody.

Fighting for living wages and improving prospects for union organizing are the best options to restore productivity-sharing going forward.  But in the short-term, to get us out of our current stagnation, the one best way to restore the balance between investors and consumers might be to raise taxes on corporations and high-end individuals and then air drop the resulting revenue in 20-dollar bills onto low-wage communities across the country.

If that strikes you as a frivolous idea, ask yourself why there is no national discussion of how to restore productivity sharing in order to increase wages, consumer demand, business investment, and millions and millions of jobs.  Ask yourself why, instead, we’re discussing how to cut Social Security and public service workers’ jobs and pensions.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies

Hard Day’s Work: The Super Bowl and the Working Class

As we hurtle towards Super Bowl Sunday the Rust Belt cities of Pittsburgh (where I live) and Green Bay, Wisconsin are gearing up for a showdown between two of the smallest market teams in the NFL which also boast the two most devoted fan bases in the country.  Both cities have lost the industries that made them famous, but each continues to stand for everything that we think of as working class.  Pittsburgh, known for its steel mills, rivers, and bridges, has its own section under the entry for “Blue Collar Worker” on Wikipedia.  And Green Bay, known for its meat packing industry, boasts the oldest professional football team in the US, which in turn has the awesome distinction of being cooperatively owned by the denizens of Green Bay.  Next to the socialist tendencies of profit sharing (as Bill Maher recently argued), The Green Bay Packers might be the closest thing the NFL has to bonafide socialism.

Dozens of articles leading up to Sunday’s game have paid homage to the blue-collar pedigrees of Green Bay and Pittsburgh.  Some have focused on the cities’ working-class food, matching up Brats and Beer Cheese Soup from Green Bay against Iron City Beer and pirogies and the giant sandwiches made by The Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh. According to Primanti Brothers lore, the high stacked meat sandwiches, filled with coleslaw, french fries, and tomatoes, were created to fill the bellies of Pittsburgh’s working men in the 1930s.

Others have focused on the names of the teams;  no other teams in the NFL have names that relate so directly to the kind of work that was done in the region that the teams represent.  In 1919, a Green Bay employee of the Indian (meat) Packing Company, Curly Lambeau, asked his employer for some money for jerseys and some practice space for a football team.  The company agreed on the condition that he name the team after the company.  Curly’s team joined the precursor to the NFL, the American Professional Football Association, in 1921, and, as you have already guessed, in 1957 Curly had a football stadium, Lambeau Field, named after him.

As for the history of the Steelers, they were originally named the Pittsburgh Pirates when they were founded by Art Rooney in 1933.  They became the Steelers in 1940 when fans were asked to send in their ideas for a team name.  Ironically, the Steelers got their logo from Republic Steel of Cleveland (home of their hated rivals, The Cleveland Browns) when the company proposed that the Steelers use the Steelmark, three diamonds with inverted, curved edges in yellow, orange, and blue—which was also used by the American Iron and Steel Institute—as the team’s new logo.  It has been the Steeler’s logo since 1962.

Interestingly, then, both the Packers and the Steelers were branded by corporations.  But we have mostly forgotten this fact—and now we simply associate the teams with the laborers that worked as meat packers and steel workers.

Though dozens of journalists have been willing to recognize, and even celebrate, the working-class pride that the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers represent, in this lead up to the Super Bowl no one has dared to suggest that NFL players might, in fact, themselves be working class.  This is an especially important point to raise right now, when the NFL labor negotiation deadline is just over a month away (March 3), and while both players and owners are talking tough.

Owners are asking players to take a salary cut and to add two more games to their already long 16 week season.  Pittsburgh Steelers veteran receiver Hines Ward told the press on Super Bowl Media Day that if the owners want 18 games (in order to sell more tickets) then the NFL does not really care about injuries to players: “To say the league really cares? They don’t give a f— about concussions,” Hines Ward said. “And now they want to add on two extra games? Are you kidding? Come on, let’s be real. Now that these new guidelines are in place, you’ll see more and more guys lying to doctors to stay on the field.”

The player’s union knows that it is hard to drum up sympathy for athletes whom most of us perceive as highly paid superstars, so the NFL Player Association has been making its case to Congress.  Recently Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth explained that “if there’s a lockout, he, his wife and newborn baby would lose their health insurance.”  Ward also made two great concrete suggestions:  why not give football players health insurance for life, and use the fines levied against players who hit too hard  for the care of veterans who are suffering from football related disabilities?

So what’s the reality?  Do all NFL players make millions of dollars for years upon end?  The statistics might surprise you.  The average NFL career lasts 3 seasons, due to the high rate of brain and leg injuries.  The median salary in the NFL in 2009 was $770,000.  While that might seem like a ton-o-cash, factor in a 35% tax rate, and 6% to the agent.  Now factor in a college education that was not completed or which was poorly attended to.  And this:  78% of all NFL players are bankrupt within two years of the leaving the league.

So this Sunday, whether you are munching on Polish sausage or pierogies, chew on this.  78% of the men suited up in black and green and gold will be bankrupt in the next 5-10 years.  They will be replaced by younger models, who will be encouraged to play even more aggressively, while at the same time threatened with fines totaling in the hundreds of thousands when they do.  They will be coming out of college earlier, with less schooling, and less guidance about what to do with their money during the brief period of time in which it is flowing.  It seems too outrageous to be true, but those of us watching our storied teams do epic battle this Sunday, whether we be plumbers or professors, likely face a more secure economic future than the chiseled, wild-haired, hard-hitting football players that so beautifully represent out Rust Belt pride.

Kathy M. Newman