We are a union household


    Why?  Because we believe in fairness.

    Not only for ourselves, but for all who work.

    Because we believe in the dignity of work.

    Because we both understand something about history, including economic history.

    She is Harvard, Junior Phi Beta Kappa, Marshall Scholar, M. Litt. from Oxford, Ph.D. from George Washington.

    I am BA from Haverford, two masters degrees, ABD in Educational Administration and Policy Studies.

    We both work with our minds.

    She is on her local’s negotiating team.

    I am my building’s union representative.

    Had we any doubt, two pieces in today’s Washington Post might help convince us.

    E. J. Dionne offers When unions mattered, prosperity was shared.

    Harold Meyerson offers Hard times for workers on Labor Day 2010.

    You should read both.

    I did, and decided to offer this diary.  

    Dionne reminds us that we have gone from one third of the workforce unionized to less than 13%, that there are now more unionized workers in the public sector in which my wife and I both work (7.9 million) than in the private sector (7.4 million).  And he then writes this:  

    Even worse than the falling membership numbers is the extent to which the ethos animating organized labor is increasingly foreign to American culture. The union movement has always been attached to a set of values — solidarity being the most important, the sense that each should look out for the interests of all. This promoted other commitments: to mutual assistance, to a rough-and-ready sense of equality, to a disdain for elitism, to a belief that democracy and individual rights did not stop at the plant gate or the office reception room.

    Read that list of values.  Ask yourself if this nation will survive as a democracy if we allow their abandonment.

    Our workers are still not sharing in what economic recovery there is.  Meyerson put this in stark terms, by comparing the U.S. to other industrialized democracies whose recovery has in fact been weaker than our own.  He writes

    Consider: As of this year, U.S. gross domestic product is about 1 percent beneath its 2008 peak, compared to a drop of roughly 2 percent in France and Germany and 5 percent in Britain and Japan. But U.S. unemployment has increased roughly 5 percentage points since 2007, compared to just 1 point in France and Japan and 2 in Britain. In Germany, unemployment has actually dropped a point since the recession began.

    Our corporate profits have exploded by $388 billion since the low point of the recession, while wages are up only $68 billion.  For comparison, Meyerson notes:

    At a comparable point in the 1981-82 recession, corporate profits came to just 10 percent of the combined uptick in profits and wages. This time around, they amount to 85 percent.

     And corporations are now sitting on %1.8 trillion in cash reserves while unemployment remains above 9%.  Meanwhile employer health insurance premiums dropped by .9% while employee premiums went up by 13.7%, this AFTER Health Insurance Reform was passed into law.  

    Why are we seeing this pattern?  Could it be in part because 93% of the private sector workers are not unionized?  Meyerson quotes reports from Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.  Consider the sources, and think about the implications.  Then read this:  

    Through the weakness of our labor laws, the reports say, private-sector American workers can no longer form unions. Human Rights Watch documents how corporations that are model (and highly profitable) employers in Europe and frequently collaborate with unions there descend to American employer norms — denying workers the right to join unions — when they come over here. Freedom House, citing the near-impossibility of forming unions in this country, laments that the United States cannot be classed among the 41 nations that afford their workers full freedoms.

    You should be stunned.  If you are not, let me hit you with that again:   the United States cannot be classed among the 41 nations that afford their workers full freedoms

    I do not believe that workers should be required to join unions.  I do believe they should have the right, the opportunity.  Many do not.   Too many do not know the role unions played in providing prosperity in our past.  To quote again from Dionne,

    Few Americans under 35 have much direct experience with unions. When the word “union” appears in the media these days, it is typically invoked in stories about teachers resisting school reform or the pension costs burdening local governments.

      Allow me to offer the next two brief paragraphs of Dionne’s piece:  

    All but forgotten is the fact that our nation’s extraordinary prosperity from the end of World War II to the 1970s was in significant part the result of union contracts that, in words the right wing hated Barack Obama for saying in 2008, “spread the wealth around.” A broad middle class with spending power to keep the economy moving created a virtuous cycle of low joblessness and high wages.

    Between 1966 and 1970, as Gerald Seib pointed out last week in the Wall Street Journal, the United States enjoyed an astonishing 48 straight months in which the unemployment rate was at or below 4 percent. No, the unions didn’t do all this by themselves. But they were important co-authors of a social contract that made our country fairer, richer and more productive.

    fairer, richer and more productive  – only nowadays as workers become more productive the top management and shareholders benefit, but the profits do not filter down to those who are increasing the productivity, and there are fewer left to do the work.

    Meyerson explains why, in stark, simple terms:  

    Unlike European workers, unlike their own parents and grandparents who lived in a much more heavily unionized America, U.S. workers are now powerless to stop their employers from pocketing all the change.

    Powerless because they lack the solidarity of unions, the ability to confront employers as a group.

    We have in the past few decades seen defined benefit pensions disappearing from the private sector, and now they are under attack in the public sector.  This is happening at the same time ideologues, including on the Cat Food Commission, are prepared to both cut Social Security benefits and raised the retirement age.  If they could, such ideologues would completely eliminate Social Security and Medicare.  Yet they do not dare, politically, to speak the truth, that this is what they want, that they seek privatization –  the American people have not so lost their memory as to be willing to abandon those key components of what social safety net we still have.  Not yet.

    Before ending with a a wish for a happy Labor Day that must in light of the rest of his piece be taken almost as snark, Meyerson reminds us

    A union-free America. Growth down a little, employment down a lot. Profits and productivity up, wages flat. Health-care costs up for workers, down for employers. The return of a thriving middle class? Dream on.

     Dionne ends his by writing

    Whatever else they achieve, the unions remind us of the dignity of all who toil, whatever their social position, color or educational attainments. We should miss labor’s influence more than we do.

    We should, yet somehow we don’t.  

    If this nation is going to survive as a democracy, and not slip into the kind of economic disparity characteristic not of Western democracies but of third world nations often run by dictators, this has to change.

    My wife’s mother did not work, and her father never belonged to a union.  My father was a business executive and my mother a lawyer, in the private sector, in the Office of Price Administration,  and as an Assistant Attorney General of New York State.  Neither of them was ever in a union.

    Yet we somehow both grew up – me in the 50s and 60s, her about a decade behind me –  with a respect for the dignity of work, the right of workers of all kinds to be fairly compensated, and an understanding of the role unions had played in helping America build a middle class economy and society.

    We are educated and middle class.  We find that we need unions.  We understand that we are not alone.  

    It is Labor Day.  It is a day on which we should honor organized Labor, but too many are willing to attack it.

    It is a day when the dignity of work and those who do it should be honored, but too many still lack jobs and others find their salaries and benefits restricted.

    Our governments are short of revenue, and even unionized workers in the public sector face job elimination and furloughs.  The governments are short of revenue because of continuing unemployment, lack of profit sharing with those helping by their productivity increase the profits while corporations sit on massive amounts of cash, give bonuses to executives who cut jobs, and ramp up their political spending to continue this inequity thanks to a horrid Supreme Court decision that gives a corporate “person” disparate political influence.

    These things are wrong.

    These things need to change.

    Without unions these things not only will not change, they will worsen.

    My wife and I have jobs, in part thanks to unions.

    Others need the protection and benefits unions have given.

    Today is a holiday, in large part because of the work of unions, work that gave us paid holidays, work-free weekends, safer workplaces, 8-hour days, and so many things we now take for granted.

    We remember.  We may not have children of our own, but we want the children I teach, the nieces and nephews that are the children of my wife’s siblings, to be able to look forward to those benefits, to the kind of economic security in which we grew up.  We know unions are necessary for that.

    We both belong to our respective locals.  We have both assumed leadership roles because we can, because we know we can begin to make a difference for others.

    On this Labor Day, I will end not with my usual one word, but with the words with which I began, offered with pride:

    We are a union household!


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