America’s working class is in desperate shape, and its longtime protectors — unions — have lost much of their power.
By Nicholas Kristof [August 10, 2019]
President Trump talks a good game about helping American workers but has pursued arguably the most anti-labor agenda of any modern president. Now he has doubled down by choosing for secretary of labor a corporate lawyer who has spent his career battling workers.
This is a bit like nominating Typhoid Mary to be health secretary.
The official mission of the Labor Department emphasizes the promotion of “the welfare of the wage earners,” but Trump’s mission has been to promote the exploitation of wage earners.
So Eugene Scalia is a perfect fit. Scalia, a son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who has fought unions on behalf of Walmart and other companies, is a talented and experienced litigator who upon assuming office will be in a position to disembowel labor.
There’s a larger issue: The relentless assault on labor has gained ground partly because, over the last half-century, many Americans — me included — became too disdainful of unions. It was common to scorn union leaders as corrupt Luddites who used ridiculous work rules to block modernization and undermine America’s economic competitiveness.
There’s something to those critiques. Yet it’s now clear that the collapse of unions — the share of employees belonging to unions has plunged to 10 percent in 2018 from 35 percent in the mid-1950s— has been accompanied by a rise of unchecked corporate power, a surge in income inequality and a decline in the well-being of working Americans.
For all their shortcomings, unions midwifed the birth of the middle class in the United States. The period of greatest union strength from the late 1940s through the 1950s was the time when economic growth was particularly robust and broadly shared. Most studies find that at least one-fifth of the rise in income inequality in the United States is attributable to the decline of labor unions.
Unions were also a formidable political force, and it’s perhaps not a surprise that their enfeebling has been accompanied by a rise in far-right policies that subsidize the wealthy, punish the working poor and exacerbate the income gap.
“Labor unions, and their ability to create a powerful collective voice for workers, played a huge role in building the world’s largest, richest middle class,” notes Steven Greenhouse in his superb, important and eminently readable new book about the labor movement, “Beaten Down, Worked Up.”
“Unions also played a crucial role,” Greenhouse adds, “in achieving many things that most Americans now take for granted: the eight-hour workday, employer-backed health coverage, paid vacations, paid sick days, safe workplaces. Indeed, unions were the major force in ending sweatshops, making coal mines safer, and eliminating many of the worst, most dangerous working conditions in the United States.”
Greenhouse, who covered labor for 19 years for The Times, acknowledges all the ways in which labor unions were maddening and retrograde. But he notes that corporations run amok when no one is minding them.
Union featherbedding and rigid work rules have been real problems. Yet without unions to check them, C.E.O.s engage in their own greedy featherbedding and underinvest in worker training, thus undermining America’s economic competitiveness.
Sure, it’s frustrating that teachers’ unions use political capital to defend incompetent teachers. In New York City, the union hailed its defense of a teacher who passed out in class, her breath reeking of alcohol, with even the principal unable to rouse her.
It’s also true that states with strong teachers’ unions, like Pennsylvania and Vermont, have far better student outcomes than states with feeble unions, like South Carolina and Mississippi. Teachers’ unions have also been heroic advocates for early childhood education, and Red for Ed strikers forced states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona to improve their school systems.
Remember, too, that manufacturing workers in Germany are unionized and earn $10 more an hour than their American counterparts. Mercedes-Benz autoworkers earn $67 an hour in wages and benefits, and German workers are guaranteed a presence on corporate boards. Unions don’t detract from Germany’s economic system and competitiveness but are a pillar of it.
The bigger picture is that America’s working class is in desperate shape. Average hourly wages are actually lower today, after inflation, than they were in 1973, and the bottom 90 percent of Americans have seen incomes grow more slowly than the overall economy over the last four decades. The reasons are complex, but one is the decline of unions — for unions benefit not only their own members but also raise wage levels for workers generally.
So I’ve come to believe that we need stronger private-sector unions — yet the Trump administration continues to fight them. Greenhouse notes that nearly 20 percent of rank-and-file union activists are fired during organizing drives, because the penalties for doing so are so weak: A corporation may eventually be fined $5,000 or $10,000 for such a wrongful dismissal, but that is a negligible cost of doing business if it averts unionization.
That’s why we need a secretary of labor who cares about laborers. Trump campaigned in 2016 as a voice for forgotten workers, but he consistently sides with large corporations against workers, and his nomination of Scalia would amplify the sad and damaging war on unions.
Nicholas Kristof has been a columnist for The Times since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur.