>In 1979, a movie about a union organizer in a North Carolina textile mill won nine Academy Awards and was a huge box office hit. Some 30 years later, unions have been so demonized I wonder if “Norma Rae” would even sell 10 tickets if it were released today?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot in the past few years: when did unions become the bad guys? We’ve all heard the stereotypes about “union thugs” and corruption, a narrative so firmly embedded in the American consciousness that conservative activists like Phil Parlock have capitalized on the shifting attitudes for political gain. I’ve always wondered how unions went from American hero to zero in one generation.

Andrew Leonard’s interview with author/labor historian/Georgetown University professor Joseph McCartin touches on this very topic. Leonard asks the “what changed” question. McCartin responds:

A lot of this was really produced by the events of the last few years. There was a tremendous loss in the stock market that left a lot of pension funds looking underfunded, and that set off a lot of alarms in people. Now I’m not going to say that there aren’t some workers in some places that have gotten some pensions that aren’t really fully justifiable but that is different than saying that the whole principle of collective bargaining is wrong.

But an even more important factor is basically a 20- or 30-year period of failure in the private sector. What we are really looking at here is a private sector that for quite a long time now has not generated a lot of rising income for the great majority. It has not generated stable benefits for its workers, it has not generated increasing retirement security — in fact we’ve had income stagnation or decline, we’ve had rising indebtedness, we’ve had growing insecurity for retirement. The private sector has failed on a massive level. And the tenuous position that so many American workers find themselves in as a result of that now makes it suddenly appear that public sector workers are just living off the fatted calf. I think some of it has to do quite simply with the way in which so many nongovernment workers have been suffering, and legitimately so. You can go to those folks and say: Why are you paying for the pension of the guy down the street? You don’t have one!

That seems to be a real political liability for public sector unions.

It is a real liability, but it is liability that is not the result of union munificence, or that came from squeezing the taxpayers; it is a liability that basically flows from the fact that the private sector has done so poorly at creating a really broad growing thriving middle class in the past 20 years. And without a broad growing, thriving middle class, government workers are increasingly isolated and increasingly under threat and it is easy to play the dynamic this way, unfortunately for them.

In short, capitalism has failed a large segment of the American population, and conservatives have successfully laid the blame on unions. How they did that is a neat trick, but I think corporate interests in the guise of the GOP have been selling anti-union Kool Aid for decades, so it’s no surprise some of it started to stick. These days we’ve got “right to work” states and anti-minimum wage movements and the current spate of anti-collective bargaining initiatives in places like Wisconsin and Tennessee, and yet the glorious free hand of the market still hasn’t righted things. Indeed, it’s made things worse.

The result is resentment and jealousy directed at those people who have what I don’t have. Instead of directing their anger where it belongs — the wealthy and powerful who enjoy the lowest taxes in the Western world who have pulled the ladders up to keep out the riff-raff — conservatives are resentful of the people with the crappy jobs who were able to secure some very modest concessions over years of negotiating — and renegotiating, and renegotiating. The history of unions is nothing if not a history of reneged deals.

Somehow folks think if they work hard enough they’ll be bazillionaires like the Koch Brothers, not realizing the Koch Brothers have stacked the deck against them. I mean Jesus, it’s not like people aren’t working hard now. I know people with four jobs. They’re barely treading water. There’s no getting ahead when you are saddled with healthcare debt, or can’t get a job because your credit score isn’t high enough or because you’re unemployed, which takes the cake for stupid reasons not to hire someone. We are fast headed to a country with a permanent underclass and a permanent ruling class, and no movement betwixt the two.

Yes, somehow jealousy and resentment has convinced some people that their solution is to hand their power over to those who will never give them a place at the table. It’s quite baffling, really, how the wealthiest and most powerful interests managed to convince those lower down on the ladder that they should accept a less equitable arrangement. I really don’t get it, but then women tend to understand these things more easily anyway. We’re always being asked by society to give up our power to someone else. We’re always being told our priorities and issues are less important and we’re somehow deserving of less. So naturally we’re suspicious when some rich asshole drives up in his limousine and tells us that we should accept lower wages and pay higher taxes than he does, just ‘cuz. Being asked to accept inequality is something most of us women find a little reprehensible. And we know when we’re being sold a shit sandwich.

I’ve linked to this Financial Times article from last summer before, but I’m going to do it again. Here we go:

Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French chronicler of early America, was once misquoted as having said: “America is the best country in the world to be poor.” That is no longer the case. Nowadays in America, you have a smaller chance of swapping your lower income bracket for a higher one than in almost any other developed economy – even Britain on some measures. To invert the classic Horatio Alger stories, in today’s America if you are born in rags, you are likelier to stay in rags than in almost any corner of old Europe.

Combine those two deep-seated trends with a third – steeply rising inequality – and you get the slow-burning ­crisis of American capitalism. It is one thing to suffer grinding income stagnation. It is another to realise that you have a diminishing likelihood of escaping it – particularly when the fortunate few living across the proverbial tracks seem more pampered each time you catch a glimpse. “Who killed the American Dream?” say the banners at leftwing protest marches. “Take America back,” shout the rightwing Tea Party demonstrators.

Statistics only capture one slice of the problem. But it is the renowned Harvard economist, Larry Katz, who offers the most compelling analogy. “Think of the American economy as a large apartment block,” says the softly spoken professor. “A century ago – even 30 years ago – it was the object of envy. But in the last generation its character has changed. The penthouses at the top keep getting larger and larger. The apartments in the middle are feeling more and more squeezed and the basement has flooded. To round it off, the elevator is no longer working. That broken elevator is what gets people down the most.”

CNN recently covered this issue in its “Rise Of The Super Rich” piece, and included a neat little chart:

Admit it, folks. This is why you are angry. Not at some public school teacher who earns $50,000 a year but if you include their union-negotiated benefits and pension it sounds like a whole lot more, while the guy selling this resentment tea has a personal net worth of $27 $21.5 billion.

You’re pissed because capitalism has failed. For the past 25 years 90 percent of us have been working harder to stay in the same place, while a very small group of people have surged ahead thanks to policies which keep everyone else down. Everyone else has seen the American Dream slip away.


Filed under economy, unions, Wisconsin Protests

12 responses to “>Jealousy

  1. >i've been pondering this jealousy too – the question isn't "why should they have such great benefits" it is "why do i have such crappy benefits".good post, SB!

  2. >I think a large part of the demonization stems from the way the corporatists have linked "high costs" and "inflation" to the supposedly high wages extorted by unions. True Story: I once had a client who refused to allow union trades work on jobs we did with him (yes, he was a conservative). Kind of a problem in Milwaukee, let along construction, which is still heavily unionized. So on one particular job, we tracked union vs. non-union contractors during bidding. You know what we found; there was next to no correlation between the bid submitted and the price of the work. There was a strong correlation to whether the contractor had excess capacity.The only other thing that became apparent was that in general, the union shops were more thorough and experienced.It didn't make the client change his dislike of unions, but he did stop refusing to hire union contractors.

  3. >Excellent op-ed. Allow me to add one more insane reason a good person can be denied a job. Your politics. This has been brewing for the last 25 years or so, but has really come to the forefront today.

  4. >In short, capitalism has failed a large segment of the American population, and conservatives have successfully laid the blame on unions. How they did that is a neat trick, but I think corporate interests in the guise of the GOP have been selling anti-union Kool Aid for decades, so it's no surprise some of it started to stick. I think a large part of the neat trick has to do with the controlling elements of the Democratic party (DLC, etc.) buying into the same pro-corporate rhetoric and policies that the GOP pushes. For instance, it was Clinton who passed union-killing NAFTA. Add to this the inheritance of the formerly liberal NYT and the War Criminal Post by a couple of Richie Riches named Pinch Sulzberger and Donald Graham, and who was left to speak for the unions? And ordinary Americans?~

  5. >SoBe -Capitalism has not failed. In act the graph you show proves it is a roaring success. Capitalism is an economic engine that pumps money from those who have the least to those who have the most.That's why we need unions, effective regulations and built-in safeguards – all of which has been effectively dismantled since about 1980.Also since 1980, we have witnessed major changes in every economic measure I've looked at. It's pretty amazing.JzB

  6. >Jazz:The promise of capitalism, the lie that we were all told, is that capitalism is the best economic system to reward those who work hard, are innovators, and who want to improve their lives to do so. The American Dream has always been: you can achieve whatever you want, if you work hard enough for it. It doesn't matter what social class you are born into, if you are European nobility or an upper crust WASP from Connecticut or born in Bumfug Tennessee or the streets of Detroit: if you work hard, you will get ahead.That is a lie. For the past 25 years large numbers of people have been working their asses off and instead of moving ahead, they're falling behind. Capitalism is not supposed to work this way, but since the Reagan years what we've seen are policies instituting a plutocracy, which rewards the wealthy and powerful and well-born and prevents those trying to move up from their social station. There are exceptions, of course, but the basic point is that it's much harder to change your station in modern America than it used to be. We no longer have a real capitalistic system, we have oppression by the wealthy who no longer feel it necessary or even patriotic to reinvest in America.

  7. >SB, I think this is one of your best posts.Also think several things have aligned to help demonize labor: Ronald Reagan's presidency and the way in which he crushed the PATCO air traffic controllers' strike, firing striking workers. Right wing talk radio and its 24/7 propaganda machine. Non union auto facilities (usually foreign) that have survived while union plants closed partially because of poor management decisions in the American auto industry and the cost of maintaining previously negotiated pension benefits. Those benefits that are pointed to now by the right were AGREED upon by both sides, and both sides saw them as the way forward toward sustainable profitability at the time of their ratification.When you can convince working Americans not to aspire for better wages, benefits, or working standards for themselves, but instead to demonize those who have used collective bargaining to better their standard of living, you've pulled off a major propaganda coup. Mission accomplished.I worked 35 years building radial truck tires in a factory and know how critical union representation was for our jobs. Now my pension is an example of "waste" and "excess baggage" for the company.We stayed in those jobs, doing work we detested, not because we couldn't find other work, but because we took into consideration those pension benefits at the end of our working careers. Now they're under attack, and not even supported by the workers who replaced us when we retired.Management not only demonizes union workers in the eyes of non-union, but has also found a way to demonize RETIREES within the union "family".Sad times, indeed.

  8. >Squatlo -Good points.SoBe -Yeah, I know.I'll posit that what we now have is not capitalism at all. After all, capitalism is based on competition. Business people HATE competition. What we have is trans-national mega-corporatism. It's the worst of everything. And now, since it owns government, there is very little standing between us and modern feudalism. This is what makes the events in WI so terribly important. If Wanker wins, we are very likely doomed.The only other possibility is that people will wake up and see what they've done, and learn the lesson from it.As shitty as I think the Dems are, I will never, ever vote for a Rethug again – not even for drain commissioner. WASF,JzB

  9. >"if you are born in rags, you are likelier to stay in rags than in almost any corner of old Europe"Excellent post, SB. Unions and management have at times both been moral men making immoral decisions and immoral men making decisions is their own interest with no concern for others. Excesses on either side serve as a focus point for opponents.The capitalist economy no longer offers the average American much of an opportunity to better themselves. There are exceptions, but they are fewer and fewer than they have been. The majority of the U.S. economy's wealth is increasingly more and more concentrated. Now the majority of the wealth is concentrated into the top 5% of the country's population where in the 1970s, when I entered the work force, the top 20% of the population held the majority of the wealth. Very few Americans who have been in the labor force for any length of time are making as much money in real terms adjusted for inflation as they were in their first job. We've never been closer to the economic structure of the Middle Ages since, well, the Middle Ages.In the private sector, pensions have faded away for the most part to be replaced by 401k plans and other self-generated savings plans. It's a mixed bag. People my age, who started working in the era of big companies providing pension plans to attract talent, may have some sort of vestigial pension agreement(I do) but they are a lot less than they were when I started at my employer. The 401k has replaced them, due to tax incentives from government and the increasing realization that major corporations can't guarantee their revenues will be high enough to cover operational costs plus retirement for larger and larger numbers of retirees who are, damn them, refusing to kick the bucket.A 401k is less effective than a pension in terms of providing the person with a moderate standard of living after retirement, unless you're in your thirties and you've got another 40 years to salt away savings. Baby boomers can't do that. The changeover to 401ks from pensions came too late in their lives.

  10. >jim voorhies:This:"A 401k is less effective than a pension in terms of providing the person with a moderate standard of living after retirement, unless you're in your thirties and you've got another 40 years to salt away savings. Baby boomers can't do that. The changeover to 401ks from pensions came too late in their lives.February 22, 2011 8:29 AM"assumes that during that 40 years neither a complete meltodown of the economy, a couple of times or the privatization of both SS and Medicare will happen, coupled with a complete meltdown of the economy.I look for WS to implode again sometime around 2018.

  11. >I watched Norma Rae last night. It reminded me that even in the 1970s, unions were treated with suspicion and distrust. In fact, unions have always been treated like that.When the labor organizer came to town, he was harassed by the local police and given a ticket. He attempted to find a room for rent and was nearly punched in the face by Norma Rae's father. He admitted that this was the fourth time a union organizer had been at the mill. The other organizers failed. Originally, no one at the plant wanted to talk with him. He finally did get some followers, but then the plant retaliated and he was left with no one until a worker actually died. Even then, when the final union vote occurred, the number of people voting against the union were almost enough to kill the effort.The sad thing I realized, which wouldn't have been known in 1979 when the movie came out, was that all this effort was likely in vain considering that almost all the textile mills have since left America.Unions have constantly been demonized. Management has never wanted to give up power, money, and control to any kind of outside power be it government regulations or worker representatives. Management has their feudal structure which suits them perfectly. Like any feudal structure, the king (CEO) has the wealth and power and everyone else kisses his ass. The nobles and knights (executives and managers) all report to the king and keep the peasants in check. Everyone above a peasant loves that structure and hates the union, which like the American Revolution turns the company upside-down. Unions give power to the peasants.Management preys on the ignorance of workers much like Republican leadership. Both convince their followers to go against their best interests.Unions have always been "bad guys." This is nothing new.