Archives for category: Inequality

The people of Chile are expunging the last traces of the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet. They elected Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old member of the Chilean Congress and a former student activist, as President of Chile. The election was expected to be close but Boric won by a 56-44% margin.

Boric was engaged in national protests over the past decade against inequality. A decade ago, he led protests against Chile’s privatized education system. He will be the youngest person ever elected to the Presidency of Chile. His election is a decisive rejection of the policies of the dictator Pinochet. His rival defended Pinochet and ran on a law-and-order platform and a pledge to cut taxes and social spending.

An Army General, Pinochet seized control of the government by a coup d’etat. He imposed a reign of terror, and thousands of his opponents were murdered, imprisoned, tortured, or disappeared. Pinochet called on Milton Friedman and the libertarian “Chicago Boys” to rewrite Chile’s Constitution. They baked the primacy of the free market and neoliberalism into the new Constitution. Pinochet’s regime cut social benefits, privatized social security and many government functions, reduced benefits, and introduced vouchers and for-profit schools. The economy grew, but so did inequality. Pinochet ruled from 1973-1990.

Protests against the nation’s privatized and deeply unequal education system rocked the nation a decade ago. Many Chileans were barely subsisting because of cuts to social security. More protests broke out in 2019 against the country’s entrenched inequality and corruption. Boric was active in all those protests.

Last year, Chileans expressed their demand for change by voting for a rewrite of the national constitution, the one written by the “Chicago Boys” and implemented by Pinochet.

The BBC reported:

Once the most stable economy in Latin America, Chile has one of the world’s largest income gaps, with 1% of the population owning 25% of the country’s wealth, according to the United Nations.

Mr Boric has promised to address this inequality by expanding social rights and reforming Chile’s pension and healthcare systems, as well as reducing the work week from 45 to 40 hours, and boosting green investment.

“We know there continues to be justice for the rich, and justice for the poor, and we no longer will permit that the poor keep paying the price of Chile’s inequality,” he said.

The president-elect also promised to block a controversial proposed mining project which he said would destroy communities and the national environment.

Chile’s currency, the peso, plunged to a record low against the US dollar after Mr Boric’s victory. Stock markets fell by 10%, with mining stocks performing particularly badly.

Investors are worried stability and profits will suffer as a result of higher taxes and tighter government regulation of business.

In a profile of Gabriel Boric, the BBC described his message:

When Mr Boric won the candidacy of his leftist bloc to run for president, he made a bold pledge. “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave,” he said. “Do not be afraid of the youth changing this country.”

And so he ran on a platform promising radical reforms to the free-market economic model imposed by former dictator Gen Augusto Pinochet. One that, he says, is the root of the country’s deep inequality, imbalances that came to the surface during protests in 2019 that triggered an official redraft of the constitution.

After a polarising campaign, Mr Boric defeated far-right rival José Antonio Kast in the second round of the presidential election by a surprising large margin, ushering in a new chapter in the country’s political history.

“We are a generation that emerged in public life demanding our rights be respected as rights and not treated like consumer goods or a business,” Mr Boric said in his victory speech to thousands of supporters, most of them young people…

Mr Boric, who says he is an avid reader of poetry and history, describes himself as a moderate socialist. He has abandoned the long hair of his activist days, and jackets now often cover his tattoos on both arms.

He has also softened some of his views while keeping his promises to overhaul the pension system, expand social services including universal health insurance, increase taxes for big companies and wealthy individuals, and create a greener economy.

His resounding win in the run-off vote of the presidential election, after trailing Mr Kast in the first round, came after he secured support beyond his base in the capital, Santiago, and attracted voters in rural areas. A supporter of same-sex marriage and abortion rights, he was also backed by huge numbers of women.

In his victory speech, when he was joined by his girlfriend, he promised to be a “president for all Chileans”, saying: “Today hope trumped fear”.

This part of Capital & Main’s examination of union busting reviews the targeting of academics who study labor by corporate critics. It was written by Jo Constantz.

Many scholars who study the history and economics of organized labor are sympathetic to the union cause. These academics often encounter threats, harassment, and defunding of their research.

It begins:

Throttled by both strong-arm tactics from anti-union interests and a chronic lack of support from universities, the field of labor studies has dwindled in the U.S. in recent years.

Researchers in the field have been the target of legal threats and lawsuits, onerous public records requests and misinformation campaigns from union avoidance consultants, business executives, corporate lawyers and conservative think tanks. It’s one aspect of the business lobby’s relentless war against unions in recent decades, which has seen companies spend more than $340 million a year on consultants to defeat organizing efforts by their employees and helped sink union membership.

Labor studies, an interdisciplinary field in academia that examines workplace issues and worker organizations, reveals working conditions that motivate people to want to join a union. Much of the scholarship has illuminated the central role that labor’s decline has played in exacerbating income inequality. In doing so, the field has aroused the ire of anti-union companies and their allies. The field has never been a major force in academia and many centers have been gradually shuttered due to lack of funding or merged with other departments. Only a handful of universities currently offer a major or minor in labor studies. Faculty are often untenured, vulnerable to layoffs and budget cuts, and they are often not replaced when they retire.

Open the link and read on.

This article in the Capital & Main series was written by Marcus Baram and is titled ”Inside the Secretive World of Union-Busting: Here’s How Much Corporations Pay to Bust Unions.” Subtitle: “U.S. companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year to ensure workers don’t organize.”

It begins:

A handful of workers at the Dollar General In the small Connecticut town of Barkhamsted had grown frustrated last September at being poorly treated by a district manager, amid allegations

The organizing effort involved just six workers (five after one said he was fired for his efforts to unionize) earning $13 an hour — so about $624 a day in total — but the company spent multiples of that to combat the union drive. Dollar General paid Labor Relations Institute, a firm known for its union avoidance consulting, a fee of $2,700 per day for each consultant it brought in, according to filings with the Department of Labor. LRI used five consultants, who reportedly held one-on-one meetings with workers and conducted group sessions to educate them on the risks of joining a union. In the end, the unionization effort failed and the company breathed a sigh of relief. The retail giant posted $33.7 billion in sales and $2.7 billion in profit in 2020, but remains convinced its future earnings might have been hurt if any of its 157,000 workers joined a union.

What do you say when a corporation cares more about profits than the lives of its workers?

In part one of its review of union busting, written by Jo Constantz, Capital & Main examines how employers use technology to defeat unions.

It begins:

During a Zoom call set up by union representatives and employees who had organized a worker organizing committee, “We noticed that managers of the company had busted into the meeting — they had crashed our Zoom call,” recalls Lorena Lopez, a director of organizing with UNITE HERE Local 11. “Workers started to get very nervous and shut down their cameras so they wouldn’t be recognized. I was running the meeting and asked everyone to ID themselves. But the company people refused.” During the meeting, a worker on the cleaning crew had volunteered to be the spokesperson for the group. According to Lopez, this worker was confronted by management the next day and pressured to quit.

“They were spying on us — and it was easy to do via Zoom,” she says. Under a settlement agreement with the NLRB, the company agreed to post flyersinforming employers of their right to unionize and pledged not to ask them about organizing efforts and not to surveil their Zoom meetings. A lawyer for the company did not return requests for comment.

Workplace surveillance, already widespread in the U.S., has become even more prevalent during the pandemic as employers try to enforce public health measures and monitor remote workers. According to research by Gartner, a market research firm, 60% of large employers use workplace monitoring tools, twice as many as before the pandemic. Coworker.org, a labor research nonprofit, recently compiled a database of over 550 of these commercially available products, which it dubs “little tech,” and published a study outlining potential harms and noting the industry’s general lack of regulation.

Open the link and keep reading.

When people bemoan the increasing inequality in American society, they usually fail to mention one of the reasons for the huge gaps between those at the top and those at the bottom of wealth and income: The decline of unions. Unions didn’t disappear because workers lost interest in being represented by them. Major employers never liked unions, which demanded better pay and better working conditions, and thereby raised costs and cut profits. They used every opportunity to dispense with them, whether by automation, outsourcing to non-union states or nations, or intimidation.

California-based Capital & Main has produced an important series about union-busting tactics today. Capital & Main is a fearless, award-winning web journal. it specializes in investigative reporting and is typically on the cutting edge of political issues. It recently published a four-part series on the tactics used by union-busters. I will post them in order today. I strongly support unions. I have never belonged to a union, but I keenly believe in the importance of unions. Unions were the route into the middle class for millions of people. Unions were strong supporters of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The rightwing attack on organized labor has almost stamped out unions in the private sector over the past half century. The withering of unions coincides with the dramatic increase in inequality of incomeand equality. There are signs of a rebirth of unionism. Terrible working conditions and low pay are spurring on this movement. The big corporations are ripe for change, but as today’s articles show, the powerful oligarchs will fight to maintain union-free workplaces.

This is the introduction.

The company owner was so worried about his employees joining a union that he mounted machine guns to keep labor organizers off his coal mine, launched an anti-union magazine and even secretly funded a Black newspaper to convince African-American workers that unions were dangerous. Those union-busting tactics worked, allowing mine magnate Charles Debardeleben to stop his workers in the industrial Birmingham-Bessemer area of northern Alabama from joining a union during the 1920s and 1930s.

Almost a century later, the tactics have gotten less physically intimidating but remain just as effective. Earlier this year in Bessemer, Amazon was easily able to fend off a well-publicized union organizing effort through a relentless anti-union campaign that included a website, text messages to employees, fliers posted in bathrooms and classic techniques like captive audience meetings, in which workers can be forced to sit for hours and listen to anti-union consulting firms paid at least $20,000 a day. Some of the tactics may have been illegal — the National Labor Relations Board recently authorized a new election after the union argued that the company’s decision to install a mailbox onsite created the false impression that Amazon was running the election, which pressured workers to vote against the union.

https://e.infogram.com/047ec8bd-9d2b-43d6-9143-48a3cc2b5b73?parent_url=https%3A%2F%2Fcapitalandmain.com%2Finside-the-secret-world-of-union-busting&src=embed#async_embed

While union membership has risen slightly since 2018 thanks to some major organizing wins, and public approval of unions is at its highest level since 1965, labor has a lot of ground to make up. Union membership plummeted from 20.1% of American wage and salary workers in 1983 to just 10.8% in 2020. One of the biggest reasons for that decline is the use of well-funded, aggressive campaigns by employers to fight off unions, conducted largely through expensive union avoidance consultants and lawyers. In 2019, it was estimated that companies spend at least $340 million per year on such consultants and often engage in illegal tactics, for which the penalties are minimal.

“They seem to be more aggressive than they used to be,” says Joe Hernandez, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers in Orange County, California. “There was a union election in South Dakota, where pro-union workers who had a couple of tardies that were previously overlooked ended up getting fired. Other times they just close down the store or factory. They’re doing it all — using surveillance technology, social media messaging, whatever they can to beat the union.” (Disclosure: UFCW is a financial supporter of this website.)

In conversations with dozens of union officials, union avoidance consultants, former regulatory officials and workers, we’ve gained insights into union-busting activities by companies ranging from behemoths like Starbucks, Amazon, CVS, Dollar General and Safeway to health care organizations like Kaiser Permanente and HCA-affiliated hospitals to gig economy startups like HelloFresh and Imperfect Foods.

In a series of four stories, Capital & Main will explore the role and impact of union busting: how your favorite companies still aren’t required to disclosehow much they spend on such consultants, how new workplace surveillance technologies have been exploited by some businesses to help them defeat organizing efforts, how labor studies academics have been pressured and intimidated by pro-business think tanks and lawmakers to stop their research into workplace issues — plus an interview with a longtime union organizer about his unlikely alliance with one of the most notorious union busters.


The Economic Policy Institute unabashedly advocates for workers and unions and publishes accurate data about inequality. It recently revealed that CEO pay rose by 16% between 2019 and 2020, while the average worker saw a pay increase of only 1.8%.

In 1950, the average CEO was paid twenty times the wages of the average worker.

By 2019, the average CEO was paid 320 times as much as the average worker.

In some companies, the CEO is paid 1,000 times more than the average worker in that company.

Bloomberg.com reported on the CEO-worker pay gap, in an article titled “Is a CEO Worth 1,000 Times the Median Worker?”

Chipotle recently became the latest company to voluntarily raise worker pay, announcing that many of its 76,000 hourly employees would get a bump to $15 an hour. This occurred shortly after the company disclosed that CEO Brian Niccol had made nearly 3,000 times the median employee salary in 2020, up from 1,136 times in 2019 and among the top ten highest pay ratios among companies in the Russell 3000 stock index, according to research firm Equilar.

Coincidence? Or is the pay bump for the rank and file a sign that the most highly compensated senior executives are starting to feel a tinge of shame? 

For the past four years, the Securities and Exchange Commission has required publicly traded companies to disclose something called the CEO pay ratio — the amount the CEO receives in relation to the annual salary of the median employee. At many companies, especially large companies with thousands of low paid workers (think retailers, restaurants and tourism), it’s not uncommon to see a number like Niccol’s, with the CEO making more than a thousand times the salary of the median employee. According to Equilar, there are 57 such companies in the Russell 3000. Auto-parts company Aptiv PLC topped the list: CEO Kevin P. Clark’s total 2020 compensation of $31 million was more than 5,000 times that of its median employee, who made less than $6,000, according to Aptiv’s proxy.

The mere disclosure of the pay ratio is something of an achievement in itself, given how red-hot an issue compensation remains. The SEC took five years to write and nearly eight years to implement the rule, which was part of the Dodd-Frank legislation that then-President Barack Obama signed into law in July 2010. It has yet to complete rules on four other compensation-related topics, which were clearly not a priority under former SEC Chairman Jay Clayton. When the pay-ratio rule was first proposed in 2013, it attracted nearly 200,000 comments. It should come as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of companies were opposed, citing complicated business operations and unreasonable costs, while shareholder advocates and investors were eager to see the ratio disclosed.

Open the article to see the list of companies where the CEO: worker pay was largest.

Steve Ruis writes in his blog that “class warfare” is over, finished, kaput. The top .001% won. They made out like bandits during the pandemic while most people struggled to pay the mortgage or the rent. No wonder they prefer to claim that charter schools and vouchers will raise up the poor. Of course, they won’t.

He writes:

From an article in The Guardian on Forbes magazine’s latest list of billionaires:

“Forbes annual billionaire poll includes a record-breaking 2,755 billionaires, with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos once again topping the list. Elon Musk, zoomed into second place with a $151bn fortune, up $126.4bn from a year ago, when he ranked No 31 and was worth “just” $24.6bn.”

“Elon Musk, zoomed into second place with a $151bn fortune, up $126.4bn from a year ago.”

“Together the plutocrats added $5tn to their wealth for a combined fortune of $13.1tn, up from $8tn on the 2020 list. A record 493 people joined the list this year – one new billionaire every 17 hours. The majority, 205, were in China. But the gains were widespread with gains across the world.”

“But it was the incredibly wealthy who made the biggest gains. The 0.001% did even better than their lesser peers. The top 10 richest people on the list are worth $1.15tn, up from $686bn last year.”

Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes in the New Yorker about the importance of the vote on whether to unionize at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama. The workers are paid $15 an hour. They are organizing against a behemoth corporation owned by the richest man in the world over working conditions, pay too. The vote concludes Monday. Six thousand workers will define the future for millions of others. Bernie Sanders tweeted recently that the 50 richest Americans own more than the bottom 50%. Is this our future?

He writes:

Most contemporary union drives are ultimately about the past—about the contrast that they draw between the more even prosperity of previous decades and the jarring inequalities of the present. But one that will culminate on Monday, the deadline for nearly six thousand employees of an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, to cast ballots on whether to affiliate with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, is the rare union campaign that is obviously about the future. In this case, hyperbole is possible. The Democratic congressman Andy Levin, of Michigan, a union stalwart, has described it as “the most important election for the working class in this country in the twenty-first century.” On Monday, the Reverend Dr. William Barber, as prominent a figure as exists in the modern civil-rights movement, travelled to Alabama and said, “Bessemer is now our Selma.”

That this election is about the future has something to do with the workers themselves, who embody the political transformation of the South to which progressives pin their dreams. According to union officials, a majority of the people employed at the facility, which is outside of Birmingham, are Black, and a majority are women. On the drive up to the facility, supporters of the R.W.D.S.U. planted a sign featuring the Democratic politician and voting-rights advocate Stacey Abrams striking a Rosie the Riveter pose. A high-ranking labor official in Washington pointed me to a detail from an interview, published in The American Prospect, with the campaign’s on-the-ground leader, a thirty-three-year-old organizer named Josh Brewer. Brewer said that many of the workers who supported the union had been involved in demonstrations to bring down Confederate statues in Birmingham, and they often organized themselves.

But the significance of the drive has more to do with the company itself. Amazon is now among the largest private employers in the United States; its founder, Jeff Bezos, is arguably the wealthiest man in modern history. The company has paid every one of its workers fifteen dollars per hour since November, 2018, while also pioneering second-by-second monitoring of its employees. “This isn’t just about wages,” Stuart Appelbaum, the R.W.D.S.U.’s president, told me, on Monday. It is also about the strenuous pace of work, and the real-time surveillance methods that Amazon has used to monitor employees. Appelbaum said some of the workers that his union has represented have had employers that monitored their locations with G.P.S. chips in their delivery trucks, “but there’s nothing like this, where you’re expected to touch a package every eight seconds.” It had been hard to organize within the Bessemer facility, he said, in part because many of the workers did not know one another. “It’s hyper-Taylorism,” Damon Silvers, the director of policy and the special counsel of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said. “Amazon has determined an optimal set of motions that they want their employees to do, and they have the ability to monitor the employee at all times and measure the difference between what the employee does and what they want them to do, and there is nowhere to hide.” Appelbaum said, “People tell us they feel like robots who are being managed by robots.”

The Amazon union drive has drawn a rare intensity out of the usual suspects. Abrams, Levin, and Bernie Sanders have announced their support for it, and so has President Joe Biden, who recorded a strong message encouraging the organizers and discouraging any effort to interfere with them. It has also drawn some unusual allies, above all the conservative Republican senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, who published an op-ed in USA Today declaring his support for the organizing workers and his opposition to Amazon’s ways: “The days of conservatives being taken for granted by the business community are over.”

Amazon’s influence is so vast—touching on issues from wealth and income inequality to antitrust policy, the American relationship with China, the omnipotence of workplace surveillance, and the atomizing effect of big business, in its most concentrated and powerful form, on families and communities—that it can scramble ordinary politics. For a moment, at least, it can put Marco Rubio and Stacey Abrams on the same side. Most organizing campaigns have a symbolic quality, in which the employer and its workers stand for different models of economic organization. The fight in Bessemer is different because it is so direct. Amazon isn’t a proxy for the future of the economy but its heart.

A year into a pandemic that has kept many Americans cooped up at home, ordering supplies and streaming their entertainment, seems an unpromising time to take on Amazon, which supplies many of those services. Amazon’s revenue grew by nearly forty per cent in 2020, and its workforce grew by about fifty per cent; Jeff Bezos’s wealth reportedly increased by nearly seventy billion dollars last year. The company has become so ubiquitous that even to inquire about it entangles you in its machinery: type “is Amazon popular?” into a search engine and you might find, as I did, that most of the top results are books about popularity which are sold on Amazon. You can find evidence that Amazon both is and isn’t popular in survey data. In one poll, ninety-one per cent of respondents said that they had a favorable view of Amazon; in another, fifty-nine per cent thought the company was bad for small business. To count on broad opposition to Amazon right now is to assume such cognitive dissonance: that Americans may increasingly rely on Amazon and view it favorably while also believing that the company needs to change...


The labor leaders in Washington seemed to see Republican support as welcome but mostly ornamental—like if a distant relative had sent, for Christmas, a very large painting of a duck. They found the Democrats’ reaction more significant. In Biden’s message of support earlier this month, he warned employers not to interfere with union elections: “You should all remember that the National Labor Relations Act didn’t just say that unions are allowed to exist. It said that we should encourage unions.” Silvers, of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said he thought that Biden was speaking directly to the workers who were organizing. “The way he’s talking is not unprecedented, but the precedents are in the Roosevelt Administration,” he said. Appelbaum, of the R.W.D.S.U., said that there had been more talk about the importance of unions in the last Presidential campaign than he’d ever heard before. “We used to talk about how even those Democratic Presidents who we like would barely talk about unions. Biden is different.”


The following essay was written by Michael Podhorzer, Senior Advisor to the president of the AFL-CIO. I totally agree that the key to building a strong middle class is the expansion of unions. The plutocrats have done a great job of demonizing them and destroying the ladder into the middle class that unions offer. Right now, Amazon workers are deciding whether to form a union in Bessemer, Alabama. I hope they win. Jeff Bezos should share the wealth with those who work for him. He should not have nearly $200 billion. Why should Elon Musk and Bill Gates have nearly $200 billion? Couldn’t they be satisfied and live in luxury with only a few hundred millions? In a just world, societies would dedicate their best efforts to reducing inequality and eliminating poverty. Let’s give credit to Joe Biden on this important issue. He has said he is a union guy, and he is pushing legislation to enable workers to join unions.

Podhorzer wrote:

The House of Representatives is expected to pass the PRO Act this week, Amazon workers in Alabama continue to vote to form a union and President Biden’s released a video encouraging working people to join unions.  

While the prospect of a national conversation about supporting working people organizing themselves against their exploitation is long overdue, maddeningly, even those who support unions regret the “decline in union membership.” Stating the fact that union members make up a smaller share of the workforce than they once did in the passive voice (decline) erases causality, implicitly confirming the idea working people are now less likely to want to be in a union, or that unions are outdated, or that unions themselves have done a poor job selling themselves. In fact, research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows more than 60 million people would vote to join a union today if given the opportunity and Gallup recently found that union approval stands at 65%, one of the highest marks in a half-century. 

A more accurate characterization of the same fact would be, “intense and sustained corporate campaigns to bust unions, make it more difficult to form unions, exclude more sectors of the workforce from access to union membership and depict unions in the worst possible ways, along with an often bi-partisan retreat in federal support for working people, relentless roll backs by Republican Presidents and Republican trifecta states have dramatically reduced the number of working people who even have the option of joining one.” 

This is yet another example of progressives repeating their opponents’ framing with the effect of making the intentional and contingent seem natural and inevitable.   Similarly, we routinely talk about profits rising, but never about the fact that an increasing share of those rising profits come from preventing working people from sharing in the gains from their increasing productivity. Thus, since the pandemic, all of Amazon’s gains have been captured by Jeff Bezos and the company’s largest shareholders, not the working people risking (and losing) their lives to enable many of us to get through this year without much to disturb our lifestyles. 

Meanwhile, progressive opinion leaders and policy wonks wring their hands and heroically search for fresh solutions to the most pressing crises of the day as if there isn’t a substantial body of evidence that increased union membership ameliorates many of them, including income inequality, democratic participation, racism and authoritarianism among other things (below).  

Studies show that union workers make about $150 billion more a year than non-union workers in wages alone controlling for industry, occupation education and experience. And union workers are much more likely to have health, pension and leave benefits than non-union workers, and those benefits are much more substantial than those non-union workers who have them at all. To put that in perspective: $150 billion is more than twice the SNAP program, yet costs the taxpayer almost nothing. 

All of this will seem improbable at best as long as you imagine that the benefits accrue from unions as the institutions you experience in your professional life.  The benefits accrue from allowing working people to organize themselves collectively and democratically to act on their own behalf.   It is the practice of acting democratically and collectively to negotiate contracts and set working conditions that produces more tolerant, effective citizens. Union members vote for things that matter in their daily lives from their shop steward to the health benefits in their contracts. They can see how much more powerful they are together, embracing their linked fate than they are on their own. They practice a democracy that has all but disappeared elsewhere in America. 

Even if most progressives don’t fully understand how much more powerful working people acting together on their own behalf are than government programs designed to help them, corporations do. That’s why, since the Wagner Act they have relentlessly attacked working people’s ability to combine. 

The Taft-Hartley Act is most known for opening the door to “right to work.” By the 1950’s most southern states were “right to work,” crippling the CIO’s multiracial organizing efforts in the region. The creation of an effectively non-union, low wage region of the country quickly had two profound effects. First, by offering a low wage domestic region to relocate to, unionized corporations had greater leverage against their employees demands. Arguably as important, but much less recognized, it put an end to the development of a national working class consciousness. 

Even less well recognized are the impacts of the restrictions Taft-Hartley put on joint action. The Taft-Hartley Act also banned  jurisdictional strikessolidarity or political strikessecondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing. In doing so, the Act made illegal the ways in which working people could join together beyond their own employer on behalf of other working people. In this way again, corporations were able to criminalize the development of class solidarity. That has also radically shaped the incentives of unions as institutions. 

MORE THAN THE WEEKEND

While there’s growing acknowledgment of how much the neoliberal market absolutism that triumphed in the late 1970’s is responsible for the present state of affairs, there’s relatively little genuine awareness of what it replaced, or how breaking working people’s ability to act collectively was central to its success. 

Although very far from perfect, from the New Deal until the 1970’s was a period in which pluralism was seen as an essential element of healthy democracy. And there was no more important element of pluralistic America than the labor movement.  At an elite level, a tripartite pluralism consisting of business, labor and government was seen as crucial for the nation’s prosperity and robust democracy. (For example, John Kenneth Galbraith, American Capitalism; The Concept of Countervailing Power and The New Industrial State.)

Unions demonstrated to ordinary people that community problems could only be solved by coming together; strength in numbers was more than a slogan, it was a democratic habit and the way America often functioned. This was a period of movements that led the way to the progress since eroded and continuously under siege.  The advances made on civil rights, women’s rights, environmental protection and limiting foreign military intervention and nuclear proliferation (for a time) reflected sustained collective action that required immense social capital built up from the myriad associations that were common at the time to cohere and a shared experience that government would be responsive.

That social capital and sense of agency is shot, demonstrated by our learned helplessness in the face of Trump’s shredding so much of what those movements delivered.  This Brookings’ Tracking Deregulation in the Trump Era provides a staggering inventory of decimation. For example, not only has Trump been dismantling the environmental regulatory system, the EPA has been routinely granting thousands of waivers and just not enforcing the law. And, almost without notice, the longstanding treaties and instruments to control nuclear proliferation have been discarded.

The rest of this Weekend Reading provides a guide to resources that demonstrate the ways in which an empowered workforce changes everything and concludes with key points about the PRO Act. 

Inequality

The labor movement plays many positive roles in democratic societies—but the most foundational is making sure that the people who do the work of society share in the wealth they create.  This is one of many charts the show the connection between corporate success weakening unions and the increasing share of income going to the top ten percent. 

Income inequality is the result of unequal power. It’s that simple. 

  • Unions, inequality, and faltering middle-class wages provides an excellent overview of much of the literature. 
  • This paper from Hank Farber, Daniel Herbst, IIlyana Kuziemko, and Suresh Naidu is just-revised and packed with terrific (and comprehensive) analysis of the relationship between unions and inequality.  It shows how the strength of unions and collective bargaining in the United States after World War II disproportionately benefited low wage workers and workers of color.  It remains the gold standard analysis so far of unions and economic outcomes over the long-run in the 20th century.  
  • Internationally, this report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) documents the positive effects of unions across the developed world.
  • This paper found that, “the decline of organized labor explains a fifth to a third of the growth in inequality” from 1973 to 2007. 

Democracy

As I said earlier, it is only recently that the accepted idea of that holding free and fair elections was the only requirement to qualify as a democracy. The degree to which people have collective agency in their daily lives determines the health of the society and the democracy. We don’t even notice the ways in which the law facilitates the affluent acting collectively, most notably through corporations. Or the ways in which the law inhibits everyone else from acting collectively. The following research develops that idea. 

  • Authoritarianism. This study in Nature showed that “Participatory practices at work change attitudes and behavior toward societal authority and justice.” Specifically, they found that “participatory meetings led workers to be less authoritarian and more critical about societal authority and justice, and to be more willing to participate in political, social, and familial decision-making.” It confirms earlier research here and here that unions fundamentally change members understanding of and expectations for the relations of power between themselves and their employers. 
  • Resistance to system justification. John Jost’s Theory of System Justification provides a powerful explanation of why oppressed people rarely rebel. Much more to come on this in future Weekend Reading and Open Mic. Relevant here is the theory’s logic, borne out in research that willingness to protest is much less a function of the extent of oppression than beliefs about group efficacy.  “Collective action is more likely when people have shared interests, feel relatively deprived, are angry, believe they can make a difference and strongly identify with relevant social groups.”
  • Responsive Congressional Representation.  This recent paper from Michael Becher and Daniel Stegmueller uses an impressive array of survey data and union membership data to show how the presence of stronger unions within U.S. House districts leads to more policy responsiveness for lower-income Americans (and less responsiveness for higher-income Americans), especially on economic issues.
  • Protest. This paper by Greg Lyon and Brian Shaffner documents how unions increase protest activity among non-members through social ties, especially relevant for thinking about how unions have seeded and supported recent protests.

Racism

Although very far from perfect, and especially in its origins often an accomplice to segregation and racism, the union movement has also been an essential partner in dismantling elements of systemic racism.  In Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965, Eric Schickler recovers the importance of the partnership between the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the Civil Rights movement.   The solid segregationist South initially supported most of the early New Deal’s pro-worker legislation, including the Wagner Act. However, once the CIO began multi-racial organizing efforts in the South, Southern Democrats turned on the labor. Over the next several decades, the Civil Rights movement and the CIO the power of the Southern wing inside the Democratic Party, succeeding in adopting a Civil Rights plank at the 1948 Democratic Convention that triggered Thurmond’s third party candidacy that year which carried Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. Speakers at the March on Washington included A. Philip Randolph and Walter Reuther. 

Furthermore, union membership increases racial tolerance. For example, this paper from Paul Frymer and Jake Grumbach uses survey data to show how union membership leads to more tolerant views of racial minorities among white workers, and is an important reminder of the spillover effects of unions on many other attitudes and preferences beyond economic policy.

Politics

Many have written about the role of unions in politics. Tom Edsall makes the point, obvious to Grover Norquist, business and the right wing, but somehow obscure to many Democrats and progressives, that gutting the labor movement would mean that, “the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics.” Republicans wasted little time after their state electoral sweep in 2010 to attack unions, beginning in Wisconsin.  The recent book, State Capture, tells this story.  

Numerous studies document the connection between union strength Democratic and progressive political impacts. Union members vote more Democratic than their neighbors. Nate Silver (2008) and Harry Enten (2012) write about how consequential that gap was, accounting for about 1.7 points of Obama’s margin in both elections. After controlling for other demographics they found that union membership was one of the most important variables. Thus, it is not surprising that fewer union members = fewer Democrats:

  • Right to Work. In this 2018 study, Alexander Hertel Fernandez carefully examined the impact of the passage of Right to Work laws and concluded that Democrats pay an average of a 3.5 point penalty after passage. They attribute that to lower union density, less political activism and collateral impacts on family and neighbors.  Data for Progress takes a different approach, and finds the same result. Instead of looking at RTW, they create a time series relating union density to congressional vote for each of the 50 states. As union density in a state declines, so does the Democratic vote share. It’s a very steep curve after 1990.   (Includes density-Democratic vote graphs for every state.)
  • Fewer Resources for Politics. Both the OpenSecrets and FollowTheMoney websites track union giving. For example, the 2018 election cost $2.1 billion more than 2010, but union spending increased by only $81 million. That was the pattern at the state level as well. That said, unions are still a very significant share of independent spending.

So, while Democratic strategists obsess in their search for the message or counsel a “cultural” conservatism that will get a few more working class votes, they ignore the evidence that increased union membership would provide a much greater and durable increase in Democratic support.  

THE PRO ACT

The PRO Act is the most significant worker empowerment legislation since the Great Depression because it will:

  • Empower workers to exercise our freedom to organize and bargain. 
  • Ensure that workers can reach a first contract quickly after a union is recognized.
  • End employers’ practice of punishing striking workers by hiring permanent replacements. Speaking up for labor rights is within every worker’s rights—and workers shouldn’t lose our jobs for it.
  • Hold corporations accountable by strengthening the National Labor Relations Board and allowing it to penalize employers who retaliate against working people in support of the union or collective bargaining.
  • Repeal “right to work” laws—divisive and racist laws created during the Jim Crow era—that lead to lower wages, fewer benefits and more dangerous workplaces.
  • Create pathways for workers to form unions, without fear, in newer industries like Big Tech.

Click here for the AFL-CIO’s PRO Act toolkit.   Click here for the Economic Policy Institute’s Why unions are good for workers—especially in a crisis like COVID-1912 policies that would boost worker rights, safety, and wages.

Historian of education Christina Groeger writes that Americans have long believed that education is the key to equality, but she thinks that this faith is misplaced.

She writes:

“The best way to increase wages and reduce wage inequalities in the long run is to invest in education and skills,” wrote economist Thomas Piketty in his landmark Capital in the Twenty-First Century. For nearly 200 years, education has been seen as a central means of reducing the gap between rich and poor. Today, this idea has become something of a national faith, as politicians across the political spectrum tout the power of education to shape a more egalitarian society. However, faith in educational expansion as a means of achieving the American Dream has obscured the ways the same process has in fact deepened economic inequality at different historical moments. If we don’t explore its full consequences, education as a policy tool can become a dangerous trap.

In the U.S., the relationship between education and social inequality points to a paradox. On the one hand, the U.S. has long had among the highest rates of school enrollment and attainment in the world. In 2017, the United States ranked second-highest globally for the average years of schooling for individuals over the age of 25. On the other hand, the U.S. currently has one of the highest rates of social inequality and lowest rates of social mobility in the Global North. In sum, even though many Americans are getting educated at unusually high rates, the U.S. economy is extremely polarized between the 1% and the rest. If education were indeed the great equalizer, this could not be true.

This seeming paradox stems from the fact that the American educational system and the modern corporate economy grew up together and mutually shaped one another from the start.

After briefly reviewing the importance of education in opening up new opportunities for clerical and sales workers and for white collar workers, she maintains that education does not produce equality.

The uneasy truth is that educational solutions often were and are politically palatable to those with the most economic power precisely because they do not directly threaten that power. Educational solutions have tended to place the burden of reform onto individuals to improve their skill level, rather than the larger structure of a vastly unequal economy. The notion that we can “upskill” our way out of an unequal economy, however, misdirects our attention away from the role of employers and economic elites in maintaining their immense workplace authority.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, inequality fell. What role did education play? Many scholars have attributed the decline in social inequality to massive public investment in education. However, the mid-20th century decline had to do with much more than just education. Particularly important was the power of new industrial unions. Unlike exclusive craft unions, industrial unions organized workplaces across lines of skill, race, ethnicity, and gender, reaching a peak of 36% of all private sector workers by 1953. Organized workers became the mass base of support for public policies like a high progressive income tax and social welfare programs. The expansion of public education on its own would not have been able to account for the significant decline in inequality in this period; rather, the growth of worker power, economically and politically, was the primary driver of these changes.

Since the 1970s, workers’ rights have been stripped away, unionization rates have fallen to a mere 6% of private sector workers, budgets for public services have been slashed, and the wealthy pay less in taxes. The economy is increasingly polarized between low-wage service jobs performed disproportionately by women and people of color, on the one hand, and the professional beneficiaries of the “knowledge economy” on the other. The history of the early twentieth century teaches us that there is nothing inherent in educational expansion that means its economic benefits will be equally distributed. In fact, as we are seeing today in the highly-credentialed fields of financial services, corporate law, and specialized medicine, when worker power is at an all-time low, educational expansion without additional protections can simply concentrate the power of existing elites.

The meaning and significance of education is much greater than economic advancement. But until economic subsistence is addressed, education will be tied to these vocational ends, understandably for so many students for whom education is a means of securing a living. If we want to free education up for non-vocational ends, we need to ensure that all people can achieve a livelihood first.

School expansion must be coupled with efforts that build worker power, which historically has been the basis of a more egalitarian society. These include building strong and inclusive unions, raising the minimum wage, expanding social welfare programs, and implementing the progressive taxation necessary to fund them. The collective power of workers, not education level, is ultimately what will matter most for creating a more egalitarian society.

Thus, we can understand the ongoing barrage of attacks on teachers’ unions and the growth of nonunion charter schools as efforts by elites to prevent workers from having any power and from building the egalitarian society that is part of our national creed.