Something was strangely missing from President Obama’s generally progressive and inspirational inaugural address of last January, as well as his State of the Union message a few weeks later. Amidst the extensive presidential litany of issues, proposals, and groups warranting attention, there was nothing about organized labor — not one word.
Once a key component of the Democratic Party coalition cobbled together by Roosevelt and the New Dealers in the 1930s, unionized labor now appears to scarcely matter. That a Democratic president can recite his agenda going forward without even acknowledging the existence of labor, which after all provided the essential foot soldiers and much of the funding for his two national campaigns, is extraordinary to say the least. Even more remarkable is that the union movement has been barely alluded to during the first four years of the Obama administration.
The orphaned status of organized labor within the Democratic Party — it’s been figuratively placed in a basket and left on the doorstep for someone to claim — is not surprising in one sense. Few Americans belong to unions anymore, especially in the private sector; the latest grim figure is 11.8% of the overall workforce, a far cry from the 35% of the mid-1950s.
Yet, labor’s symbolic influence and hold on the popular imagination remain compelling; it has strength beyond its numbers. Evidence of this emerged last year in the widespread support for unionized public workers in their struggle to preserve collective-bargaining rights in Wisconsin and Ohio. The dramatic success of that struggle in Ohio (61% majority support for the union position in referendum) was no doubt due, in part, to what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory” — the dim remembrance of the labor wars and sacrifices of previous generations. Something about disempowering unions just doesn’t sit right, even with those who don’t belong to one.
Mystical chords aside, there’s probably a more practical reason why the public, notwithstanding its ambivalence toward unions, is reluctant to see labor rights disappear. We’re living in a time when workers are not realizing the fruits of their labor, while corporate managements are reserving more and more of capitalism’s economic rewards for themselves and the ownership class they represent.
Between 1973 and 2007, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), American productivity rose by 83%, while real wages in this country went up just 5%. More recently, BCA Research finds that since the start of the recovery from the Great Recession in 2009, the total rise in company profits in the US has outpaced the rise in wages by a factor of three; that’s the first time profits have risen faster than wages during a recovery in 50 years.
Based on President Obama’s State of the Union address, the White House is well aware of this discrepancy. Just a few lines into his speech, the president said this: “We gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not been rewarded .... Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have hardly budged.” Inexplicably, he then went on to focus almost entirely on a host of unrelated topics, with special emphasis on deficit and debt reduction.
Except for a pro forma presidential call to raise the federal minimum wage, the entire question of wages and incomes was relegated to the old, reliable establishment shibboleth of “education and training” as the route to upward mobility and higher living standards. In fact, America is chock full of well-schooled individuals whose work in the classroom has availed them little, because lack of an educated, trained workforce is not the fundamental problem; rather, it’s an outright unwillingness on the part of corporate America to hire people domestically, and provide decent wages and benefits. Short of a command-and-control economy, this unwillingness can be effectively combated only through the countervailing force of a regenerated labor movement able to demand a more equitable division of capitalism’s bounty.
Incumbent Democratic officeholders are reluctant to accept this fact, perhaps because they don’t want to face unpleasant realities. All-out support for labor unions would be an uncomfortable admission that the system is unjust; it would encourage political upheaval, if not class conflict, and antagonize powerful economic forces. Besides, if labor were all that popular or necessary, it wouldn’t be struggling to organize, would it?
Actually, the labor movement in America has struggled throughout its long history, facing crippling legal sanctions, organized and often violent employer resistance, and a hostile, business-dominated political culture dedicated to defending propertied interests. The great exception to this pattern was the immensely successful organizing effort of the 1930s, which finally allowed unions to gain a foothold and led, ultimately, to the postwar economic golden age (1945-75) of broad-based shared prosperity that created the middle class.
The labor upsurge of the 1930s could not have happened without the active support of a sympathetic federal government, which saw unionization as a key element in finding a way out of the Great Depression by getting spending power into the hands of average workers through higher negotiated wages. Starting with Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in 1933 and culminating with the National Labor Relations (or Wagner) Act of 1935, labor’s guaranteed right to organize and collectively bargain was written into law. Together, these New Deal enactments spurred a 50% increase in union membership between 1933 and 1936. By the end of the decade, previously depressed union rolls had tripled to cover over a quarter of all workers.
Three-quarters of a century later, sophisticated corporate managements have learned how to undercut and circumvent existing antiquated labor law and make unionization virtually impossible once more. A basic legislative updating through such proposals as the Employee Free Choice Act with its card-check provision for union recognition, which was only tepidly advanced by Democrats in 2009, is long overdue. A full-throated liberal defense of labor, lately portrayed by its enemies as nothing more than a narrow special interest, also wouldn’t hurt.
Taken for granted doesn’t begin to adequately describe labor’s disrespected position within Democratic circles. Surely, an administration and a party that took care of Wall Street can do better by its friends. It’s both good politics and good economics.
Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.
From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2013
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