Friday, February 25, 2011

Picket Lines: Wisconsin, Unions—and a Nation of Immigrants Unsurprisingly Forgets Where It Came From

Note: unlike many guest pieces on Et tu, Mr. Destructo? today's article was co-written by a real, live person. Idi Amin Dada has a Bachelor's degree in political science, the rank of Field Marshal and was the last ruler of a free Uganda. Since his exile at the hands of imperialists, he has busied himself researching topics ranging from politics to philately. In the coming days, he hopes to explore labor issues in America in "Picket Lines," and he invited Mobutu Sese Seko to pitch in. Neither author has eaten anyone since 1980.

Solidarity, 2011

It's extraordinarily upsetting that so many Americans broadly oppose unions without giving much thought to the reasoning behind their opposition. In the case of Wisconsin, critics of union workers are especially difficult to understand. Newly elected Governor Scott Walker wants to use a budget crisis to not only crush the take-home pay of unionized state workers, but to strip public employees of the right to collective bargaining.

His supporters assert that Wisconsin public-school teachers net much more in salary and benefits than private-sector teachers. And despite the fact that this is not true, and that Walker's initiatives to give out generous corporate welfare actually caused significantly exacerbate the crisis he's attempting to capitalize on, public sector employees have already agreed to tough concessions with respect to pay and benefits. Even these concessions are not enough for Walker, who refuses to budge on stripping collective bargaining rights, a move that would have no impact on the state's finances whatsoever, but would effectively destroy unions as a force for the middle and labor class.

One could argue that in the long-run, Walker's stance saves the state money, as public unions periodically negotiate contracts to obtain higher wages and more benefits at the state's expense. Two polls regarding this issue are available at the moment. The first comes from the firm Clarus Group and shows 64% of Americans think that government employees should not be represented by labor unions. However, the firm admits that its phrasing may have swayed responses with language seemingly mirroring that of deficit hawks.

Another poll, this one conducted on behalf of the right-leaning group "We Ask America" shows that those in Wisconsin actually oppose the bill by 51%, with 43% supporting it. However, this same poll also shows that 55% of Wisconsinites want Democratic senators — who fled to Illinois to avoid giving the bill a quorum — to return to the state to vote on the bill anyway; only 36% of those polled disapprove of the idea. Such an action would make the bill pass, as Republicans seem unwilling to compromise, already have the votes they need, and Walker's disdain for those opposing him remains unwavering.

His attitude might make sense if not for conservatism's twin enemies of history and math. Wages for American middle and lower class workers have been all but stagnant since the 1970s, compared to the actual productivity and output of their work; meanwhile, profits for corporations and bonuses for CEOs annually reach record highs. At a time when many states desperately need funds — and corporations reaping record profits pay little to nothing in taxes — the acceptable course of action, according to a vast majority of Republicans, most Independents and some Democrats, is to point to the household working paycheck-to-paycheck and say, "Their desire to negotiate for fewer sleepless nights might hurt the state's finances. It's belt-tightening time."

This overlooks two applications of the rational self-interest train of thought so often propounded by Republicans and libertarians. Sustained increases in income inequality and sustained assaults on benefits, in the face of ludicrous management windfalls, only incentivize worker strikes. Unreasonable demands and "solutions" from the other side in the absence of real dialogue only makes a walkout more inevitable. This is not an intrinsically destructive act. Workers' unions generally do not ask for the flatly unreasonable: to ask for too much leaves the employer in financial trouble, leading to an "everybody loses" situation.*

* — The GOP/libertarian horrifying boogeyman counter-example to this argument is usually the salary demands of the Detroit automakers' unions, which contrived to annihilate everything that made America great — namely, cars that murder people and the unrealistic expectation that Americans would trade-in cars every three years, forever. The argument naturally fails to take into account two bigger factors well beyond the control of unions:

1. They cite inflated "workers' benefits" packages as evidence of backbreaking union self-indulgence and blindness to the long view, comparing them to the tiny payouts given German and Japanese autoworkers, who keep kicking American ass. This ignores that neither German nor Japanese automakers had a policy of making shitty cars for a quarter century, and also the hugely significant healthcare costs spared German and Japanese workers and employers because they live in countries with universal healthcare.

2. The hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of dollars Detroit automakers spent lobbying congress to suppress legislation requiring higher MPG efficiency, effectively trying to game the system by government fiat against the desires of a growing energy-efficiency market. Unionized workers didn't make management piss profits down the drain by trying to use government influence to artificially make their cars competitive in the marketplace and to suppress legislation that made existing foreign cars more competitive in the marketplace. There is no reasonable pro-business argument that excuses Ford and GM's decades-long aggressive lobbying expenditures thrown away on a doomed attempt to stave off the inevitability of both energy concerns and their own blinkered adherence to competitive irrelevancy.

As successful as the right has been about portraying unions as greedy "thugs" (not racist) bankrupting the nation, they aren't economic kamikaze workers and have never been. Industrial sabotage would be a much more effective method for all involved if that were the end goal, and it's not. This conception becomes self-evident with any perspective pre-dating the last 30 years. Americans historically did not view unions negatively, with public-opinion ratings of unions during and immediately following the Great Depression steadily maintaining 60-70% favorability, not dipping below 60% until the 1970s.

This latter period coincides neatly with the foundation of neoconservative think tanks and periodicals that aimed to drive the discourse rightward via intra-promotional tactics* that intended to gloss conservative ideas, like "unions are productivity vampires," with the patina of academic legitimacy by any means necessary.

* — For example, reframing the welfare debate by:
a. buying thousands of copies of The Bell Curve to give as gifts to donors, "accidentally" creating a bestseller from a marketplace that didn't even want it.
b. loaning think-tank members to Time, Newsweek and the like to review it, because staff writers for those organs weren't familiar with the material in it, because someone just made it the fuck up.
Between tactics like the above and insisting on equal time for both sides — i.e. teaching the controversy — you can invent and legitimate a whole field of study in a year's time. And that's why unions are Obamacare, and William of Occam voted for Reagan.

Strange how the American public looked favorably on organizations fighting for the rights of workers during times of hardship for those not on top, especially when the media wasn't an efficient talking-point machine orchestrated specifically to maintain the current economic order or distort reality in a way designed to lubricate a radically increased transference of wealth from the poor to the rich.

Looking at trends in polling shows a sudden significant drop-off in the American public's approval of unions from 2008 to 2009, followed by a moderate uptick in support in 2010, but one that is insignificant when compared to the plummet from the year prior. Looking into more questions from the 2009 poll showcases what is either impressive mental gymnastics on the part of many being polled, or the widespread erosion of both empathy for workers and common sense about the realities of capitalism.

It would be easy to attribute this to the intellectually lazy Horatio Alger belief in the fairytale of The American Dream, accompanied by the wholesale buy-in to the notion that the rich are taxed too much. It could also be compartmentalization, with Americans failing to realize that the suffering of the bottom 95% has an inverse relationship to the extreme good times had by the top 5%. When the news media never reports on these figures in a way that connects the dots — and when any talk of raising taxes on the rich or compensating workers more is shrieked about as "class warfare," "nanny state" and "job-killing" — those thoughts tend to extinguish themselves before reaching fruition. If paying the workers more means that other Americans, who believe they may someday be rich, would have no chance of great personal wealth, then clearly it must be bad to raise benefits or pay.

The results of these three polling questions put together is perhaps one of the greater achievements of the news media, who have been complicit in an intense anti-union campaign waged over the past few years, one that has convinced the American public that what's good for the worker is bad for the country — which, evidently, is an economic entity that somehow has no workers in it:

The American public admits that unions are good for the workers who are members, but at the same time believes that unions are, overall, a burden to the American economy; they hurt American "competitiveness." Most Americans hold a starry-eyed and not-true-since-WWII-if-ever definition of that word: the ability to make products faster, more efficiently and of a higher-quality than other countries.

Unfortunately, for decades, competitiveness has been little more than a thinly veiled buzzword meaning "gonna outsource this shit to children in Asia if y'all don't find a way to keep lowering our costs by a higher margin every year." Most people are familiar with creating competition on the employment end, not the output or development end. Anyone who's heard the conservative alternative to unionization — "If you don't like the pay, benefits, or the job itself, you can quit" — knows what true competition looks like, scrabbling for the remaining scads of living wages, for non-college graduates, in a country that doesn't make anything anymore. Sure you can quit, provided you've got a job lined up, or you think you can beat the odds of joining the other Americans who have been looking for jobs longer than 99 weeks and have permanently depleted their unemployment benefits — a group large enough to garner dismayed attention from even corporate-owned news networks.

Further, you can start a new job, provided that that job you miraculously find actually has better benefits or pay or hours than the one you just left, despite an unemployment climate so dire that employers know they can make cuts with impunity because they're competing against virtually no one. It's a nauseating reality that Americans are supposed to be grateful for the pittance of employment opportunity that does exist, if at all, and that American conservatives sneer at those unhappy with the offering. It's like watching a real-life reenactment of that scene in Oliver Twist, except Oliver asks the man running the orphanage if he can eat something other than a bucket of human shit, and the man beats him in the face and tells him that, if he likes food so much, he should just grow an extra set of parents.

Yet the number of Americans who would like to see unions have less influence in politics has grown strikingly, while the level of actual influence yielded by unions in 2009, when the poll was conducted, was "none." It might as well be a negative number in 2011, with the White House alternating between actively ignoring and disparaging them and former allies such as Democratic Governor Jerry Brown now working against them. Even with the public's misguided understanding of American competitiveness and misconception of the actual influence of unions, the view the public holds on unions is a generally nasty or masochistic one. This quote from newly elected Ohio governor John Kasich, who wants to eliminate Ohio's public employees from striking (despite that some public employees in Ohio are already prohibited from striking), should be illuminating as to why:
"If they want to strike they should be fired," Kasich said last week. "I really don't favor the right to strike by any public employee. They've got good jobs, they've got high pay, they get good benefits, a great retirement. What are they striking for?"
Workers in unions have better pay, better benefits and a better retirement. We're living at a time when the U6 unemployment figure that takes into account discouraged workers and those working jobs much below what is desired or for which they are qualified hovers close to 20%; health insurance costs rise much faster than wages without employers contributing as much to premiums; real wages are in shambles to the point that today's generation will be worse off than its predecessor, and corporate profits soar via tax-dodging, outsourcing and revamping business models to lay off remaining in-country jobs for "leaner" operations.

One would think a remedy involving unions in a more influential manner would be obvious. Greater union influence allows workers to preserve their rights. Unions fight to protect domestic jobs. Unions demand and often command cost-of-living adjustments. For Americans to view a model of employment where employees have security, benefits and livable wages and yet conclude — in a time of great pain, one created by and benefiting those on top — that the solution is to to say to unionized labor, "Fuck you, we're dragging you down with us," is spiteful, short-sighted and stupid. The logical conclusion is to form or join whatever union possible, in the modest pursuit of decent benefits and job security, rather than complacently declaring your contempt for mutual aid and trumpeting your ability to go bankrupt and lose your job due to a medical emergency, as if that is some sort of ruggedly individuated privilege.

The newfound negative view of unions surely has a great deal to do with the idea that people should work solely for themselves, and Americans view public employees, and unions by association, as "lazy" and "non-essential." Again, this attitudinal shift pre-dates Reagan and comes from conservative think tanks, studies and pundits utilizing the "objective" media's desire to call it down the middle to move the discourse so far to the right that conservatism becomes "balanced" centrism by default. It's been brilliantly effective. Somehow the unions that pre-dated this re-framing are all gone. WWII didn't happen, and steel and bridges are mere legends. No longer can you find soot on the brow, scraped knuckles or men in boots and stained, sweaty dungarees. They're all fat and on break, cashing checks for nothing, like welfare queens — except white. Which brings us to the rhetoric of demonizing union workers.

A common anti-union complaint by conservatives is that unions consist of "thugs" (again, not dog-whistle racism) who "terrorize" employees who do not wish to partake in the formation of a union, sometimes employing "thug tactics" to persuade the non-thugs. Interestingly, when changing the period of discussion to historic labor relations, the term virtually disappears. Despite a legitimate history early in the last century of white union activists with unsavory ties and a lust for brawling in streets, conservative critics invariably choose the colorblind and character-neutral term of "violent tactics" to describe it. There's little political hay to be made from making white people sound scary. White people can be rascals, miscreants, roustabouts and troublemakers. A thug is the huge negro who comes to you in the workplace and asks you to join the union just like the guy in the club in Animal House who said, "MIND IF WE DANCE WITH YOUR DATES?"

The need, here, is to make the union the other, or the means of agency for the other, and "thug" does a tremendous amount of heavy lifting for white people. Once you get to the idea of a "group of thugs," images rise up from America's tweedsploitation political nightmare: Crips, Bloods, Raiders hats, pre-Dr. Pepper Dr. Dre. The irony is that "thug" historically evinces the kind of called-down-the-middle balance that American politics enjoys so much. Examples of thuggery from around the Great Depression can include mobbed-up union button men and the paid enforcers who broke strikes and locked people inside the factory, where they had greater access to longer hours and being burned alive.

It's an astonishing notion that workers should prioritize fearing the possibility of their peers agitating for higher pay and better benefits over, say, management's boosting profits by summarily firing a non-union employee in a single heartbeat — and a unionized employee in two. It's also sort of irrelevant, like trying to scare small children about the horrible things that will happen if they dunk at Madison Square Garden right this second.

Those who want to unionize, and who are bold enough to brave management, find that unions are extraordinarily difficult to form anyway. And for as much national support as they supposedly get from the Democratic party, it's balkanized by the interests of both Blue Dogs and the sorts of Democrats whose triangular strategy is just Rockefeller-Reagan Republican boilerplate with a different party initial before the hyphen. Even a Marxist-Leninist Blackula-Hitler like Obama quietly swept under the rug a bill that would have made it easier to organize. Back when it still appeared to many progressives that he might have endured the campaign process with the vestiges of a spine, Obama turned a deaf ear to media distortions of The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), allowing it to be demonized, tried and executed without anything like a good-faith campaign on its behalf.

But it's easy to kill unions by neglect like this. The Democratic party has collectively swallowed significant GOP talking points about them, marching backward along an endless road of concessions toward the conservative middle. One of the biggest is the concept that unions "were necessary and very helpful at one point, but are no longer needed and some are corrupt." This allows politicians the luxury of conceding the value of unions throughout their history — the eight-hour work day, the abolition of child labor, minimum wage laws, equal pay for women, overtime pay, benefits packages, a weekend won for you by laborers and socialists, so you can sit back and read this article — while bringing history to an end. It's an especially valuable tactic for conservatives, because it allows them to sound pro union, merely born decades too late to prove to you how much they sympathize.

Thus, like Cincinnatus, the unions can go home; events subsequent to their effectiveness have only emphasized their irrelevancy. Employers, when given the chance, won't do everything possible to meet the narrowest part of the letter of the law and employ attorneys to defend their right to moral sloth. They will not use massive profits — against unleveraged and disaggregated worker's wages — to lobby congress to repeal laws that require them to treat employees as human beings, actual mothers and fathers accorded freedom from physical harm, overwork and imperial exploitation. With no counterweight to their behavior, employers will preserve milestones of human rights out of the goodness of their hearts.

Much like the idea of an America where citizens could feel like they're worthwhile as human beings if they're not rich or on television, unions are past their shelf life. Not only for the perfection outlined above but because the only thing an actor can do to a system that is already perfect is despoil it. Union prosperity can only lead to unions' moral weakness, corruption, exploitation at the hands of cruel workers. The irony here is of course that it is only because of their fantastic historic success in establishing the sublime balance of the marketplace that unions face the prospect of only being able to destroy it via their further existence. Doubtless a truncated version of this argument is misspelled on the sign of a bused-in teapartier in Madison.

This is the dumb certitude of mistaking paradoxes for a philosophy, the same alchemical lump being sold at both ends of the marketplace as a poison and its own antidote. Only through popular participation could unions have succeeded so well as to somehow become an unnecessary destructive force that no one actually wants. It's the perfect boneheaded conservative argument against unionization: even ignoring history, polling data, Scott Walker's handing away the store and then screaming "stop, thief!" or the reality of Wisconsin's public unions making large concessions and demonstrating their weakness face-to-face with management, it's a proposition that can contradict itself before the introduction of a single fact.

The headline for this edition of "Picket Lines" is taken from that of a group who American conservatives claim was so inspired by Ronald Reagan (so much so that it was inspired before he was elected) and so embraced liberty and the rights of man that it threw off its masters' shackles of oppression to create a better future in a free Poland.

It was a labor union.