Unions Are The Solution

Jena Ritchey

Jena Ritchey

By Guest Contributor

Phil Hoxie’s column “Unions and Unfunded Pension Liabilities” blames middle-class workers – teachers, nurses, bus drivers, firefighters – and their organizations for the crises that are now plaguing many large cities. Hidden behind a veneer of economic “common sense,” his argument is actually political in nature. So is ours.

The economic crises he mentions are manufactured events, highly orchestrated and, ultimately, beneficial to those in power. Scott Walker’s government in Wisconsin, for example, cut taxes on large corporations to such an extent that adequate wages for union teachers, nurses, and firefighters were no longer “affordable.” Hoxie mentions Illinois as an example of union malfeasance. But the state’s governor, Bruce Rauner, is widely known to have manufactured a budget deficit to destroy what remains of public sector unionism in his state by ending the existing corporate tax structure. He also takes up the case of Detroit. But Detroit prospered when unions were at their peak. Virtually every economic hardship that has befallen city can be attributed to the decline of organized labor in the auto industry—rising inequality, the disappearance of the middle class, the decline of the public sector.

If Hoxie is sincerely concerned about the health and wealth of the American economy, he should pay less attention to monetary incentives and more to history. American union membership peaked during the prosperous postwar decades. It has declined precipitously ever since. Myriad explanations exist, but the assault on organized labor from the business lobby is paramount.

Today only about 7% of US workers are union members, which is a serious problem for our economy. No less an authority than the International Monetary Fund now agrees that unions, especially those in the fragile public sector, are necessary to maintain economic stability, assure decent wages, and protect workers from political elites. No country has ever gotten rich without a strong public sector.

Strong labor unions are the most effective way to raise wages for those at the bottom and middle of the scale, boost aggregate demand, and create more jobs. Given the sorry state of “labor law” and court biases against workers, unions are practically the only way to address pay discrimination, wage theft, and unequal treatment of women and people of color in the workforce. Places where workers have retained strong collective bargaining rights are slower to drift into crises and quicker to come out because they temper the instability of the business cycle. The economic crisis of 2008-2012 was felt least in states with the highest union densities.

Hoxie seems upset that unions give campaign contributions at election time. But contrary to popular opinion, and his article, unions receive very little in return for their hefty donations to both parties (about 40% of union members voted Republican in the last election). For example, Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic Governor of New York, received a $37,800 dollar donation from the health care workers’ union despite his anti-union stance. Clinging to the Democrats has long been a losing strategy for labor.

If Hoxie were seriously concerned with the burden of taxpayers, he would write to support the campaigns currently transforming the fast food industry and the retail sector, so that taxpayers no longer need to pay corporate welfare by subsidizing the poverty wages paid by large American corporations. Instead, he reserves his vitriol for public transit workers in the Bay Area, a predominantly black workforce that is responsible for safely getting millions of people to and from work each day. By contrast, he predicts he will make a paltry $30,000 as a Congressional staffer when he leaves Middlebury. If it is any consolation, we point out that that figure is $10,000 more than the fastest growing skilled occupation in the US—a home care aide—who is charged with the physically and emotionally exhausting work of caring for our parents, grandparents, and sick loved ones. This low salary is in part due to the fact that this industry is almost entirely unorganized, aside from the recently growing National Domestic Workers Alliance, and unions play a large role in uniting workers to fight for increased wages, among other improvements. There is power in (organized) numbers.

Hoxie repeats a well-worn trope of the business class—assert the indomitable power of organized labor, decry a crisis, and use it to justify further concessions against the middle class. But the reality is quite different. An alternate future for our economy requires that unions are able to once again flourish and win. Labor unions, at their best, do not just increase wages, benefits, and improve working conditions, but also are part of a larger political movement fighting for working-class power, social justice and a more egalitarian society.

Alice Oshima ’15 is from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Jamie McCallum is an Assistant Professor of Sociology.