Unions have been fiercely attacked since their emergence in the United States during the Industrial Revolution.
While it is true that labor unions have had their own set of unique and troubling problems, ranging from insufficient organization to outright corruption, the most harrowing 0pposition they have faced throughout history has been from the business class and the government, from powerful capitalists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller to presidents like Woodrow Wilson during the “Red Scare” and Ronald Reagan throughout his time in office.
Attacks on unions have taken various forms — from strange propaganda about the menace of “Big Labor”, to accusations of communism, to using the police force to stamp out strikes, to firing workers who protest low wages and terrible working conditions.
But, regardless of how they approach them, it is abundantly clear that many businesses and pro-business politicians see unions as a serious threat to their interests; which is correct.
The political wing most opposed to unions is, unsurprisingly, the Republican party.
As Paul Waldman observes, Republicans hate unions so much that
they’re willing to fight against a corporation if it’s union-friendly.
Unions, in a fundamental sense, give workers a voice.
Without the ability to organize, workers are isolated and subject to the whims of their masters — the bosses, the managers, the CEOs.
Unions help workers to fight for decent wages, safe working conditions, and fair hours. They help workers fight for the benefits they need and deserve.
All of the above is why today’s so-called “conservative” politicians, for the most part, despise unions, and wish, much like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, to do away with them entirely.
The disdain Republicans show for labor unions is one of the most telling signs of their utter subservience to corporate interests.
They want corporations to have complete control over their work force; they want them to have the ability to exploit workers for more hours, while paying them less and granting them fewer benefits, allowing executives to reap the gains of increased productivity without paying the costs. All in the name of the American Dream, of course.
But for obvious reasons, the discussion of unions is never framed in this way.
Republicans understand that, if they say the above, they will lose support among much of their working class base, who deal with the same problems as the working class base of the left: stagnation of wages, reduction of benefits, and so on.
So, they, along with their corporate partners, have to peddle absurd propaganda, over-inflating the problems of unions, ensuring workers that unionization hurts them in the long run.
They relentlessly push the idea of “Right to Work,” a phrase Orwell would have appreciated.
“Right to Work” laws essentially state that workers can reap the benefits of unions fighting for higher wages and more benefits, but they don’t have to pay union dues.
The concept may sound good rhetorically, but in effect, “Right to Work” removes the incentive of workers to pay union fees (why pay if I can get the benefits for nothing?), slowly but surely gutting union funding altogether, which is undoubtedly a major goal.
“Right to Work” laws also, somewhat ironically, because of the fact mentioned above, create the “free-rider” problem that Republicans so often cite when railing against social welfare programs.
I certainly agree with those who say that unions must work to fix their problems and flaws, but this is true of any organization.
Take corporations. I have never heard a politician say that corporations should be eliminated altogether because many of them are corrupt and dangerous. In fact, the corruption of corporations is infinitely worse than the corruption of unions, for reasons too obvious to state.
So here is a fundamental inconsistency in the Republican position.
Corporations do far more harm — to workers and to society at large — than unions could ever do, yet Republicans fight unions as if they were the scourge of the earth.
And the reason is quite plain: Many of today’s most influential Republicans care only to serve the interests of the mega-rich.
Anything that gives workers bargaining power, like unions and various social policies, is inherently contradictory to elite interests. So these things must be opposed, by definition.
To be fair, the Democratic party has generally done a terrible job proposing and supporting policies that empower workers, too, as the political spectrum shifts to the right, and as more politicians see the benefits of taking the support of massive banks and corporations over that of organized labor.
Democrats are, of course, quite happy to take campaign donations from “Big Labor,” but that’s about it.
“What can Labor do for itself? The answer is not difficult. Labor can organize, it can unify; it can consolidate its forces. This done, it can demand and command.” — Eugene V. Debs
The progress that unions have made and battles they have fought and won over the years, despite powerful opposition, have been extraordinary, and Republicans and business elites are rightly scared of more union victories in the future.
The battle for the rights of workers goes back a long way, and the battle has been fought by some of the United States’ most beloved historical figures, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Martin Luther King Jr.
In fact, as John Nichols points out, Dr. King
died while supporting the right of public employees to organize labor unions and to fight for the preservation of public services.
Unions, and the empowerment of the working class generally (which is the empowerment of the masses) is a serious threat to the status quo, and as such, the attack on unions continue, with devastating effects.
Although the use of violence is no longer an option for businesses looking to crush worker organizations (another victory organized labor has won, incidentally), the robust and endless propaganda campaign continues to convince the masses to vote against their own interests, electing politicians who care about nothing outside of serving their corporate donors, leaving workers increasingly powerless.
Thus, we come to the fact that union membership in the United States continues its steady decline, despite the fact that some polling data indicates that much of the public views labor unions in an increasingly favorable light.
The decline of union membership is particularly pronounced in the private sector, as The Economist reports:
Only 6.6% of private-sector workers are union members—down from more than 30% in 1960.
And, with the decline in union membership comes the decline in the middle class, the stagnation of wages, the decline of healthcare benefits, the decline of working conditions, and, overall, the decline of workers’ ability to bargain with their corporate managers, leaving them to be easily exploited and manipulated.
The assault on unions is not only terrible for workers, it’s terrible for the world.
As the meager power left in the hands of workers is slowly stripped away, we will continue to witness the wanton destruction carried out by massive, government-subsidized corporations worldwide, corporations which express little concern about the fact that they are destroying the planet and the lives of millions, so long as their bottom line continues to show that all-too-crucial six letter word, the word that is the sole driver of the powerful in today’s ‘New Gilded Age’: PROFIT.
The struggle for the rights of workers is representative of the struggle against injustice in a broad sense. With a new trade agreement (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) threatening to strengthen the assault on the working class, this fact cannot be neglected.