Workers on plantations don’t need unions, right?

plantationNeither my father, who left us when I was 12, nor my stepfather, was graduated from high school yet both had jobs that allowed them to buy their own homes and new cars and support their families, even take a few vacations. They were great jobs because they were union jobs.

My father was a railroad employee. For much of his work life, he shoveled coal into steam engine furnaces. He later became an engineer and powered diesel trains throughout the east for the Pennsylvania Railroad. My stepfather was a truck driver, a teamster who—as it turned out—fought side by side with the man who would later become my father-in-law to end corruption in the union.

They were physically big men but,  alone, in the face of trusts and corporations, they were small—or would have been but for their unions.

Now, unions represent only 7 percent of private sector employees. The collapse of the American labor movement in the private sector clearly accounts for the scandalous, indeed criminal, maldistribution of wealth in this country.

“What we have is a large decrease in labor’s share of income and a significant increase in capitalists’ share in industries where unionization declined, and hardly any change in industries where unions never had much of a presence. This suggests that waning unionization, which led to the erosion of rank-and file workers’ bargaining power, was the main force behind the decline in labor’s share of national income,” wrote Tali Krystal in the American Socioloigical Review.

With few exceptions, workers are now virtually helpless–all but completely subject to the greed of corporate employers—because labor simply isn’t a counterweight to the economic power of globalized corporations that have become supranational and beyond the reach of pressure from organized employees or the dwindling number of political figures who support them. Workers are economic units, cost centers, easily replaceable.

One big exception was until recently  the public sector where unions representing teachers and other public employees once drove public policy, established protections for their members, and replaced missionary-level wages with incomes that reflected the value of their work and the extent of their education.

Was. Now even public employee unions seem overwhelmed and timid in the face of traditionally anti-union Republicans and newly anti-union new Democrats who regularly sell out public employees.  Yes, in Wisconsin, Republicans stripped public employee unions of much of their power. But, here, in New Jersey, Democrats like Senate President Steve Sweeney—a private sector union leader himself—cut his deals with anti-labor Chris Christie to take away pension rights from public employees.

But that is only the beginning. Public sector labor relations have a political dimension as well as economic  consequences. I wrote in my 1972 book “Teachers and Power” (Simon and Schuster) that teacher unions and the public were headed for a collision. I could see it in Ocean Hill/Brownsville in New York in the fight over school decentralization. I saw it in Newark in the battle over duty-free lunch periods that were viewed by newly emerging minority politicians as insults perpetrated by predominantly white and suburban teachers against their children.

I was critical of the teacher unions, both the AFT and the NJEA, because they failed to realize that, ultimately, they would need the support of parents and the public generally.  I urged the unions—perhaps naively—to put their muscle behind desegregation, increased funding, and the amelioration of poor conditions in urban schools. I urged them to become vocal about the growing achievement gap between white children and children of color. They said it wasn’t their job.

Eventually, the unions did take more activist stands—but it was too little, too late. They had made too many enemies, in cities and suburbs. When the Great Recession wiped out so much private wealth and stole jobs from so many private sector employees, pent-up jealousies led to the election of anti-union thugs like Chris Christie and Scott Walker.  In fine old plantation-style learned from slave masters, they manipulated workers, turned them against each other, private against public, immigrant versus home-born, black versus white, so they fought over crumbs while the rich got almost everything, including tax breaks.

But something more is happening now. With Republicans like Christie and Democrats like Cory Booker, even the existence of traditional institutions of public education is in jeopardy. What believers in public education as an essential civic institution are seeing is not a pretty picture. The NJEA collapses on tenure reform and voucher schools in Camden. It reels from the rhetorical punches thrown by Christie and then endorses a Christie ally and voucher champion, Booker, for the senate. The AFT’s Newark Teachers Union accepts a contract with merit pay and partial private funding provided by a computer mogul with distinctly right-wing sentiments.

Public education faces privatization and the unions do virtually nothing. Public school teachers are led into the trap of test-score-based evaluations and the unions do little.  Corporate entrepreneurs increase their control over what was once public education and the unions are all but silent.

I grew up on stories of union members standing up to bosses, standing up to their own corrupt leaders, standing up to the scabs—because the elders in my family did those things.

But no such stories exist now. Workers—in the private sector certainly and increasingly in the public sector—are facing their bosses alone.  They are divided and scared.

5 comments

  1. Kimi Wei

    What a sad state of affairs. Hat tip to you, Bob, for seeing the writing on the wall several decades ago. Clearly, the mess we’re in has been building up for some time. I hope a new generation of amazing advocates emerges that can begin to put some compassion and logic back in the system of educating our children. A nation of ignorance isn’t going to do anything good for anyone.

  2. Bill Wolfe

    Thanks again Bob – seems like you are one of the few that connects the dots and has a spine and ethics.

    What Sweeney has done with Gov. Christie is inexcusable.

    Divided and scared is not a good place to be, but just where the elites want us.

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