Labor Notes: Unless Workers Come Together, There’s A New Downward Trajectory For Labor


By Tom Crofton
The Commoner Call (12/25/17)

A brave new world for labor has been spinning up for years but the latest efforts to dismantle the New Deal have sent workers on a new trajectory. The concept of wage slave has been refurbished and sold as freedom to those who have no capital. Freedom to not pay union dues. Freedom to argue for a personal raise based on a piecework/merit mentality. Freedom to decide to not have health insurance. Freedom to invest by our ourselves in the stock market for our retirement.

This is also the Freedom to be oblivious to the idea of solidarity, which is all about being stronger when looking out for each other, when we hire skilled agents to do our bargaining, when we get paid a living wage by the hour, when our health insurance and pensions are paid with pre-tax dollars and managed professionally to guarantee earned benefits.

The weakness of American unions is approaching the early days when there were none. Whereas workers in the early 20th century could see the gulf between themselves and the robber barons quite clearly, modern workers have been so heavily influenced by materialism and political propaganda that we are crawling like lemmings to self-destruction.

The most effective non-violent worker controlled protest is the general strike. We have never had one in the US. American workers are so far from considering it they would rather be fighting wars in 159 countries, buying poorly made imported consumer goods from stores where workers are getting no benefits, and trading every benefit gained over 150 years of struggle for “homeland security”. These developments are not accidental. They are the result of intentionally crafted propaganda and the lack of a viable political party of labor. The de-evolution of the modern Democratic party into a minion of Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley has left working people without an advocate in government.

Victim of success

To a large extent the decay of the union movement is the result of its success. The war economy that developed as unions became strong required an enormous amount of labor. The manufacturers of war material were paid handsomely for their production; no “taking one for the team” by these folks. Paying a good wage and offering benefits previously unknown was the employers’ idea to attract – and keep – new workers. The horrendous material waste of war meant full employment for the first time in decades. The original worker led organizing efforts, paid for in their blood and struggle were a thing of the past. Unions became a partner of convenience for business. The mistake of organizing by trades instead of across industry allowed hierarchies of skills and scarcity to stratify the movement. “America: Love it or Leave it” patriotism superseded working class solidarity.

The post war economy had its ups and downs but the Cold War kept military spending increasing and a newly developing, disposable, consumer economy kept the pots boiling. The WWII veterans came home to their new suburbs, remembering the destruction they saw and how the rest of the world lived. Marketing made relative luxuries seem like necessities, consumer goods were abundant and new technologies made yesterday’s goods obsolete. The American worker became more conservative as he had more to lose. Racism, sexism, consumerism, and xenophobia were acceptable attitudes and solidarity faded.

The industrial war plants had recruited African Americans from the South who found their status reduced as soldiers returned to their home-front jobs. Women experienced the same loss of independence, status and employment. Racial and gender tensions were not eased by the unions. The North was at least as segregated as the South. The cultural revolutions of the 60’s were not supported by blue collar America and its unions. The gravy train had been too good to see its flaws. Instead of finding ways to raise all boats and build a peaceful world, America’s 5% of the world population consumed 80% of its resources. That seemed worth fighting for.

Under cutting workers

A persistent effort by the richest Americans to undo the New Deal gained momentum as the country sank into recession triggered by the “guns and butter” proxy war in Indochina. The dependence upon cars and the luxury of the spread-out suburbs of the 50’s became liabilities when the fossil fuel crises hit in the 70’s. The benefits of American, union made products were swapped for cheap imported goods. Union busting became a way to cut labor costs. Globalization began with the parallel of attacks on organized labor popularized by Reagan’s lockout of the federal air traffic controllers. Tax laws were changed to make sending production overseas more profitable. Non-union plants were built in ‘right-to-work’ states. Local tax laws were changed to encourage foreign non-union plants to tap into depressed labor markets. Through it all existing trades unions spent their energies stealing work from each other instead of joining together to build a movement of resistance.

In the current reactionary climate, the repeal of the New Deal is almost complete. Secretaries of Labor hate the working people. The cynical language used by the right is incendiary, blaming people of color and foreigners for lost jobs and dropping  living standards. The benefits created during the great depression are being discarded, one by one.

Retirement benefits based on an individual’s investment in the stock market are taking the place of group plans with professional management. No longer defined-benefits, these are defined-contributions; the difference is the later guarantees a payout, the other the input. Some of these federally guaranteed multi-employer plans are under attack and in danger of being dissolved after years of contributions. Good pension plans require hourly contributions of $8-10 per hour and careful management. Few working people have the skill or can afford that much of their paycheck to equal that on their own.

Low deductible, group, family health care paid with before-tax dollars is being transformed into “an opportunity” to save a smaller amount of wages in a Health Savings Account. Traditional before-tax plans are being considered for taxation as wages. Good health plans cost $7-8 per hour, but this is a difficult amount to save for someone making less than $30 per hours in wages.

Targeting the last bulwark against poverty

Social Security is lagging behind inflation and is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Raising the top income level taxed for Social Security to match the inflation of wages would solve this problem permanently but instead of acknowledging Social Security as the earned benefit it is, the right labels it an “entitlement” that needs to be cut. Workers have paid into this plan for decades and it has been the last bulwark against poverty for working people since it started. In Richland County, WI, 42% of citizens over 65 count on Social Security as their only income. Losing it would be a death sentence for them.

The recent changes to the tax code will accelerate the slide into poverty for working people not protected by strong unions. The attacks on benefits continue with a call to get rid of so-called “entitlements”, a dishonest term for the parts of the social contract we have bargained for with our bodies and lives. One ironic part of the bill is that workers are better off turning themselves into LLC’s (limited liability corporations) than being on a payroll. All benefit expenses would be a write off and the taxes are lower. This, and other unintended consequences of a bill that had no debate and input from independent experts will reduce tax revenues more than assumed and make the deficit worse than expected. The tax bill is intended to create financial turmoil that will “require” gutting all social programs.

Two Santas

In the 70’s the conservative economics theorist, Jude Wanniski proposed a theory that has shaped republican thinking since. From Wikipedia:

“The Two Santa Claus Theory is a political theory and strategy published by Wanniski in 1976, which he promoted within the United States Republican Party.[13][14] The theory states that in democratic elections, if Democrats appeal to voters by proposing programs to help people, then the Republicans cannot gain broader appeal by proposing less spending. The first “Santa Claus” of the theory title refers to the Democrats who promises programs to help the disadvantaged. The “Two Santa Claus Theory” recommends that the Republicans must assume the role of a second Santa Claus by not arguing to cut spending but by offering the option of cutting taxes.”

Proponents of this theory complain that while in power Dems create deficits with social programs, and Republicans should fight their efforts tooth and nail. When Republicans are in power their job is to cut taxes and increase military and other crony capitalist spending, wrecking services and creating massive debt, which they blame on the Dems.

The current wave crashing over us is designed to drown us, as the top 1% wrings as much wealth from us as possible. None of this is new, in fact the process has been repeated many times. The concept of a normal business cycle is in fact a rationalization of the irrationality of our economic/political system. The emergence of a strong resistance offers hope that we can rise up and fight back stronger this time.

A moderate democratic party ‘third way’ approach will not make a difference. A strong, worker-based, international effort to protect life itself on the planet is needed. We have the resources around us to sustainably support everyone in comfort. We need to shake off our social programming and rise to the responsibility. Given the parties of the financial world are too busy feathering their nests to care about anyone but themselves, worker-led unions need to build a worker’s political party to represent us.

(Commoner Call cartoon by Mark L. Taylor, 2017. Open source and free to use with link to )