Monday, September 3, 2007

Milwaukee Journal urges help for workers but forgets unions!

On Labor Day, America stops to honor the men and women who work in our factories, mines, hospitals, childcare centers, fields, and warehouses.

Papers like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel which eliminated its labor reporter shortly after the Journal and Sentinel merged rediscover the working class and its struggles, if only for a day!

This year for example the Journal Sentinel ran an editorial "Help the Working Class."

The piece is noteworthy as much for what it leaves out as for what it says!

First, in what the editors characterize as "a worrisome trend," they acknowledge for the first time that "...a large swath of the middle-class is losing ground along with the poor."

Only last February they argued the opposite when they asked: " But just because the rich get richer - just because top executives pull in their millions - is the middle class under siege?

Their apologetic answer was: "If the middle class is shrinking, it may just be because some of its former members have moved up. ...There is no doubt that many people feel under stress because of smaller wage gains in recent years and rising costs. But the middle class is holding its own."

It is harder to argue such a position now since the number of uninsured has soared to more than 47 million; that despite a 20% increase in productivity, working age families make $2400 less than they did in 2000 before the last recession; that hourly wages for those with college degrees grew no faster than workers with only a high school diploma-- 2.6% for college educated and 2.5% for high school grads between 2000-2007; and that this recovery may very well earn the dubious distinction of being the only sustained expansion in history in which the incomes of typical American households never reached the peak of the previous cycle.

But give the editorial board its due-at least it has recognized that economic inequality is growing.

And unlike last February when the paper wrote:"...government cannot, and should not, try to guarantee economic outcomes. First, it should do no harm...," this time it concludes with no less than a call for activist government urging the White House " work harder to improve the plight of working Americans and their families."

Of course, the problem with the Bush administration has nothing to do with effort. The real issue is that it and previous administrations have pursued a ruthless supply side domestic agenda that promotes tax cuts for the investor class, wage and benefit cuts for the working people and international trade policies that protect capital, but not labor.

Tax cuts on dividends, capital gains and inheritance have been sold as effective policies for promoting investment and growth despite evidence to the contrary. Wage and benefit costs are euphemistically characterized as profit necessary cost controls. Entire industries such as the airlines, trucking and public utilities have been deregulated. The result is that they now compete by cheapening wages or outsourcing rather than on the basis of quality and innovation. Labor's share of the nation's income has fallen to it lowest level since the Gilded Age of the 1890's and corporate profits to its highest.

If we are to reverse the growth in inequality we need to promote labor market policies and institutions that distribute the benefits of economic growth more widely.

This means raising the minimum wage and indexing it to the cost of living; providing some form of healthcare for all Americans; ensuring that trade agreements include environmental and labor protections; and promoting labor unions and collective bargaining. The Wisconsin Senate budget addresses the first two of these issues.

It is not an accident that the growth in inequality has emerged as union strength has declined. From the 1940s through the 1960s, the period economists call "the great compression," productivity led economic growth was shared widely. High levels of unionization, 35% of the total labor force in 1954, ensured that labor had sufficient bargaining power to insist that as the economy grew it would receive its fair share. The economy was not only fairer, it was more productive.

Today, the percentage of private sector workers that are unionized has fallen to less than 8% and labor lacks that leverage. As a result workers in this country have seen their real wages stagnate and their health benefits and pensions cut.

Over the past two years the Journal has run several articles documenting deindustrialization's impact on Milwaukee. The city has lost thousands of family supporting manufacturing jobs, Black employment has plummeted and the incomes of African American workers in Milwaukee have fallen from above the national average in the '70s to well below.

The city has the 8th highest poverty rate in the nation. We are New Orleans without Katrina!

Milwaukee not only lost manufacturing jobs. It lost unionized manufacturing jobs. Throughout the 1990s Wisconsin's total number of manufacturing jobs was relatively stable. But good- paying, union manufacturing jobs at companies like A.O. Smith/Tower, Allis Chalmers, Johnson Controls, Briggs and Stratton and Allen Bradley that had employed tens of thousands were being replaced by low-paying non-union ones, particularly in suburban and exurban areas.

The crisis is one of both deindustrialization and deunionization!

Union make a difference. Unionized workers earn 30% more than their non-union counter parts. The differential is even greater in health benefits (63%) and employer provided pensions (386%).

If the Journal is sincere in its desire to "help the working class" it ought to endorse the Employee Free Choice Act which would make it harder for employers to intimidate, harass and fire workers who exercise their right to organize a union.

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, manufacturing jobs were low-paying and undesirable. Only after they were unionized in the 1930's did low-paying manufacturing jobs become family supporting occupations. Unions created the blue collar middle class.

Today, job growth is concentrated in the service sector. There is nothing that says that service sector employment in warehouses, retail, childcare and healthcare to name a few must be low paying. Costco, among others, demonstrates just the opposite.

If we are to reverse the growth of inequality and middle class decline we need to turn low- paying service sector jobs into family supporting jobs. This will only be accomplished if the workers in these industries have a union to represent them. That's a lesson too many have forgotten even as they claim to celebrate Labor Day.

If you want to help the working class, support its right to organize and bargain collectively.

No comments: