The term “American Dream” refers to the idea that each generation should surpass the previous generation in terms of income, wealth, security and quality of life. That story has been told and retold in books, song and film. It is what the Statue of Liberty symbolizes.
The generation that was born in 1940, my generation, lived that dream. By 1980 nearly everyone born 40 years earlier had a better standard of life than had their parents at the same age. I was certainly one of them. My single mom, and Irish immigrant who had dropped out of high school, was a waitress earning enough to keep us going week to week. By 40 I was a university professor with a secure job, earning a good salary, doing stimulating work I believed in and loved. For the generations that came after me, the dream became increasingly more difficult to attain. By 2016 half the people born in 1980 in the United States were worse off than were their parents.
After 1980 the rush of income and wealth to the wealthiest became a torrent and inequality began to be discussed in the press as a serious problem that was threatening to undermine the basic principles on which the idea of America was built. Lots of reasons for the deterioration were bandied about. Globalization, technological change, government policies favoring the rich, a slowdown in educational attainment and the workforce’s skill level were all mentioned by David Leonhardt in his article in the New York Times in December 2016 where he reported on the American dream’s demise. He suggested that because of “today’s high-tech, globalized economy, the single best step would be to help more middle, and low-income children acquire the skills that lead to good-paying jobs.” He went on to say that “incomes have also stagnated because of the rise of corporate power and the weakening of labor unions.”
Leonhardt is not the only one to mention the decline in the labour movement as a factor in the rise of inequality. But, like Leonhardt, most who mention labor’s skid treat it as an unfortunate, uncontrollable quirk of nature. It is not. It is the result of policies and practices that were introduced in the decades since 1945. Were labor to have retained or built on the support it had between about 1935 and 1955 inequality would not have risen and today, as data reported by Leonhardt indicates, about 80% of Americans born 40 years ago would still be surpassing the standard of living enjoyed by their parents.
During the period of labor strength, incomes became more equal and labor secured a greater share of the national income. The economy was deliberately put into high gear first to overcome depression and then to meet the needs of the war effort. There was full employment which gave labor not only security but also the clout it needed to negotiate better conditions. The strike-threat was real and continually present. Full employment put pressure on prices. Government and business needed labor’s cooperation to keep the lid on inflation. Socially progressive deals were done with leaders of labor in return for promises of restraint. Achieving full employment and price stability simultaneously could not be achieved without the cooperation of labor and in that circumstance labor and the left acquired a greater say in political and economic decision-making. Labor was able, as a strong presence at the table, to strongly influence relevant political issues such as those highlighted by Leonhardt.
Some critical factors, not often a central part of the current conversation, turned that situation around. First, business figured out how to manipulate the labor law framework that unions had lobbied hard for in the 1930s, to its own advantage. Known as the Wagner Model after Senator Robert Wagner of New York who introduced and saw it through Congress, that model compelled reluctant employers to recognize and bargain with unions freely chosen by workers. Collective bargaining was promoted as the means for democratizing industry, for overcoming what had metaphorically been referred to as wage slavery. That metaphor challenged the soulless one adopted by economists and their business disciples who regarded labor, not as human beings, but instead as business inputs to be utilized or discarded like any other aspect of capital. “Labor is not a commodity” became the global motto of the labor movement to counter that grim imagery. The rhetorical battle continues but today, in the U.S., capital and the notions it wants to promote are clearly winning.
In 1949 a Republican Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act whose most significant aspect was the addition of language to the Wagner Act that said workers had a right to join or not join a trade union, a right to bargain collectively and a right not to bargain collectively. With business insisting, government was compelled to remain neutral in any organizing drive and the right of employers to oppose unionization was legitimized. The law did say employers were not permitted to engage in threats and intimidation but that injunction proved all too easy to get around. Cleaver, high-priced lawyers taught employers how to skirt the law or simply ignore it and put up with its mild penalties. The strategy of union-avoidance was perfected by Wal-Mart.
As employers became more skilled in thwarting them, unions lost more and more certification campaigns and then began filing for fewer. When companies who had been unionized in the 1930s and 1940s closed down, those that sprang up assumed the nature of anti-union fortresses. And so union membership and collective bargaining coverage began to fall and has continued to do so where, in the private sector, unions today represent such a small percent of the workforce that they are more of a nuisance than a political force. In the 1960s and 1970s unionism took off in the public sector fueled by social unrest sparked by the War in Vietnam. For the past few decades they have been under duress from right-wing political forces as they search for a convincing, principled counter-attack strategy.
The material for a labor counter offensive is there, hiding in plain sight, waiting for a firebrand with excellent rhetorical skills to marshal it. With the demise of the USSR international organizations, many affiliated with the United Nations, began to reconsider their role in a world order without a cold war standoff. The need to promote fundamental human rights on a global basis quickly acquired consensus support. Among those rights was a core set of labor rights agreed to by nearly all of the world’s nations, including the United States. They included the right of non-discrimination, the right of children to be free from economic exploitation, the right of all workers to be free from slavery and other forms of forced labor and the right to organize into trade unions, the right to bargain collectively and the right to strike. These rights were all declared to be of equal importance and prominence. All of the nations affiliated with the International Labor Organization accepted a responsibility to promote these rights with a view towards their becoming the norm.
The constitution of the ILO is considered to be a treaty. The United States is a member but has done nothing to fulfill its treaty obligation. The U.S. government does not promote unionization and collective bargaining. It continues to remain on the sidelines treating unionization efforts as if they were fair fights when in fact they are more like Super Bowl champs taking on a spirited by overmatched team of school boys.
In Canada, the Supreme Court, taking notice of this international development has granted constitutional protection to the rights to organize, bargain collectively and to strike. In doing so it has stated its reasons in the most compelling and resounding words. Collective bargaining it has said deserves constitutional protection because it enhances critical democratic values such as respect for “human dignity, equality, liberty “and “the autonomy of the person.” It deserves to be promoted because it is “intrinsically valuable as an experience in self-government” and because it has demonstrated its capacity to reduce “the historical inequality between employers and employees.” Through collective bargaining workers are able “to deal on equal terms with their employers” via a “form of workplace democracy” that ensures “the rule of law in the workplace.” And collective bargaining deserves constitutional protection because it is a fundamental human right that all human beings are entitled to as a core element of their humanity and that all governments are bound to give top priority. That is an argument that any leader of labor, any leader of the left ought to be able to fashion into an appeal for action, and into a hammer to smash right-wing political obfuscation and chicanery.
The third element that is necessary to turn around the tsunami of inequality is a new central bank policy. For the past four decades at least, it has been the policy of central banks generally, including that of the United States, to target low inflation at whatever the cost to other elements of civic welfare. The result has been the abandonment of the goal of full employment that held sway during the era of labor strength. As pointed out by Neil Irwin in an article in the New York Times on May 28. 2017, the U.S. Fed makes policy on the assumption that “it can’t let the unemployment rate get too low or a burst of inflation will come.” In short, unemployment is being kept deliberately high as an anti-inflation device. Inflation control is an important economic goal but so is full employment. Any moral government would refuse to give up on a job for everyone and a good job for everyone willing to work diligently to get there. Central banks have gotten good at keeping price increases within a certain band and that has brought about a kind of economic stability. But one with unacceptable features, the ugliest of which is the funneling of wealth and power away from those who need it, to those who don’t. At full employment, price stability can be negotiated. It is messy and sloppy – not nearly so surgical as monetary policy. But it is a highway no less treacherous than the one we are currently on which promises to take us back to the 19th century when most of us were poor and powerless.
So, in summary, here is a strategy for labor that has at least a chance to get us off a production line that is producing a Frankenstein economy. First, labor leaders must work to change the clause in the Wagner Act that allows employers to oppose union organizing. The idea must be promoted that to speak against union organizing is equivalent to speaking against equal rights for women and people of color. Collective bargaining is a human right and must be treated as such by all legitimate members of democratic society. Second, the goal of labor policy is an independent, credible system of bargaining in place whereby all conditions of work collectively conceived and applied are collectively negotiated. Governments must work diligently to put in place a system of universal collective bargaining. And finally, to make sure that labor has both income security and the power to bargain effectively, full employment must become a policy objective no less significant than price stability.
Of course, this agenda will not be achieved in a week or a year or even in a decade but it is one that the democratic left can proselytize, demonstrate in favor of, insist that political candidates declare their position for or against, knock on doors for, engage in civil disobedience for if necessary.
These are the fundamental rights of all Americans: to have their employers accept unionization as a seamless aspect of democratic society; to have their governments seriously promote universal collective bargaining and to have their governments make full employment an essential policy goal.
[Roy J. Adams, a dual Canadian-American citizen, was born and raised in Philadelphia by a single working-class, unionized mom. He acquired degrees from Penn State and the University of Wisconsin before moving to Canada from where he has contributed to debates about industrial relations, labor law and labor rights in both Canada and the U.S. He has had visiting appointments in the U. S. at Rutgers University and as a part-time instructor in the AFL-CIO’s Antioch College – Meany Centre degree program for union reps that operated in Washington, D.C. for several years. He has also been a consultant to the International Labor Organization and his writing on labor rights as human rights has been cited several times by the Supreme Court of Canada.]