Looking forward to a long weekend away from the job? Having a holiday Monday, and even having a weekend to begin with, are the results of struggles by previous generations to make life better for Americans who earn a wage. We need a revival of that united effort right now.
Previous generations’ marching, bargaining, arm-twisting and politicking helped broaden the middle class and make this a more democratic country. In recent years much of what was gained has eroded along with the labor movement the holiday celebrates. The backsliding (remember pension plans, pay that rose with productivity, job security? It’s all rare today, but CEOs are doing great) was caused by multiple factors; the declining role of labor was just one. But organized labor and a revived sense of common purpose among workers will be an essential part of moving the country back toward more balance economically and politically.
This year feels like the beginning of an awakening fed by escalating economic inequality.
“No democratic country has ever been able to sustain such high levels of economic inequality,” George Lovell said in April during a conference titled “Labor and Politics in an Era of Inequality.” Lovell is chair of the University of Washington department of political science. The conference was put on by the UW’s Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies.
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When inequality reaches the levels it has in the U.S., he said, there have been only two possible outcomes. Either a country makes policy changes that reduce inequality, or it dismantles democratic institutions. Taking the second option, a country limits public protests, voting and other rights that empower people who don’t have other ways (tons of money) to make themselves heard.
I spoke with Lovell on Wednesday, and he said we are already seeing examples of restrained rights.
“We’re seeing very overt curtailing of voting rights. We’re seeing increased spending on politics,” which reduces the impact of people who don’t have big money to contribute. Union money used to counter some dollars from some other interests, but private-sector unions are much smaller than they were a generation ago.
Meanwhile, reform is not happening. The political process is stuck. Polls show that most Americans want tax reform that would require more of the wealthiest Americans, but that doesn’t happen. Is it democracy when the majority can’t be heard?
It’s no wonder polls show a continuing decline in the percentage of Americans who have confidence in the three branches of the federal government.
Lovell sees a revived labor movement as an engine for change, but among the policies that feed inequality are labor laws that restrain workers while giving companies more control in the workplace and make it difficult for workers to organize.
Lovell said the law should clarify the responsibilities of companies to their workers. At present there are many ways of getting around even current requirements. He mentioned Alaska Airlines, which farmed out its baggage handlers to third-party companies so it would no longer be responsible for their pay and benefits. That has become more common. And sometimes companies create smaller units that fall below the threshold that allows union organizing.
Then there are franchises, a model that allows large corporations to keep profits and ignore the low wages of line workers because they are employed by individual owners. Lovell mentioned a recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that found McDonald’s responsible for workers in its franchises. But whether it sticks is iffy at best.
I asked Lovell if he was feeling positive about the prospects for labor to regain influence and for political reform. He said he was only cautiously optimistic. He said our current condition is like, “When you finally hit bottom and have to start back up again.” It’s so bad that something’s got to give.
If reform is to take hold, labor will have to be involved. There are lots of people in labor organizations who are skilled political thinkers and organizers, he said, and the workplace is where people spend most of their time. And unions have traditionally been the voice of working-class interests.
Lovell does see some hopeful signs. This area has been particularly forward thinking and creative in forming new alliances, he said.
In June, Seattle became the first large city to adopt a $15-an-hour minimum wage. In the absence of national or state action, other cities are moving forward on wage increases of their own, some citing Seattle — where the increase will be phased in over the coming years — as an inspiration. Labor played a key role here.
When labor and business went toe to toe in the past, it could get ugly, but democracy is messy business when it works. In politics and economics having more voices heard makes for better policy and better lives for more people.
The old labor movement is gone, but a new version suited to this time is something we should all support. Enjoy your hard-won day off.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org