[Marxism] How the Loss of Union Power Has Hurt American Manufacturing, Economic View
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Apr 22 12:51:33 MDT 2018
(A rather quaint argument for class collaborationism.)
NY Times, April 22, 2018
How the Loss of Union Power Has Hurt American Manufacturing
By LOUIS UCHITELLE
Want to make America great again and keep factories in the United
States? Try strengthening labor unions.
That may seem counterintuitive, and certainly contrary to the direction
the country has been moving in lately. But the reality is that when
organized labor dug in its heels — as it did regularly in the United
States until late in the 20th century — manufacturing companies thought
twice about shutting a factory and transferring production to another
As union membership declined, however, so did the political leverage of
once nationally-known leaders like John L. Lewis, head of the United
Mine Workers, and George Meany, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s first president. Not
since the Nixon and Ford administrations in the 1970s has a union leader
served in a president’s cabinet as secretary of labor, or in a similar post.
Nixon was hardly a union lover, but he recognized the still significant
role of organized labor and lifted Peter J. Brennan, a house painter in
his youth, from the leadership of the New York City Central Labor
Council to the position of labor secretary. And Gerald Ford kept Mr.
Brennan in place after Mr. Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974. Rather
than oppose the Vietnam War, Mr. Brennan rallied blue-collar union
workers to support it. Some even clashed in the streets with antiwar
protesters, many of them students.
The United States’ involvement in Vietnam ended with the signing of the
Paris Peace Accords in 1973, and two years later Mr. Brennan returned to
New York as president of the Construction Trades Council. After Mr.
Brennan’s departure, President Ford appointed Bill Usery, a welder and
machinist before becoming a top official in the International
Association of Machinists, to be labor secretary. Mr. Usery remained in
the post for six months, until President Jimmy Carter replaced him with
F. Ray Marshall, a labor economist at the University of Texas in Austin.
From that day to this, no president of either party has appointed a
union leader to a cabinet-level post. President Trump’s secretary of
labor is R. Alexander Acosta, the dean of Florida International
University College of Law and a former United States attorney.
The position was supposed to be organized labor’s means of exerting
influence in the inner circle of any administration. Samuel Gompers, the
first president of the American Federation of Labor, started the process
by insisting that President William Howard Taft separate labor’s needs
from those of commerce in general. President Taft finally split the
Commerce Department in two in 1913, with one branch focused on working
people and the other on commerce, broadly defined.
The new system gave organized labor a seat at the president’s elbow.
Frances Perkins — the first female cabinet member in history — soon
emerged as a powerful labor secretary in President Franklin D.
Roosevelt’s cabinet during the Great Depression. She had worked for Mr.
Roosevelt while he was governor of New York, and he brought her along
when he became president in 1933.
Ms. Perkins remained in the post throughout his presidency, which ended
with Mr. Roosevelt’s death in 1945, at the start of his fourth term.
Social Security came into existence in 1935 partly through her efforts,
as did 1938’s Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a Federal
minimum wage as well as rules for overtime pay.
Union membership grew rapidly during her tenure and continued to do so
in the immediate post-World War II decades, reaching a peak in the
mid-1960s, when at least a third of all wage-earners in the upper
Midwest states belonged to unions. In Michigan — the quintessential
manufacturing state — the share stood at 45 percent in 1964, or nearly
half of that state’s work force. Simply by their numbers, unions had the
leverage to slow manufacturers who wanted to build factories abroad.
By the late 1970s, however, the merchandise trade deficit — the excess
of imported goods over exports — turned negative. (It grew to almost
$800 billion last year.) The many benefits of global trade have come at
a tremendous cost to American workers. As the trade deficit swelled,
unions lost much of their power.
Think about it: A huge amount of what America consumes is made overseas,
with the implicit consent of the nation’s now nearly neutered industrial
unions. There were just seven strikes that involved at least 1,000
workers in 2017, according to Labor Department records. From 1968 to
1983, in sharp contrast, the total number of strikers across the country
fell below 10 million in only one year — 1982. After that period, the
annual total exceeded 10 million only three times.
In 1983, union membership was 17.7 million — representing 20 percent of
all wage and salary workers. Last year, it was 14.8 million,
representing just 10.7 percent of those workers. No wonder President
Trump can talk about making America great again and not feel much
pressure from organized labor to do much about it.
As union membership declines, labor has less leverage to intervene in
the management of a corporation, or to galvanize the public into
boycotting the products of manufacturers who put too many factories
overseas while exporting less from the United States.
Strikes work when union membership is high enough to encourage the
public to support the strikers, or at least feel a kinship with them. My
parents, who lived comfortably on my father’s earnings as a textile
broker in New York, never crossed a picket line thrown up by a labor
union in pursuit of a favorable contract. They might not have agreed
with a union’s demands, or even known what they were. But they respected
a strike as an often-necessary tool in reaching a compromise acceptable
to both sides.
They wanted that compromise. They had been young adults during the
Depression, and they did not want to see, once again, the vagrancy and
hunger that had been so commonplace — so visible — in the 1930s. That
sentiment resurfaced for many Americans in 1965, when Cesar Chavez dug
in his heels against California’s table grape growers, organizing a
strike against them and calling — successfully — for a nationwide
boycott of their grapes.
Mr. Chavez and his cause riveted the nation, and my family and friends
stayed away from grapes for weeks. So did millions of others.
The prestige of the labor movement was much greater then. In today’s
climate, it is hard to recall the public stature of a man like Douglas
Fraser, president of the United Auto Workers from 1977 to 1983, and the
first labor leader to sit on the board of an American automobile company
— in his case Chrysler. His views mattered.
We have come a long way since then, not necessarily in the right
direction. The street demonstrations and marches so characteristic of
today’s resistance can be immensely meaningful, but they don’t force the
sort of permanent economic change that a union can achieve through a
binding contract that emerges from a strike.
Or at least they haven’t yet. Perhaps in time new organizations will
emerge — heirs to the old union movement — and one of their priorities
will be to pressure manufacturers quite publicly to put more of their
factories in the United States.
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