The idea that anybody who works hard should enjoy the American Dream harks back to the 1950s and 1960s, when unions were strong enough not only to win decent wages and benefits for their own members (who made up more than 30 percent of the private workforce, as opposed to 7 percent today), but also to induce many non-union employers to pay similar wages to avoid unionization.
Those were the days of what economists call “The Great Convergence,” when the incomes of rich and poor were relatively close, and all Americans shared to some extent in our country’s prosperity.
As we know, those days ended and union membership declined precipitously, as did the gap between the very rich and the rest of us. As Professor Pope puts it:
Unfortunately for American workers, corporate employers launched a relentless campaign against unions and union standards. In 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired hundreds of air traffic controllers for refusing to accept his terms and going on strike, employers took it as a green light to break unions. They discovered that they could instill fear and discourage organizing by firing workers for joining unions and threatening to close facilities if workers voted union.
Public-sector unions are one of the last strongholds of the union movement in America so, clearly, we should not be surprised that conservatives everywhere, who seem hell-bent on doing the bidding of corporate power, either want to weaken them dramatically or destroy them outright.
Our economic system, for better or worse, is a competitive system. At the end of the day, it’s better for the system taken as a whole if both management and labour have enough power to make the relationship fair.
As I have written elsewhere, the concentration of wealth and power in America is now such that it should be inconceivable that we would want to dismantle one of the few oppositional forces that has in our history been able to provide a counterweight to that wealth and power.
It seems that a lot more Americans are now understanding this. Perhaps when this current skirmish is over, we will have Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to thank for helping more people understand.
The high numbers in support of collective bargaining for public-sector unions suggests to me that a lot of people understand that confronting the power of an employer as an individual is difficult at best and usually impossible.
Sure, a lot of people may look at public-sector contracts and resent the fact that they themselves are not in such a strong position and side with conservatives. It seems that a lot more of us look at those public-sector contracts and ask why more of us can’t have access to greater security in our working life and a better standard of living.
(Cross-posted at Lippmann’s Ghost.)