The House of Representatives probably hadn’t seen such a pro-labor lineup of speakers since the Kennedy administration. It wasn’t actually House business; it was a morning panel put on by the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute. But it filled the caucus room of the Cannon House Office Building with a determinedly union-boosting crowd.
The leadoff hitter was probably the nation’s best-known progressive economist, New York Times columnist and Princeton professor Paul Krugman. He made two points that need to be instilled in every reader and TV news viewer, as well as every business reporter:
1. The United States is "pretty good at generating overall growth," but that doesn’t translate into broad prosperity.
2. "We did not realize it until we lost unions how crucial they are to our well-being."
He was followed by Beth Shulman, author of The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans and Their Families. Shulman noted that unions benefit far more workers than just their members, by forcing other employers to match union wages. She also made a point that seems to have been long forgotten: "Manufacturing jobs became good jobs through unionization."
Audience member Ann Hoffman, formerly of the garment workers union, noted that in the 1930s and early 1940s, garment workers earned higher wages than did auto workers, "because they’d had a 30-year head start in unionization."
All the speakers stressed that the public had the right, and duty, to regulate the rights and benefits of corporations. "We need," Shulman said, "a new social contract. We must redefine the roles of government and corporations." But she also said that unions themselves had to change as well, and noted that the labor movement includes associations, worker centers and community groups as well as declared unions.
Tom Kochan, co-director of the Institute for Work and Employment Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed up by citing some familiar but essential facts: At least 20 percent of workers who try to organize their fellows wind up fired; that labor law in its current form is a disgrace; that at the moment, "it’s a risk, rather than a right, to join a labor union." He also said that the proposed Employee Free Choice Act now in Congress, which would ease unionization, "is just a first step in encouraging productive labor-management cooperation."
Kochan also said that unions must change, "dramatically." He proposed that union membership, like health care, should not be dependent on one particular job. Rather, he said, unions should organize men and women at the beginning of their careers and keep them as members for life. Presumably he meant voluntarily.
The final speaker was Harley Shaiken, University of California at Berkeley professor of geography specializing in unions, trade and Latin America. Shaiken is one of America’s leading academic experts on the auto industry. He called the present time one of a Great Disconnect, with rising wealth and stagnant wages, with "most people becoming observers in our economy."
Shaiken reminded people that when the United Auto Workers struck and bargained with General Motors in 1944, the union wanted something more than just higher wages for its members. The UAW wanted a 30 percent raise, but no increase in the price of automobiles. After a 106-day strike GM conceded the general principle that wages and benefits had to fit into a broader plan for the social good.
We’ve come a long way down from there, said Shaiken, and car makers don’t think in terms of societal good any more. He said that Toyota plants in the U.S. were paying slightly above the wages negotiated by the UAW in American plants, but now that the domestic auto makers are escaping from their contracts, Toyota has a new strategy. Despite being an extremely profitable enterprise, Toyota circulated a memo, leaked to Shaiken, saying that since they don’t have to contend with a vigorous UAW, they intend to "cut wages dramatically."
Nevertheless, Shaiken said that six of the 10 most efficient auto plants in the U.S are union shops—including the joint GM-Toyota plant in Fremont, California. "Competitiveness," he said, "goes beyond just cost, and cutting wages can cut productivity."
"Labor," he said in closing, "creates a more vibrant coalition of democracy."
Now, if only the words spoken today in the caucus room would take root in the offices of the members and leaders of Congress. But that, all the speakers said, will take work.
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