Oh, you can't scare me ....

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

Reasons Mickey Kaus is, as the young people say, "wack..." (or do they say "whack?") on the topic of unions and card-checks:

Kaus has decided to make anti-unionism his crusade, blaming, for instance, unions for Detroit's collapse when it is obvious that unshared health and pension costs are a far more significant problem to the cost of American cars. Malcolm Gladwell makes the case with numbers, here, that are irrefutable, methinks. For instance, he notes, "The average cost of health insurance for an employee between the ages of thirty-five and thirty-nine is $3,759 a year, and for someone between the ages of sixty and sixty-four it is $7,622. This goes a long way toward explaining why G.M. has an estimated sixty-two billion dollars in health-care liabilities." The fault clearly lies with the executives but Mickey wants to take it out on the workers. Why? Mickey also fails to account for the fact that say, BMW continues to make terrific cars with much stronger unions that the U.S. has. So do many other manufacturers.

But more significantly, as Matt Y. points out, unions are our side. If you're against the unions, you're against our side: "At this point in time everyone in progressive politics is for card check. All the bloggers are for it. Here's Jon Chait in The Los Angeles Times in favor of card check. Here's the DLC in favor of card check. Here's a New Republic editorial praising unions." Like Joe Klein, who is still blaming liberals for busing, Kaus is indeed stuck in a time warp from the time he was a teenager. Here's a bunch of reasons why the above happens to be the case.

1) Union members provide a significant portion of the Democratic base; without their support and their numbers, Democrats lose elections, period.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, a powerful network of labor organizations, integrated with a locally based Democratic Party structure, represented middle-income Americans in political, economic, and cultural matters. They helped workers identify common issues, informing them about political and policy considerations, and helped shape their long-term philosophies, and turned them out for rallies and votes, much like what the megachurches do today for conservatives. This movement once provided Democrats with much of their political support, both through funding, registration drives, solidarity campaigns, political campaigns and all important generation-to-generation political acculturation assuring a sustainable future for all concerned. All that is but a memory today. Union membership in the United States has fallen from 35 percent in the 1950s to barely 11 percent today, and barely 8 percent in the private sector. [1] Even today, it is union membership that -- statistically speaking -- distinguishes a working-class liberal from a conservative. In 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry among white men by a 62-37 percent margin, but Kerry carried white men in unions by a 59-38 percent margin. Ditto women; Bush prevailed among white women, 55-44 percent but Kerry carried unionized women workers 67-32 percent.[2] Had union membership remained at its 1950 or 1960 levels, the presidency would have been Kerry's. Had the union movement provided anything like the multiplicity of services that they once provided their memberships -- or that the new megachurches provide their booming memberships -- the entire character of our politics would be profoundly transformed. In fact, the opposite has taken place. As labor has declined, the number of conservative groups representing big business has exploded. A report issued by the American Political Science Association in 2004 noted that less-advantaged Americans "are so absent from discussions in Washington that government officials are likely to hear about their concerns, if at all, from more privileged advocates who speak for the disadvantaged. Politicians hear most regularly about the concerns of business and the most affluent."[3]

As Hacker and Pierson observe, "Amid the ongoing debate over whether unions are good for the economy, we often forget that they have always been crucial political actors, helping workers identify common issues, informing them about political and policy considerations, and shaping political debates. No organization representing working families today has anything remotely like the same reach, influence, or cohesion as American unions did during their halcyon years."[4]

2) American workers are getting screwed by globalization and by the Republican war on working people's wages. Unions are their best hope, if not their only hope. The average hourly wage of a U.S. worker, according to the 2006 Economic Report of the President, fell, in constant 1982 dollars, from $8.21 in 1967 to $8.17 in 2005. Many factors helped contribute to this fall, but certainly a big one was the fact that in China in 2005, the legal minimum wage was just 41 cents an hour, and this was higher than in some other nations, and a lot of companies were allowed to skirt it anyway.[5] The fact that global corporations can outsource their labor to nations where labor is cheapest and environmental regulation most lax severely restricts the ability of liberals to use their traditional fiscal and economic tools to generate economic growth and good jobs for American voters. It also significantly reduces the power of its primary constituency, organized labor. In 1969, well-paying, unionized manufacturing jobs accounted for 26.3 percent of all employment; by 2005, they amounted to only 10.9 percent of the national work force. Over the same period, the average wage fell by more than $40 a week, from $316.93 to $275.93, calculated in constant 1982 dollars.[6]

3) Unions provide a crucial function in protecting the health and safety of American workers: The most extensive job-safety problem in America comes from injuries caused by heavy lifting and repetitive work. Shortly after taking over the White House, Bush repealed the government's ergonomics standards that had been developed over 10 years of negotiation between businesses, labor unions, and government agencies. The Department of Labor's chief lawyer, Eugene Scalia, son of the conservative Supreme Court justice, calls ergonomics "quackery."

Dozens of other decisions -- from refusing to compel employers to pay for their workers' safety equipment to rescinding standards for testing employees exposed to tuberculosis -- have weakened health and safety regulations. In one landmark case involving workers who were knowingly exposed to asbestos poisoning, the administration changed the formula used to assess penalties, substantially reducing the cost to irresponsible employers. Additionally, despite a 2002 report by government experts that chemical explosions were a serious danger in many workplaces, Bush's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) stopped work on new safety standards, announcing in 2003 that it will rely on industry to voluntarily regulate itself and cut the budget for OSHA programs that train workers in health and safety by 65 percent. [7]

4) Union workers unarguably do better in the economy than nonunion workers. (You may dispute the source, but show me better figures):

  • Union workers' median weekly earnings: $781
    Nonunion workers' median weekly earnings: $612
    Union wage advantage: 28%
  • Union women's median weekly earnings: $723
    Nonunion women's median weekly earnings: $541
    Union wage advantage for women: 34%
  • Union workers with access to guaranteed (defined-benefit) pension: 73%
    Nonunion workers with access to guaranteed (defined-benefit) pension: 16%
    Union pension advantage: 356%
  • Union workers whose jobs provide access to health insurance: 92%
    Nonunion workers whose jobs provide access to health insurance: 68%
    Union health insurance advantage: 35%
  • Union workers without health insurance coverage: 2.5%
    Nonunion workers without health insurance coverage: 15%
    Union advantage: 500%[8]

Kaus is wrong both as a matter of politics and principle. As Matt notes, "The consituency for Kaus-style union-bashing in the Democratic Party is just gone. Obama would lose the support not just of the unions but of everyone if he didn't endorse card check." This is genuinely an issue of fundamental importance to liberals, working people, and the like. If Mickey intends to stick to this course, he will really have to drop the "liberal" part from his ideological moniker. In the Bush era, "liberals" support unions, period -- however critically.

We've had a mixup with the mail. We're sorry, and we'll try to catch up later this week.

Footnotes

[1] U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2004- 2005 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004), 419.

[2] AFL-CIO Facts and Stats, July 24, 2006.

[3] "American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality," American Political Science Association Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, 2004, Page 11.

[4] Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), Pages 114-118.

[5] Thomas B. Edsall, Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power (Basic Books: New York, 2006, prepublication, manuscript edition), Chapter 5, note 18.

[6] Thomas B. Edsall Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power (Basic Books: New York, 2006, prepublication, manuscript edition), Chapter 5, note 20.

[7] Jeff Faux, "Losing Ground," The American Prospect Online, April 25, 2004.

[8] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Union Members in 2004, January 27, 2005; U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Compensation Survey: Employee Benefits in Private Industry in the United States, March 2005; Economic Policy Institute; Employee Benefits Research Institute, May 2005.

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