This week’s Herald column: the politics of work


Playing a bit of posting catch-up: here’s my column from Thursday on the GOP’s war on unions. A clip:

American society fundamentally changed in the early 20th century, when unions made it possible for workers, banding together, (with some notable exclusions, like, say, black and brown laborers), to negotiate living wages and benefits with big business on a roughly equal playing field. Of course, the playing field is never really level. Business can find ways around labor, by automating, outsourcing or simply shutting its doors (just ask the Hostess employees).

Still, the net effect of the balance of power shifting toward employees was to drive up the price of American work. Especially through the mid-20th century, rising wages meant the average American family (though by no means every one) could buy a home, fill it with the latest gadgets, put a car in the garage, and often with just one adult working. The “wealth effect” of cheap credit only amplified the trend.

Big Business fought back, through their lobbyists and pet politicians (of both parties), winning rampant deregulation, corporate welfare, and a tax code larded with goodies for the well-to-do. These days, low prices for food, electronics, and consumer goods, made in China and sold by $8-an-hour U.S. workers with no health insurance who have to go to work on Christmas, mask the income stagnation that with the exception of the go-go ’90s, has become the rule for Americans who punch a clock.

Outsourcing has given business the promise of not just lower cost labor, but dirt cheap labor. And when foreign workers get hip to the game and demand higher wages? Enter “right to work,” which has turned much of the American South into a lower wage, low-tax haven for companies seeking less costly, less troublesome labor here at home.

These laws pull double duty. They cripple unions, which happen to be about the only Democratic-leaning entities capable of competing — in money and manpower — with the political resources of the right. And they drive down labor costs.

Economists agree that right-to-work states like Florida, Louisiana and Texas, have lower average incomes, and higher poverty rates. But once some states go “right to work,” unionized states are incentivized to race to the bottom with them, to compete for scarce new jobs.

Read the whole thing at the Miami Herald.
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