Union Card or Master Card -- How a Nation of Workers Became a Nation of Debtors

It has been apparent for some time that the 20th Century US social contract is defunct beyond repair. Now the economic system faces the prospect of collapse as well. Not surprisingly, these developments are related. They did not come about overnight.

Looking back, it's easy to see that the system which emerged from the post-Bolshevik revolution, mass industrial production era of the 1920's, 30's and 40's was beginning to unravel by the end of the 1970's.

Union membership provides a helpful lens through which to view the process.

During the 1960's union membership bounced up and down within a narrow range ending the decade slightly higher than it began. But starting in 1970, it began a steady decline. In 1970 union workers were 29.6 percent of the work force. At those numbers, unions were able to exert considerable leverage over the wages, benefits and working conditions of all workers. By 1980 union workers were down to 23.2 percent of the total workforce. By the year 2000, union members represented just 13.5 percent of all workers. Today it is about 12.1 percent.

Conventional wisdom holds that Ronald Reagan caused the decline of unions by busting the air traffic controllers union (PATCO) in 1981. Not so. What Reagan and his advisors understood was that union power was already on the wane. Did they know for certain that they could attack PATCO and get away with it? Probably. But even if they didn't, they deemed it a risk--a "probe," if you will--worth taking.

Either way, they did bust PATCO. Consequently, the message that unions could be beat came through for all to see. Employers got the point and stepped up their already fierce resistance at the bargaining table. And they devoted new and effective resources to defeating organizing efforts by their workers.

Workers also got it that unions were weakening. That too made organizing tougher. Corruption scandals and other difficulties added to problems of unions. As the power of unions declined, real wages for workers declined too. Most economists agree that measured in constant dollars, wages in the US have been effectively stagnant since about 1975.

Unions were indisputably an effective instrument for building a broad "middle" class. They did so by applying sufficient power to assure that workers shared in the value that they were helping to create. As industrialization brought enormous innovation and productivity, workers waged epic struggles that won them the wages to buy what they were making. Working conditions improved. Home ownership, car ownership and college for the children of workers became widespread. Pensions and employer paid health care became the norm.

But. But. But. For many reasons unions were less effective at sustaining the newly huge middle-class than they had been at creating it. (The how and the why of the inability of US unions to perceive, let alone counteract, the new forces coming into play in the 1970's is an interesting and important but different topic.)

Declining union membership and power is, however, only one variable in the equation that has brought us to the white hot economic and political meltdown now dominating our news and our lives. Another critical variable is this: as the wallets of workers held fewer and fewer union cards, credit cards were filling up those very same wallets. Workers were in effect trading union cards for MasterCard's.

In the process workers became the proverbial frogs in the pot on the stove. The temperature kept getting closer to the boiling point. But the water felt just fine. Because even though worker power was in decline, worker consumption was going up. Color TV's replaced black and white TV's, only to be replaced again by bigger screen TV's and now LCD's and Plasmas. Vehicles got bigger and better and working families had more of them. Shopping malls proliferated and shopping itself became the national religion. Cell phones, computers, video games, boats, iPods and snowmobiles--workers had stuff, lots and lots of stuff. The whole economy grew.

How could this happen in the face of stagnant real wages? Three reasons. Technological political and economic forces made global production both possible and necessary. That in turn made it possible to stabilize and in many cases lower costs and prices for goods and services.

The social upheaval of the 60's helped create conditions that brought women into the workforce in great numbers. The added income helped to offset the decline in wages for men.

Last and anything but least, credit, not wages, came to drive purchasing and consumption. For workers, debt came from all over: credit cards; longer and longer terms for auto loans; huge college loans; "creative" financing for mortgages. A whole kit and caboodle of financial entanglements enmeshed workers, students, just about everybody. The "middle" class became the debtor class.

Between 1970 and 2000, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the Federal Reserve Bank, household debt relative to disposable personal income nearly doubled. In 2006, David A. Gaffen reported in the Wall Street Journal that "households'...debt-to-income ratio reached an all time high 131.1%." (Exploding public debt is an important component of this dynamic too. According to Federal Reserve Board data, between 1957 and 2007 the inflation adjusted total debt load per person in the US increased $145,432, equivalent to an increase of $581,728 per family of 4. That number, of course, does not include long-term costs of the war in Iraq or of ongoing taxpayer funded bailouts of financial companies.)

That debt is bondage is a profound moral truth. But it is an important shaper of political and economic consciousness as well. The more you are in debt, the less likely you are to rock the boat. Take on your employer? Go on strike? Risk your job by trying to start a union? What, and miss a credit card payment? Don't you get it? I'm maxed out. Risk getting my car getting reposed? You've got to be kidding.

Some of this attitude is quite conscious. Much of is more below the surface. Either way, this kind of debt profoundly changes many things including the relationship of the worker to the employer. It's one thing to "owe my soul to the company store." But this debt is different. This debt creates a mindset by which the paycheck and the employer who provides it come to be seen as a protector from the demands of the lender. It is the credit card company and the collection agency that become the greatest source of worry and harassment.

To be sure, there are those who have felt little or no grief at all. Others have overcome financial challenges and setbacks. There is no denying that for quite a long time, this system seemed to work just fine. In garden variety daily life terms, living standards were going up. Millions of working class families had fulfilling and decent lives. Many still do.

But this arrangement changes politics too. Economically satisfied workers can "afford" political engagement on social issues such as gun ownership or abortion if they choose to be involved at all. And if you have a growing 401 K--which you have been led to believe is far more secure than Social Security--why wouldn't you have a literally "conservative" political outlook? Why not align with the politics that come with living in a "gated" community to defend against the less well off hordes? From that outlook, it's easy to imagine immigrants and/or "angry" African Americans as being seen as a much bigger threat than financial shenanigans on Wall Street. Thus are born "Reagan Democrats."

Moreover, from church, media and political pulpit alike comes a very sophisticated propaganda drumbeat. Relentlessly it pumps out the message that is that if you are on debt overload, you and you alone made bad choices. You didn't manage your money well. You should be contrite, even ashamed. The last thing you should do is think you have anything in common with any one else--even if millions are in exactly the same situation. Even less should you consider that you are a victim of extremely cynical and deliberate manipulation.

Did not the Credit Card Masters of the Universe barefacedly testify before Congress that it was they who needed protection from irresponsible borrowers? And did not a substantial majority of the "people's" representatives from both political parties in Congress agree with them? (As the righteous Elizabeth Warren has pointed out, those very same credit card companies routinely troll bankruptcy fillings to get names of bankruptcy filers to whom they then send credit cards solicitations! See here for terrific information on debt dynamics from Elizabeth Warren and her band of researchers. The New York Times recently published an excellent article on this subject as well.)

But credit card solicitations are not the only toxic Kool-Aid that's been on offer. The same institutions told us too that 401-K's are safer and better than either social security or a union negotiated pension. Why? Because private investments and personal responsibility are good and government and collective action are bad, that's why.

It's all enough to make your head swim. Partly that's because through it all You're On Your Own (YOYO). Even now, workers have some degree of union protection--whether they belong to a union or not. Unions and the threat of unions retain a small degree of leverage over some employer behavior.

Debtors have nothing. No one even pretends to care about them except lenders who will offer more credit at terms worse than what you have now or "credit counselors" who will help you--oh, and incidentally help themselves and help the lenders who got you into trouble in the first place too.

The result is now before us. Absent any restraining force whatsoever, the financial masters of the universe went wild. They invented ways to make money out of whole cloth. They ENRONed the economy of the world.

Let's take a deep breath and go back to the beginning for a minute. The "cost" of forming or joining a union seems high. As a worker, you are told over and over again that you might lose your job because you'll get fired for being a union supporter or that your employer will close up shop altogether if it goes union. And enough employers do just that, so the threat is entirely credible.

And even if you get a union you'll pay dues. And you will hear again and again what a dumb thing that is. You will learn repeatedly about workers who go on strike only to settle for wages and benefits that are worse, not better. The media will tell you over and over about union companies that shrink or move all their work to Mexico or China or go out of business entirely.

At the same time workers get offers of "cheap" credit in the mail virtually every day. The choice seems clear. Union membership? Expensive. Risky. At least a little bit scary.

The credit that gets you your car(s), your plasma TV, your home and college tuition for your children? That seems "cheap." Isn't the word "free" the single most common word in credit solicitations?

Admittedly sometimes there can be a downside to all this credit. Well actually, more often than not the lenders, especially credit card companies do treat their customers like shit. They raise rates and add incomprehensible and ever more expensive fees. When you call them to argue or just get an explanation you enter voice mail hell. Or if you do reach someone they might respond by lowering your credit limit or adding yet another fee. Collection agencies can really make you life miserable.

And yes, politicians of both parties do keep changing the rules so that lenders can basically do whatever they want. Until just the last few weeks they were virtually all for "deregulation." (Suddenly they are all "born again" regulators. Hmmm.) Speak up as Dennis Kucinich, Danny Schecter and others have done and you will be marginalized as a kook, a whiner or an extremist.

And yes it can be annoying that the perpetrators of this economic bondage are living very large while you are struggling more and more every day.

But, hey, don't be ungrateful. You live in the "ownership society"!

Really? Do you own your stuff? Or is it in effect rented? Or is it maybe that the finance companies own you? And by the way, if they are so morally and otherwise superior, how are they doing at managing the system they created?

Sisters and brothers, the debt society truly is a house of cards. MasterCard's, VISA cards, Discover Cards, Debit cards. And it is built on sand at that. The whole damn thing rests on a foundation of credit default swaps and commercial paper and sub-prime mortgage bundles and hedges and leverage and god only knows what other hocus pocus.

But now. But now? Make no mistake about it--the financial equivalent of Hurricane Katrina is blowing that house down. Naturally, the very same people who built the house in the first place are trying to patch it up. Why wouldn't they? In the short term we should probably wish them the best. So far, however, the only solution they seem to have to the debt crisis is to create a more debt. A lot more debt.

Clearly, we need to start designing and building a new house altogether. In the 20th century, the Flint sit-down strike and the Montgomery Bus Boycott stand as icons of successful struggles by working men and women to win economic and social justice against daunting opposition. It's time to do it again.


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