Unionization is stabling our politics
I have said that we are living through what I think is a transition between two periods. We are coming out of an era in which most people most of the time agreed with the Republican Party. We are going into an era in which most people most of the time are likely going to agree with the Democratic Party. For lack of a better term, I’ve called this transition “regime change.”
One of the hallmarks of the old “conservative consensus,” starting around the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, but with roots in Jimmy Carter’s, was a prioritizing of capital over labor during Democratic administrations and outright hostility toward labor during Republican administrations. Public opinion of organized labor hit an all-time high of 75 percent in 1953, according to one Gallup survey. By 1981, it had dropped to 55 percent.
That’s where public opinion stayed more or less until 2009. The Obama administration had engineered the bailout of the automotive industry in the wake of the housing crisis and financial meltdown that triggered the Great (Long) Recession. It is difficult to know whether it’s causation or correlation, but in any case, public approval of labor unions fell to an all-time low of 48 percent. Since then, however, their reputation has recovered dramatically. By 2022, approval came close to matching the record seven decades prior, 71 percent, according to Gallup. (It has dipped to 67 percent since then.)
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that public approval of labor unions has been on the rise since 2009. That was the year, arguably, that the “conservative consensus” collapsed. The panic of 2007-2008 was proof to normal people, I think, that globalization was not the El Dorado that it was claimed to be. Since then, Democratic officials in Washington and elsewhere have been increasingly strident in their support of unions, and workers generally. This has culminated in what the Post’s EJ Dionne called “the most outspokenly pro-labor president since Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.”
Indeed, under Joe Biden’s watch, the government has gone from straddling the divide between capital and labor to planting both feet on labor’s side. The administration proposed recently a rule to make millions of salaried workers eligible for overtime. Another rule-change would promote labor organizing. Yet another would force labor elections. The Treasury Department released a study showing that labor unions “raise the wages of their members by 10 to 15 percent, have ‘spillover effects’ that benefit nonunion workers, ‘reduce race and gender wage gaps’ and “boost businesses’ productivity.” (This quote and these facts are from Dionne.)
But the Biden administration isn’t just “outspokenly pro-labor.” It seems to have learned the real lesson of the collapse of the “conservative consensus” – that the very obscenely rich (my term) did not become very obscenely rich by means that are acceptable to working people, which is to say, by way of hard work, determination, pluck and luck. It got that way by way of politics – by creating for themselves a separate and unequal set of rules.
In addition to highlighting the positive of unions, the Biden administration is highlighting the negative of a class of very obscenely rich people that habitually acts with impunity for the law. The Internal Revenue Service announced last week plans to pursue 1,600 millionaire scofflaws who each owe at least $250,000 in taxes. It also plans to go after 75 businesses, each with average assets of $10 billion, who owe hundreds of millions in taxes. Since launching, in April, this new push to target the very obscenely rich, the IRS has collected $38 million in taxes from “175 high-income earners.”
There seems to be understanding, among labor unions and their leaders, that the government is on their side. The president of the United Auto Workers, which is prepared to strike amid troubled negotiations with the big carmakers, went on CNN Monday. “In the last decade, these companies made a quarter of a trillion dollars in profit,” Shawn Fain told host Jake Tapper. “In the last six months alone, they made $21 billion in profit. In the last four years, the price of cars went up 30 percent. CEO pay went up 40 percent. No one said a word. No one has any complaints about that.”
He went on: “But now, God forbid, workers ask for their fair share of equity in the fruits of their labor, all of a sudden, it’s the end of the world. They say if we strike it will wreck the economy. It's not that we're going to wreck the economy. We're going to wreck their economy, the economy that only works for the billionaire class. It doesn't work for the working class.”
I don’t want to make too much of this. The rate of unionization is still dismal. While 200,000 working people unionized last year, millions more were prevented from doing so, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Still, the president, his administration and the biggest labor union in the country are speaking the same language. Efforts to unionize are getting a boost from the government, rather than the usual indifference. Things fall apart, but they are eventually put back together. This movement toward greater collective action, toward establishing a new regime, has the potential to stabilize an inherently unstable period in our history.
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