December 6, 2023

of the unions and the middle class

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column Founded 1932
Return of the unions and the middle class
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
          WASHINGTON — For decades, the economic imbalance in America has increasingly widened to a degree not witnessed in more than a century. This is about to change.
          We haven’t had a president in a long time, maybe ever, who has spoken out so forcefully in favor of unions as Joe Biden. He wants Americans to remember that unions helped build the middle class. They organized to win laborers a 40-hour week and weekends, and they fought hard for health care and pension benefits.
          Even so, unions have been on a downswing for at least 40 years while corporate power has grown exponentially, and it is not a coincidence that as went the unions so has gone the middle class. Some of the union decline can be attributed to cronyism and corruption, but the overwhelming imbalance that we see today greatly favors corporate power, a systemic inequity Biden is trying to address.
          He released a statement and video in support of workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, who voted this week to say yes or no to efforts to unionize their work force. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is tabulating the ballots sent to more than 5,800 workers at the Bessemer facility with the results expected soon.
          Whatever the result, it will be a watershed moment for the U.S. labor movement. If the workers authorize the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to represent them, it would be the first significant breakthrough to organize an online retail sales company on the scale of Amazon. If the workers fail to authorize the union, it will be read as a successful effort by Amazon to discourage and intimidate union activity and could set back any resurgence of unions that might be possible with Biden in the oval office.
          The American Jobs Plan Biden introduced this week in Pittsburgh is the equivalent of a welcome sign to unions representing the various trades that will be needed if the $2.5 trillion infrastructure plan passes Congress. Biden framed the ambitious legislation as a test of whether a democracy is able to do big things as well as a command-control authoritarian state, whether America can compete with China. The answer, of course – to use former President Barack Obama’s phrase – is “Yes, we can.” We can build bridges and highways, extend broadband to rural America, and assure all Americans access to clean water by replacing lead pipes that poison our children.
          Chinese officials don’t have to worry about counting votes concerning building bridges or combatting climate change. Biden is betting that he can get through Congress the infrastructure legislation President Trump promised but never delivered. The U.S. economy has grown inter-dependent with the world, but infrastructure can’t be imported. Maybe some steel will be imported, but the workers who turn that steel into roads and bridges will be American workers.
          Biden’s definition of infrastructure is expansive and meant to combat climate change with new green structures as well as answer the challenges posed by China’s ascendancy on the world stage. Biden framed his goals as necessary for our way of life while also pointing out that America must invest in the future if we are to keep up with an authoritarian state like China.
          Capitalism without rules is theft, says Elizabeth Warren. And it took Biden to finally say out loud that we need to strengthen unions as a counterweight to corporate power.  The gap between what a CEO earns and what the average worker earns is way out of whack many times over. Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, have become the poster child for what’s gone awry even as critics enjoy the services Amazon provides.
          We have a new class of robber barons in power, and they are wealthier and more plentiful than they were in the early 1900s when the bankers and industrialists with the storied names of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and Cornelius Vanderbilt got rich while exploiting and under-paying their workers. Unions played a major role in correcting those inequities a century ago. Now, history may be about to repeat itself by creating the conditions where unions are once again about to be called upon to correct an extreme economic imbalance.
          Douglas Cohn’s latest books are World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officers) and The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency.
          Twitter:  @douglas_cohn
          © 2021 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
          Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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