Solidarity! The Only Route to a More Just Society
by Hendrik Van den Berg
UNL Professor of Economics
Several bills that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees worked their way through the Nebraska Unicameral this spring. This legislation was similar in spirit to the draconian bill introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature earlier this year. You no doubt remember the news coverage of the demonstrations of over 100,000 people outside the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, protesting that bill.
Unfortunately, the demonstrations had no effect on the final outcome, and the anti-union legislation banning collective bargaining by Wisconsin public employees was passed and signed into law. There was talk of a general strike to shut the entire state economy down in protest. But, instead, the demonstrators went home and, presumably, back to work. It seems that workers were not (yet) willing to take such drastic action. They were pacified, in part, by politicians and union leaders who called for a campaign to recall the governor and the Republican legislators responsible for the denial of their basic labor rights.
A general strike is not a radical idea at all, of course. After all, corporate interests and their political operatives (in both parties) have not been at all reluctant to create havoc to further their interests. A general strike could actually have been effective in reversing the tide in the class war that corporations and banks have been waging and winning for three decades. As could have been predicted though, the idea was smoothly pushed off the table by the usual political manipulators: the bosses of the mainstream unions, the two mainstream political parties and the mainstream media. President Obama did not even bother to visit the protestors. And the corporate media dispensed the usual hysterical propaganda: A general strike would be subversive—a radical return to the bad old days when communist labor leaders sought to take over the country. A general strike is so ‘French’! It would deprive people of their right to go to work!
So, Wisconsin’s public employees are back at work. Some are working hard to gather signatures for recall elections, deluded into believing that if they just try hard enough, the political system will somehow bring justice. And as for a general strike that would have required some sacrifice on the part of all workers, that ‘radical’ idea was quickly forgotten. The unfortunate fact is that Americans have given in to the notion that their call in life is to be a tool—or, in Marx’s words, a ‘commodity’ for the capitalist class. Nicer words are used to describe the commodification of labor, such as ‘free markets’ and ‘right to work.’ After all, our American culture has been so thoroughly shaped by private business interests that we must all start every conversation on income distribution with a rejection of Marxism. But, Americans are apparently quite willing to perform the role Marx so aptly described.
Wake Up, Americans!
The official government data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (which certainly are not going to exaggerate inequality) clearly show that most Americans are losing the class war. Since 1980, nearly all of the growth in U.S. income has gone to the top 90 percent of income earners. The average real income accruing to the remaining 90 percent of the U.S. population has not budged for over 30 years—longer than an entire generation!
In 2009, an average non-supervisory worker earned $18.62 an hour in the U.S. But how many people know that back in 1972 (that is 40 years ago, for crying out loud) the real purchasing power of the average real non-supervisory wage was over $20 in today’s dollars. During this period, productivity of the average worker rose by over 100 percent. This means that for producing more than twice as much, the average worker took a pay cut! Yes, Virginia, there is a class war, and you and over 90 percent of your fellow Americans are on the losing side.
The top ten percent of income earners in the U.S. captured almost exactly 50 percent of total U.S. income in 2007—the highest percentage in the developed world… and higher than during the 1920s in the United States. The top one percent of U.S. income earners took about one quarter of total income in 2007. (For more information on this, see my article in the March/April 2011 Nebraska Report.) The point here is that most Americans are losing the class war.
We Know Things Are Not Right
Many Americans know that something is wrong with the system. The Tea Partiers know this, the poor know this, the part-time workers who want to work full time know this, and the unemployed certainly know this. Nearly all American workers whose wages have gone nowhere know this, as do women workers whose wages continue to lag behind those stagnant male wages. Unfortunately, to cope with this defeat at the hands of the elite class and preserve a sense of dignity, we resort to a variety of simplistic rationales and non-constructive behaviors: ultra-nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment, ‘birther-ism,’ sports fanaticism, and celebrity worship. Some maintain dignity by pretending to believe that the rich will trickle something down on them. Some buy lottery tickets.
But for a brief few weeks, it looked as though Americans were getting a better grip on the issue of equality. In Wisconsin they turned out by the thousands to scream ‘No!’ But, since then, the enthusiasm has ebbed. A few people are gathering signatures, some write their Senators, and most are back at work. What is most sad is that many self-proclaimed ‘liberals,’ ‘progressives’ and ‘leftists’ have led the retreat from serious protest. It has been liberals who, in part, have resisted the idea of a general strike.
Abandonment by the Liberal Class
The Democratic Party has abandoned labor. Not only Barack Obama, but nearly all Democratic politicians have chosen to work for the interests of corporations and banks rather than the interests of workers. The way labor issues were quietly abandoned (even though Democrats controlled both houses of Congress as well as the White House after the 2008 election) shows the extent of our corrupt political system of ‘one dollar-one vote.’ Like Republicans, Democrats know that they have to go where the money is to get elected. It’s not surprising then, with the money more and more concentrated in the hands of the few, that they work for those who have the money.
We are in a true vicious cycle: the rich control the political system, which they use to get even richer, which gives them even more political power, which lets them tailor the system even more in their favor, which... Well, you get the picture.
Yet, many liberals and progressives continue to ‘hope’ that the ‘real Obama’ will soon appear. The fact is, the real Obama does not work for the average American. He appointed Wall Street people as his economic team, and he kept Bush and Cheney’s military advisors. He appointed to head his ‘bipartisan’ deficit panel Alan Simpson, a Republican right-wing fanatic, and Erskine Bowles, an alleged ‘liberal’ who earns over half a million per year serving on the boards of two financial firms. The lack of progress on financial reform in Washington is discouraging but to be expected. And, there is legislation pending to give the military yet another supplemental appropriation of $110 billion for the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, despite Obama’s promise to not only stop asking for supplemental budgets, but—more importantly—to scale down those occupations. Yet, liberals continue to hope for change. And then they claim that Tea Partiers are delusional!
When I brought up the need for worker solidarity and a renewed push for unionization, one self-proclaimed liberal professional immediately trashed unions as corrupt organizations that breed overpaid lazy workers. “You should see the boats and cars the union workers own!” Well, yes, that is what workers will tend to buy when their incomes rise in accordance with the productivity gains in their industries. Should only CEOs, upper management, professionals, and a few other privileged people get all the cars and boats? So, we decry inequality, but when this means higher incomes for workers, liberals suddenly hold their breath.
No matter how much they want to deny it, however, there is really only one practical way to reverse the class war. Labor must be allowed—no, encouraged—to exercise its power.
The growing income inequality (and the political power this gives the wealthy) is due to the fact that some groups have much more power to extract gains from economic interactions than others. A worker applying for a job has no power, by herself, to insist on a higher wage. With nearly 20 percent unemployment and forced part-time employment, unlimited numbers of illegal immigrants, and employers’ wielding the ever-present threat of outsourcing, an individual worker has no power in the labor market. On the consumer side, the abandonment of anti-trust laws (another consequence of the power of money in the political arena) means that we now have just a small number of firms supplying most of the products we are propagandized into wanting. So on both the income and consumption sides of the economy, most individuals get a smaller share of the gains our economy is capable of producing. This is why workers did not capture any of the productivity gains in their real incomes over the past 40 years. They must accept the same old wages while they pay more for goods. This is good only for business profits.
Perhaps the need for workers to join together will occur first to the Tea Partiers. Fortunately, they are reported to all be watching “Atlas Shrugged,” the movie based on Ayn Rand’s ideological novel. For those of you who have not read this cult novel, the story is a compelling one from the capitalist perspective: one John Gault leads a general strike by capitalists, who feel they are not getting enough of the gains from their innovations and business management. With their calculated withdrawal, the entire economy falls apart since no “thinking people” are left to run things. Gault and his fellow general strikers eventually drive the “collectivists” out of power and establish a true laissez-faire society. The movie is one big piece of propaganda, of course. But there is one element of truth in the novel and movie: no one creates income and wealth by themselves. If one group withholds its participation, our economy and society collapse. But this is not only true for the top one percent of society that John Gault led; it is equally true for the other 99 percent. Without workers to make, design, distribute, market, repair, maintain, administer—and buy what they produce, there are no profits for capitalists to collect.
Given the present trends in profits and earnings of the most privileged in society, we do not need a John Gault. We do need a general strike by workers, however. We need to send a message to those who have captured all the gains from economic growth since 1980: share the economic bounty created by the entire society in a fair and equitable manner. We need unwavering solidarity with workers, whenever and wherever they decide to fight back in the class war. We must honor picket lines, organize workplaces, press labor issues, and contribute financially to the labor movement as best as we can. We must demand—with a general strike that inconveniences all of us—that our government protect worker rights.
Here in Nebraska, we cannot match the money that is pushing anti-labor legislation through the Unicameral. But we can deny the corporate interests the profits they seek at the expense of labor by strengthening labor and, if necessary, inconveniencing our lives to side with strikers.
We do not live in the perfectly competitive economy the right-wing propagandists claim. The game is rigged against the overwhelming majority of us. Therefore, fairness and equality can only be achieved by matching the concentrated economic and political power of business and finance with labor solidarity. ‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’ This is what labor solidarity was always about. It worked earlier in the 20th century. Given the growing inequality today, we need to put it to work again.