Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 2, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

ONE MORE DAY....To everyone who's contributed to our fundraising drive this week: Thank you. Every dollar makes a difference. To those who haven't, today is the last day. Throw a few bucks our way if you can. You can donate via check, PayPal, or credit card. Just click here.

And now, one last excerpt from our April issue. This month Richard Kahlenberg reviews two books on the labor movement: The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, by New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, and State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence, by St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Philip Dine. One message of both books, Kahlenberg says, is that one way to regain some of labor's past strength is to begin promoting the movement in terms of moral values (such as respect for hard work) rather than just in terms of economic interests:

Dine calls on labor to tap directly into the moral righteousness of the civil rights movement. His best chapter recounts a strike in the early 1990s that did just that. The conflict pitted nine hundred poor, black, female catfish packers in Mississippi against Delta Pride, the world's largest catfish processor, owned mostly by wealthy white men. Many of the women who skinned, filleted, and packed the catfish had once picked cotton. They were poorly paid, and not tremendously well treated — their bathroom visits, for example, were limited to six a week. The workers had little economic leverage and much to lose: Delta Pride officials sat on the boards of the local banks that held the workers' mortgages and car loans.

The battle shifted, however, when the food workers union representing the women called for a nationwide boycott of Delta Pride catfish. Leading supermarkets complied in order to stay on good terms with their own unions. When reports appeared in the national press, donations began pouring in from unionists and church members around the country who hoped to sustain the workers in their strike. After a protracted battle, the company eventually conceded to a hefty wage increase and eliminated the limits on bathroom breaks. The key, says Dine, was that the movement was put in the context of the broader fight for human respect. It wasn't just a battle over money; there was a powerful moral component too.

Kahlenberg notes that although the modern progressive movement mostly supports the same goals as the labor movement (better health care, a more generous minimum wage, etc.), most modern progressives don't really feel much solidarity with labor. But with income inequality skyrocketing and wage stagnation hitting even white collar workers, that might start to change. "Globalization used to hurt just the Bud crowd," Greenhouse writes, "but now it is also hitting the Starbucks crowd." Read the whole piece to see what that might mean on the political front.

Kevin Drum 12:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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"the broader fight for human respect."

Well that's a pretty name for extortion, innit?

Posted by: a on May 2, 2008 at 2:03 AM | PERMALINK

There's some truth in the charge that progressives have become effete. Yes, we should look to our roots in the struggle of the common man (and woman) against the forces of greed and inhumanity.

Posted by: Nancy Irving on May 2, 2008 at 4:59 AM | PERMALINK

Let me guess: since that strike in the early 1990s, those 900 poor black women have been mostly replaced by illegal immigrants?

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 2, 2008 at 6:45 AM | PERMALINK

Speaking for myself (never had a union job, my wife did for 2 years) I've always taken labor's side in disputes with management. I do it reflexively, which some could fairly argue is wrong. Taking that approach I probably was wrong on a few disputes, but not many. However, it's always disappointed me labor hasn't adopted a more supportive attitude toward their progressive allies, especially environmentalists. Solidarity is a two-way street. Plus, environmentalists have done a good job pointing out for the last 2 decades how protecting the quality of our environment creates jobs. Labor's problem isn't with other progressives, it's with their unprogressive rank and file co-workers. Health care is a good example. Could the insurance boardrooms really block universal health care, if working-class Americans didn't buy into the GOP's pantload about socialized medicine?

On the larger points about human rights and changing dynamics, fair enough and hopeful news.

Posted by: dennisS on May 2, 2008 at 7:15 AM | PERMALINK

"Well that's a pretty name for extortion, innit?"

My guess is that you wouldn't last 10 minutes on the line at a catfish packing plant. Those woman would probably take turns picking on your pansy ass until you started crying like a little baby.

And, judging by that comment, your moral character is probably about as strong as your physical character.

Posted by: OhNoNotAgain on May 2, 2008 at 8:23 AM | PERMALINK

My only union job was with the bartenders and restaurant workers union in San Diego in the late 1960s, when I was a bartender at some topless go-go bars. The union was run by organized crime and was especially cozy with bars run by organized crime. The union rules said time and a half for overtime, etc, but nobody ever got it, at any union bar in the city.

That said, I know the words to Joe Hill, and I back the labor movement. My elderly mom's prescriptions are paid for by her union pension.

Any movement that becomes widespread will have elements of corruption in it, and it just happened that my brush with unions was one of those places. Still, it keeps me from idealizing unions.

Posted by: anandine on May 2, 2008 at 8:27 AM | PERMALINK

"Let me guess: since that strike in the early 1990s, those 900 poor black women have been mostly replaced by illegal immigrants?"

Preach it brother !!! One way or another, we'll get these uppity poor people to stop asking for unlimited bathroom breaks. We'll teach *them* who knows what's best when it comes to their pissin' and shittin' !!!

Dude, you are one sad excuse for a human being. The fact that we had a company in the United States *in the early 1990's* that limited bathroom breaks of its workers to six a week just goes to show what a vile and weak nation we've become.

Posted by: OhNoNotAgain on May 2, 2008 at 8:28 AM | PERMALINK

I think your comments are right. Many unions have devolved into proving their worth by defending lazy and/or corrupt workers. Having put time in on a loading dock were half emptied trucks waited for somebody to finish their coffee I've seen the downside of that. So unions should make it clear that they respect getting the job done as well as defending worker's rights. That said, unions must be supported as they provide the only balance to management's huge differential in power.

Posted by: Michael L on May 2, 2008 at 8:42 AM | PERMALINK

Since Reagan ordered the flight controllers back to work unions have been bargaining from a position of weakness.
This is a result ironically from organized labors failure to organize with other labor unions and the laborers. When the automakers downsized and outsourced in the eighties they outsourced to smaller shops outside the 25 or 50 mile radius that the contract stipulated. The unions did not seek out those shops to organize even though they were directly supplying the big three automakers.
When I was a member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic workers union, teamsters had no qualms about crossing our picket lines to pick up the stockpiles the company had been making six months prior to the contract expiration.
Many union workers only see the union there to collect the skim or to keep some dangerous drunk on the job, but if you have a real grievance like better safety equipment or air quality you can hang that in your ass for all the good it will do you.

I have to think that if other airport unions had supported the air traffic controllers strike with a rash of flight flu, they would have continued to negotiate from a position of power.

Posted by: JoeSixPack on May 2, 2008 at 9:38 AM | PERMALINK

I think your comments are right. Many unions have devolved into proving their worth by defending lazy and/or corrupt workers.

Unions work best when they address the big picture - work life balance, benefits, hiring and termination policy/procedure. I think that they really hurt themselves by trying to protect individual jobs for any reason. The goal is not to hang on to jobs, that's just not how a dynamic global labor market works. We will all have many jobs in our lifetime, and we will all have to acquire new skills to stay competitive. The goal of unions should be to create the best possible working conditions for everyone and ensure there is a level playing field for the entire labor market. Perhaps the best thing our unions could do now is send "troops" to emerging economies and unionize them as fast as possible. As long as U.S. wages are significantly higher than those acceptable to other labor pools, we will continue to lose jobs. What the unions can do is make the work environment better while you have a job, ensure that the wages/conditions improve in other countries, and, perhaps, lobby to make the transitional periods between jobs less painful.

We are in for a long period of declining wages for everyone, even the Starbucks crowd. We will also see the wage earner bearing the brunt of the taxation burden from a percentage of income standpoint. Corporate taxes and capital gains may get reduced, but no one is going to reduce the payroll tax. Also, no one will abolish the AMT, and it's going to affect more and more people even as the costs of education, housing, health care, energy and food continue to increase.

It doesn't matter whether your collar is blue or white, it's going to start to choke you very soon if it hasn't already. I'd venture that most people, regardless of income, liven in fear of losing their job right now, and fear is not an emotion associated with great societies.

There is no going back to any past state of affairs. The 50s may have been great for the blue collar middle class, but we ain't going back there. Having one stay-at-home parent might also seem great, but I don't see the trend for double income families reversing either.

We need a new approach. I'm just not sure what it would be.

In the meantime, we should all learn to love rice and beans.

Posted by: lobbygow on May 2, 2008 at 9:44 AM | PERMALINK

What – the cats aren't going to weigh in on the fundraising effort today?

I wouldn't sell their earning power short. My wife, who otherwise pays little attention to political blogs, starting reading my open webpage tabs the other day and asked "Where's the one with the cats?"

Posted by: Dave on May 2, 2008 at 11:18 AM | PERMALINK

The solidarity issue cuts both ways.

A lot of people don't know that the AFL-CIO was just about as much against national healthcare in the early 1950s (Truman's efforts) as was the AMA.


Unions had their employee healthcare and were worried they might lose something in national pie-sharing.

Between that, racial bigotry of most unions in that era and, in our own day, the UAW believing the lies of the Big Three how building green cars would cost jobs (I think Toyota has the answer to that), a lot of unions really haven't been that progressive in the past.

Unions have their good points.

But, a lot of unions have never fessed up, let alone atoned, for their sins.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on May 2, 2008 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

"Well that's a pretty name for extortion, innit?"

Delta Pride officials sat on the boards of the local banks that held the workers' mortgages and car loans.

Posted by: Brojo on May 2, 2008 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK
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