Political Animal


November 19, 2012 4:51 PM The Broader Front in the Twinkie Spin War

By Ed Kilgore

As the back-and-forth over the demise of Hostess Brands continues, there’s considerable discussion among progressives about how the company’s feckless management and its conservative echo chamber is succeeding in blaming it all on greedy and short-sighted unions. At the New Yorker, James Suroweicki has struck a particular chord by pointing to the declining unionization of the world force as undermining sympathy for the labor movement in particular cases:

The real issue here is that people’s image of unions, and their sense that doing something like going on strike is legitimate, seems to depend quite a bit, in the U.S., on how common unions are in the workforce. When organized labor represented more than a third of American workers, it was easy for unions to send the message that in agitating for their own interests, union members were also helping improve conditions for workers in general. But as unions have shrunk, and have become increasingly concentrated in the public sector, it’s become easier for people to dismiss them as just another special interest, looking to hold onto perks that no one else gets.

But there’s another angle that deserves mention, beyond the question of “who is to blame” when a company goes belly-up, or how many Americans can empathize with striking workers. One way to deal with competitive market dynamics that create downward pressure on worker compensation and benefits is to socialize costs. And conversely, when the social safety net is frayed or eroded, the need to make ends meet via labor contracts is significantly enhanced. The labor movement has certainly
always understood this, which is why it has always been in the forefront of efforts to create public programs providing health insurance, pensions and income support.

What’s happening to American workers right now is that their sources of economic security are getting hit from both directions (or in the case of public-sector workers, from the same direction twice). The erosion of bargaining power vis a vis employers—some of it from changes in labor law (and enforcement of the law), some from poor company management, some from market pressures—has been compounded, not offset, by the gradual austerity policies being introduced by (especially) state governments and (in some areas) the federal government. This is why Obamacare was such a very big deal: for once, the arrows were reversed.

Looking at the big picture of low-to-middle-income Americans’ overall economic security and the resources needed to strengthen it is the broader, more meaningful way to view the Hostess Brand situation. That’s why I applaud Paul Krugman’s reminder that economic growth used to benefit the population more broadly in those bad old days when marginal income and corporate tax rates were vastly higher and unions had much greater negotiating power:

[T]he high-tax, strong-union decades after World War II were in fact marked by spectacular, widely shared economic growth: nothing before or since has matched the doubling of median family income between 1947 and 1973.

We can’t simply leap back to those days, and if we could it would mean accepting an enormous downside of discrimination. But it’s worth remembering that a competitive company, industry or nation need not rely endlessly on the immiseration of its workers or threats to their very livelihood. And if we take seriously the idea of American citizenship as representing a common enterprise, we need to get back to the mindset in which many millions of Americans who will never join a union see a picket line, and understand they have a stake in the fight for better wages, benefits and working conditions—and in social benefits that lift all boats. That’s called solidarity.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • emjayay on November 19, 2012 5:10 PM:

    Of course laws in the US do not favor unions. Many states are right to work. Workers - like at Walmart - know they are getting screwed, as we can see from recent news. The benefits of productivity increases have acccrued to the wealthy, not the workers, over the past three or four decades. Occupy has helped people understand this.

    The problem with unions is the perception of corruption. When Republicans refer to union bosses, we all get an image of some overweight cigar chomper in an ill fitting suit living in luxury while consorting with the Mafia and folding to the employer in order to enjoy his 1% lifestyle. What is needed is legislation to take away sources of corruption, like pension and healthcare funds, from the unions, not just anti-corruption laws.

    Work rules and employment rules should be legislated, not union deals to make more money and employ excess workers. OSHA is part of making stuff that used to be rules for individual union members apply to all workers.

    Historically, I think that after WWII unions decided to protect their own and not get protections for everyone. (Please correct me on this). I don't think anyone (i.e. Obama) understands any of this stuff.

    Unfortunately, most work rules are on a state level, when they should somehow be national. No one is addressing any of this. PLEASE COMMENT!

  • c u n d gulag on November 19, 2012 5:41 PM:

    Yes, I agree that there was corruption in unions - what, after all, can't be corrupted? And there was, indeed, a good amount of corruption. Much less, now, thankfully.

    And I agree that unions worked on protecting what they had, as opposed to expansion, after WWII.

    The real disconnect though, happened over the over the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.

    Too many unions supported the 'Powers-that-be,' the corporations, over the individuals asking for civil rights, and denigrated those protesting a needless war. And they lost credibility with a large chunk of Americans.

    For decades, unions were engines for Progressive change.

    And then, some, not ALL, unions decided that the jobs in the Military Indutrial Complex, and their existing white workers, were more important than expanding their base through Civil Rights, and reaching out to Progressives protesting the war.

    A lot of people don't know that Martin Luther King Jr., died in Atlanta when he was there supporting a union whose members were largely black.
    People forget that he was as much for economic justice, as he was for civil rights. He saw them as coequal's - that you can't have one without the other.

    And then, just after the unions wounded themselves, Reagan opened up their veins, with the Air Traffic Controllers Strike.

    And, the rest, as they say, is history.

    And there IS, in fact, and has been for years, a NATIONAL legislative attempt to allow workers to join unions. It's called The Employee Free Choice Act:

    And, predictably, guess which party did everything they could to insure that is wasn't passed
    Hint: I AINT'T the Democrats!

  • Jonathan Siegel on November 19, 2012 6:39 PM:

    Whenever I see postings on the future of unions these days, my reaction is the same: co-determination. Rather than attempt to recreate the old union role of bargaining across the table from management, unions and the democratic party ought to be seeking an equal say in the selection of corporate management. Its a goal that is not easy but could mobilize support from many who do not believe in unions but know that the current structure of business does not give them a fair say.

  • Mimikatz on November 19, 2012 6:52 PM:

    Sister Simone Campbell has made a similar point that today minimum wage is not a living wage, and the working poor must often supplement their income with food stamps, housing vouchers, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credit etc to avoid real poverty. Companies justify low wages by saying that it means low prices, and therefore has social benefits, in addition to padding their bottom line. But precisely because they are socializing some of their costs, businesses should support the safety net rather than agitate for lower taxes and deficit cutting that hurts the poor. They can't (or morally shouldn't be able to) have it both ways.

  • Crissa on November 19, 2012 9:03 PM:

    Why is it always the union's fault the company took bad deals?

  • emjayay on November 19, 2012 11:59 PM:

    Even today according to something I read (?) union work rules were a problem for Hostess. I know, private equity takeover and management giving themselves millions of dollars a year, plus marketing crap when organic and whole wheat etc. food is making major inroads and who knows what else are major factors in their problems. But anyway, there was something about Dolly Madison and Hostess products having to be on different trucks or something like that. True or not, this is the kind of union stuff that should be over. It's wrong, and too easy to use as an anti-union issue by the right wing.

    In Clinton's second term he focused on stuff like Parental Leave. I know, a pale shadow facimile of what they have in Sweden, but it was something, and a move into an area the federal government hadn't been - guaranteeing something for all workers that is the sort of thing unions might get only for their members. Like the Lilly Ledbetter Act.

    I continue to think that by coopting traditional union functions with national legislatation, and getting sources of corruption (any and all big pots of money) away from unions, the union movement could actually be revitalized. Unions should advocate for national worker protections, not just for their members, besides advocating for their members at the same time. Historically they have, but maybe the emphasis has been too much on their own.

    The horrible pay and conditions - like varying work schedules, keeping workers less than full time, using contract and temp workers, keeping workers insecure so they won't think about organizing, utilized by all national retailers and Amazon warehouses etc. are all a national scandal and should be addressed by progressive national legislation. Again, I doubt that Obama understands much about any of this. He's never worked at Home Depot.

    I'm mouthing off here but I'm not really any kind of expert. Anyone know of a book or other reference on these issues?

  • paul on November 20, 2012 8:43 AM:

    Is it really surprising that after more than 50 years of well-funded anti-union propaganda campaigns, many people should have lousy opinions of unions?

    In addition, unions suffer from the rich-liberal paradox when it comes to corruption. At this point, we all pretty much expect that "conservatives" will be corrupt, dishonest and entirely in the pockets of their richest, craziest contributors, so there's no surprise or outrage there. Same thing with big companies and the people who buy, sell and run them: we expect self-dealing, monstrous egos, short-sightedness and contempt for law. But when a union boss is dishonest or corrupt, or Al Gore travels by jet and lives in a big house, it's a big deal.

  • Stephen on November 20, 2012 9:12 AM:

    Unions and management are both after the same thing: maximum compensation for their work. The difference is that management is that when management increases its compensation, they are considered good business men (even if they bend\break the rules) and when union employees increase their compensation, they are considered to be corrupt socialist commies who want to ruin capitalism.

  • jjcomet on November 20, 2012 10:43 AM:

    emjayjay - I've kept up with this situation pretty closely and I hadn't heard anything about union demands for separate trucks to deliver certain products. The biggest problem for Hostess what that revenues and market share had been declining for years because management failed to develop new products or figure out how to more successfully market their old ones. Hostess filed bankruptcy in 2004 because of their inability to keep up with competitors, and in the last 8 years they have done nothing to right the sinking ship. They are still depending upon revenues from products launched 40-50 years ago. In essence, the management has done nothing to increase sales or market share in several generations. They've also had 6 different CEOs since the 2004 filing. This is a story of management failure, pure and simple. And, BTW, the largest baker in North America is also unionized, pays their workers considerably more than Hostess, and are growing by leaps and bounds. They are the most likely player to buy the Hostess brands - something they attempted to do after the 2004 filing. Hostess took on a huge debt obligation to avoid that takeover - another poor decision by management that has come back to haunt them. Your idea of national legislation to benefit workers is grand - but Pollyanna-ish in the extreme given the current attitude of the GOP toward workers in general. There is no sentiment on the American right for helping the average worker that would translate into a call for the kinds of legislation you imagine - legislation that the current GOP would decry as "socialism" - which is why unions are still vital to many American laborers.