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.
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