jimsleeper.com » What Neoliberals Don’t Know About Labor Unions

What Neoliberals Don’t Know About Labor Unions

By Jim Sleeper – March 2, 2011

“Solidarity forever, Solidarity forever, Solidarity fore-e-e-ver, for the union makes us strong.”

Neoliberals find the word “solidarity” distasteful. I’m not fond of it myself. Doesn’t solidarity collapse easily into groupthink? Shouldn’t being free mean thinking independently?

Before you answer those questions, review your own life to see if you ever actually, consciously needed the kind of solidarity that West Virginia coal-miners thought they needed when “Solidarity Forever” was written for them in 1914.

Probably, you never did. But is it really only people like the miners who do? True enough, the song’s lyrics aren’t nuanced or pretty; nor are labor unions. I’m not a union romantic. Working as a journalist in New York in the 1990s, I saw and described how badly, even disgustingly, some work-rules and pension scams compromised basic public services.

But I also learned that unions are what they are because their workers’ employers are what they are and because our society is what it is: As my one-time sparring partner Al Sharpton put it one day, “Society is basically a hustle, from top to bottom.”

Neoliberals find that observation distasteful, too. They’ve been shocked, shocked, by all the scamming and greed at the top that they discovered only in 2008 or, more recently, while watching “Inside Job.” Without union solidarity against all this, millions at the bottom would never have become strong enough even just to feed their kids, let alone think clearly.

But don’t union gains strangle job development and innovation? It’s when you look closely at how we set the rules for job-creators and job-destroyers that you really begin to understand how Sharpton can think that society is little more than a hustle at the top as much as at the bottom.

That’s precisely when solidarity’s critics look away from the top and stop thinking freely and hunt for “structural” explanations and scapegoats at the bottom. Witness David Brooks last Friday night on PBS, doing exactly what he did during the mortgage meltdown a few years earlier.

At first, Brooks took the “more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger” approach to union-bashing: Public workers have a right to organize, he said, but collective bargaining makes more sense in the private sector, where employers fight ferociously to keep “their own” money; in the public sector, by contrast, both the “employers” and the employees are fighting over other people’s money. The employers have many incentives to give that money away to the unions, “And if you do that decade after decade, then, finally, the bill comes due.”

All true, but what about the bill for investment bankers’ and CEOs’ selfish and often corrupt mismanagement of other people’s money, including their mortgages, and, with it, the American economy? That bill came due in 2008 and 2009 and 2010 and on, and Brooks wants $40,000-a-year teachers, cops, street-cleaners to play “their part” in paying it, the way private-sector workers have been paying for it by giving up wages and losing their pensions.

Brooks looked a little embarrassed as his PBS counterpart Mark Shields noted that “the only reason we have a five-day workweek, the only reason we have an eight-hour workday, the only reason we have a minimum wage law and child labor laws and pension funds is because of labor unions’ clout and skill.”

While Shields acknowledged that “unions are flawed institutions with imperfect people running them, not unlike businesses, …” he noted that “Organized labor and the G.I. Bill were the bookends of the middle-class prosperity of post-World War II America. America exploded economically, but the only reason that pie was divided was because American veterans returning had a chance to educate themselves like no generation had before…. And the only reason wages rose is because one-third of the work force was organized, and they secured those higher wages and the ripple effect across our economy.”

Most neoliberals who bridle at union “solidarity” are the offspring of people who benefited from all this, even if they weren’t in unions. But these days it often takes someone of Shields’ age to connect these dots, and no sooner had he done it, than Brooks finessed his embarrassment by looking for scapegoats:

“You have got rubber rooms in New York where they can’t fire terrible teachers because of union rules,” Brooks retorted. “You’ve got schools where you can’t — you get rid of all the really good young teachers because of these rules. You have got California prison workers who are retiring at age 55 with $130,000-a-year pensions.”

But then, I suspect, Brooks began thinking of all the rubber rooms we need for the Madoffs, Blankfeins, Rubins, Summerses, and others at the top who’ve never done anything to earn bonuses of $1.3 million, let alone pensions of $130,000. Brooks caught himself: “I’m not against unions, but when things get out of whack, when you have got these sorts of rigidities and unsustainable costs, then you have to adjust it. And I’m not saying you have to bust it the way it’s being tried, but it has to be adjusted.”

Yes, but what adjustments, exactly, David? Have unions gotten fatter and more corrupt than casino-finance and corporate welfare capitalists? Who caused public deficits to balloon? Few Americans are buying the anti-union line of your latest hero, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, let alone the more bare-knuckled gambit of Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.

A few days after the PBS program, without Shields to correct him, Brooks charged in a column that unions and their politician-enablers, faced with yawning deficits and angry taxpayers, are cutting services to the young in order to preserve those for the old, who vote in large numbers, as children can’t. “The future has no union,” he declared.

The important question here is why Brooks has a future as a credible commentator if he can’t acknowledge that teachers, firefighters, cops, and other public workers hold more of the “future” in their hands by caring for and protecting children on the job – and that they probably have more children of their own, per capita as well as in absolute numbers, than bankers and corporate “deciders” do. Can Brooks be credible if he can’t even write that, by the way, public-sector workers are taxpayers, too?

Before Brooks shifted his attention from Wall Street bonuses to Wisconsin a couple of months ago, he often talked about the inexorable pressures of global competition upon our economy’s decision makers. He kept neglecting to mention that these deciders are members of a new elite that answers to no American polity or moral code.

They employ managers to squeeze higher rates of profit out of factories and newspapers that were making perfectly decent profits and paying workers decently, too — and were thereby sustaining civil society and “the future” – until, all of a sudden, they were told to produce 22% rates of return.

Is something “out of whack” here, too, David, or did God ordain it? You weren’t challenging the rules of finance when the mortgage meltdown threw millions of people into foreclosure. Instead, you penned a sober column, “The Culture of Debt,” blaming the little people, as usual.

To understand what Brooks and so many others are saying about public employees now, it’s a good idea to revisit what he wrote in that column about the mortgage meltdown.

He made sure to finger the specific, real-life weaknesses and moral lapses not of those who’d designed, invested in, and pushed the duplicitous,predatory “mortgages” which hard-pressed buyers latched onto, but of the buyers themselves. He cited one hapless home buyer one who, “after her divorce,… went on a shopping spree to make herself feel better.”

Actually, the most irresponsible individual decisions in this crisis were not made by homeowners or would-be buyers, but Brooks couldn’t find a single anecdote to illustrate the behavior of those who sought out his divorcee and zoomed in on her with what seemed like irresistible offers.

Ever since I wrote The Closest of Strangers after spending the better part of a decade in black north and central Brooklyn, I’ve had a reputation for not letting poor people off the hook for bad decisions that are ultimately matters of personal responsibility. Drawing from intimate experience you can read about in that book, I’ve rebuked liberals who refuse to pay disadvantaged people the compliment of holding them to the same standards of decency and self-control to which liberals hold their own children.

But Brooks abuses this principle to blame structural injustices and cultural demoralization on people at the bottom who lack the necessary standards and discipline: An “unspoken code [a culture of thrift and discipline, rather than of easy debt] has been silently eroded,” he declared during the mortgage meltdown, as he is declaring now during the public-sector union crisis.

Silently, David? Marketers of all kinds have spent billions for 40 years telling Americans they “deserve a break today” and promising to give them that break instantly. This has been the most monumental, unrelenting, intrusive, mindless and therefore irresponsible campaign in history to destroy a culture, barring perhaps the fascist and communist propaganda juggernauts and worse of the 1930s.

We are destroying neighborhoods. We are destroying hearts and minds. We are destroying our roads, rails, and basic social services. Private and public leaders alike are directing it, not just via giveaways to unions but via de-regulation and lotteries and big bailouts to shareholders who are never held responsible for their individual decisions to back these scams.

What else does Brooks need to know before he’ll make his own responsible decision to write that decency hasn’t “silently eroded” but has been clamorously assaulted from above? Hello? The year of the mortgage meltdown, we wound up saying “Hello?” four or five times an evening during the dinner hour in New Haven to callers from local mortgage lending companies trying to get us to re-finance. How hard was it for Brooks to imagine that poorly-educated people, desperate for cash and barely meeting their mortgage payments, might welcome those calls?

For Brooks, though, it was as if there were no “pushers” behind this process unleashed by corporate and finance capital and, politically, by the deregulatory, bailout, and other corporate-welfare tactics he’d defended for a decade.

Why doesn’t he even think of putting a spotlight on the pushers? In the mortgage crisis, he couldn’t tell us about, say, the stressed and, yes, morally irresponsible telemarketer who’d signed on to accelerate the storm. Not a word about the irresponsibility of the mortgage executive and his consultants and lawyers who designed the campaign.

Not an anecdote about the sharpie salesmen who visited the homes whose equity they were about to steal while sitting politely on the targets’ sofas, or of the bankers who bought up the mortgages and foreclosed.

Nothing about politicians, fed by all these predators, who eased the miscreants’ actions in more ways than I can count.

Didn’t these people make any of the individual decisions which Brooks tells us have ripple effects that produce a “culture of debt”? How can a Burkean conservative like him be silent about decisions by people who hold leadership positions?

The next time Brooks tells you that a culture of responsibility has eroded, whether among home-buyers or public-sector workers, ask him if his own silence about that erosion’s true causes and dimensions has been part of the reason for the erosion itself.

And ask him why he’s been so silent. The answer is that Brooks can’t think clearly or tell the truth because his own biography and insecurities and over-compensations have inclined him to ‘solidarity forever” with hustlers at the top. People with less power and privilege have much better reasons for solidarity with hustlers at the bottom.