The Attack on American Workers

The Tea Party seems obsessed with lowering taxes and taking away benefits from ordinary Americans.

Unions affect the way we all get paid. Almost every one of us. Most of us don’t pay dues. But when unions raise the wage scale it ripples through so that you and I also get a fair wage. And that bugs those who, needing nothing, want to take away what little the rest of us have.

The reason the unions try to get and keep union shops is that the rest of us benefit without paying dues. So if we deny unions the ability to collect dues from the employees in the shops for which they bargain, we will undermine the wages of all Americans. And that is precisely the point.

When Americans were working, when labor markets were tight, all the financial commentators spoke about the need to loosen the labor market, to bring down rates of employment. Why? Because when people are unemployed they bring down the wages of everyone else. That’s what people call the free market – labor is free, we might as well be volunteers. In fact people are now volunteering their time – working for nothing, even paying for the privilege of getting a little experience while making someone else rich.

There is nothing natural or predetermined about wage scales. The reason Chinese workers get so much less is that Chinese firms are not competing for employees in a workforce that gets paid better. Low wages are a result of all the barriers to getting good jobs, all the ways that the controls and the opportunities are put in the hands of those who need nothing by laws that give them all the profits of everyone else’s work. It need not be so and sometimes isn’t. But the American obsession with markets threatens to make beggars of Americans.

None of this has anything to do with making America competitive again. It has to do with who gets the profits of American competition. Who benefits when Americans roll up their sleeves and do the work? Can we afford to pay American workers? Of course we can. There’s a huge market here, or was when American workers got paid.

Unions got their start fighting the equivalent of slave labor – employees in sweatshops in fire traps in buildings that burned down while the working women inside were locked in unable to escape the blaze. Unions got their start fighting the enslavement of minors who were paid in company scrip that could only be used at the company store so the workers were trapped, unable to leave.

We may have to win the labor wars again. But a warning – they were brutal. Many people paid with their lives. Not much different from the courage and sacrifice it is taking now for the people of North Africa and the Middle East to stand up against the rulers in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Welcome to the kinder, gentler America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 26, 2011.

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