The Dagger in the Heart of Labor

August 15, 2017

Last week I spoke about labor. Next week is the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington. I intended to connect the two. After hate intervened in Charlottesville, that’s even more urgent.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Progressive Movement was making great strides on behalf of American workers and farmers. Gradually, the political parties adopted parts of the Progressives platform and many of their proposals were eventually adopted. But in the South, white elites drove a stake through the heart of the Progressive Movement by dividing workers on race. It took the Great Depression of the 1930s to wake America up.

The March on Washington that many of us remember as Martin Luther King’s great triumph was actually called by a coalition of labor leaders. Labor understood that workers had to stand together or they would be trashed together. If you could underpay African-American workers you could underpay everyone. The AFL-CIO, clear about the ways our fates interrelate, was a major supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.

But some politicians used racial prejudice to drive a wedge into support for progress, to prevent government from providing benefits and services for all of us, and then take the “savings” as tax breaks for themselves. Far more whites land on the public safety net but politicians want us to believe it’s just African-Americans. Far fewer African-Americans than whites depend on public schools but politicians want us to think money spent on schools is wasted because “they” get it. In area after area, politicians convinced many of us to starve public services. They want whites to think we would never need what African-Americans would get. They tell us we don’t want to spend anything on “them.” We should be allies, but the politics of race turns us into competitors.

Last time, I described how states and the Supreme Court have been undermining labor’s political role even as it augments management’s. So-called free market “conservatives” don’t want to do anything for the public, for you, your kids and your parents. They tell us that the market solves all problems for the deserving and only the undeserving need help, even while sanctimonious business men poison and defraud us. The real culprits want the freedom to take advantage of us while piling on more tax breaks for themselves. Racial prejudice just makes it easier for them to hide their own misbehavior.

So I want to make three points. First, racial prejudices do the greatest harm when politicians exploit them. I applaud those who condemn the violence and the perpetrators specifically. White supremacists don’t just object to policies – they hate everyone different from them. And no, Black Lives Matter is not a racist organization – objection to racism isn’t racism.

Second, the Supreme Court handed us heavily armed racists massing and marching to intimidate the rest of us. That must stop. Guns have no place in politics or public debate. Worse, white supremacists here admire Hitler, and study his path to power. Hitler’s Brown Shirts terrorized Germany. These folks are terrorists.

Third, Trump has done permanent damage to American politics. His close ties to groups which hate a large portion of America because they think we have the wrong parents is outrageous and highlights the danger of those hate groups. Trump has shown a path to power that every decent American must reject.

I was in front of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. Martin Luther King shared his glorious dream. I thrilled to his words. But the March on Washington which we remember for Dr. King’s words was called and organized by the labor leaders of America dreaming of unity for all the working men and women of America. It is still a dream. We have to make it come true.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 15, 2017.

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Labor Economics

February 14, 2017

The White House isn’t explaining what’s happening to jobs. I once taught labor economics, an issue close to my heart. To some extent, labor is like any other commodity and that’s the problem. Jobs go wherever business can find all the things it needs – the land, transportation, materials, markets, reliable legal relations, at the right prices. And it keeps changing.

We talk about the rust belt as if we did something wrong. Actually we had about a century-long run on the best factory jobs in the country – a ribbon through this state after New York’s government built the Erie Canal and made New York City gateway to the west, turning every city along the Hudson, Mohawk, Erie Canal, and then the great Grand Central Railway into a powerhouse. This area long dominated clothing, technology, science, heavy industry and spawned radio and television networks. Each industry provided resources for newer ones.

But New York’s advantages couldn’t be permanent. For bigger plants with newer methods, business looked for virgin land. Other governments built ports, the Interstates and St. Lawrence Canal, while the aging infrastructure of older cities led firms elsewhere. It couldn’t be permanent. Economic fundamentals inevitably dominate jawboning and presidential rhetoric.

Workers get cast aside unceremoniously. One of my law students was also a human resources specialist at GE, missing class whenever GE announced layoffs. They had long since let the weakest workers go. Now she had to fire the best and it hurt. But big corporations aren’t sentimental.

What’s a city or region supposed to do? The market doesn’t automatically find the next big thing and put it where former employees can get jobs like those they lost. The market didn’t build America automatically. Government changed British rules. Government built a banking system with resources to fund business, and smooth their cash flow – if you read or saw Hamilton, that’s what he was about, government providing what companies couldn’t. Government built ports, canals, highways, and had the railroads built. Government provided public health facilities, water, sanitation, disease control – which became crucial for business. Government invested in schools, and President Lincoln laid the foundation for the modern state university system. President Wilson sparked the country’s first broadcasting system for the war effort. Almost everything in your hands today has government fingerprints on it – the research and development in fundamental physics that led to the lasers, transistors and chips that run almost everything today.

Yes, governments make mistakes. You think private industry doesn’t? Most businesses fail. But only government can provide the fundamentals, the things that all the businesses in the country, region or route need. Only governments are motivated to look beyond individual companies and work for the region.

Governments have been investing in new forms of power. If governments in coal producing states had the sense to invest in emerging industries instead of dying ones, the coal miners might face a much better transition to good jobs than anything presidential jawboning can produce. But government cannot do it if it is afraid to fail.

Governments need to be thinking about what the emerging industries are, what resources will support growth. Not individual businesses that any group of investors could build on their own, but the underlying fundamentals that make broad development possible. And we may only know which ideas work when we try them.

If government thinks small, we all shrink.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 14, 2017.


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