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Why Unions Matter, Part One

August 6, 2018

The recent supreme court ruling in the Janus v AFSCME decision has dealt a serious blow to both public and private sector unions.  The ruling appears only limited to public sector unions, but rest assured, it will have an effect on private sector unions as well.

Over the last few decades, public and private sector unions have been under attack by a number of forces: politicians (not all right-wing; some are moderate Democrats), wealthy organizations like Americans for Prosperity (funded by the libertarian Koch Brothers), the American Legislative Exchange Council, not to mention the entire neoliberal economic process.  Unions for years have been the path for working class Americans to enter the middle class.  Unions have worked to raise wages and the standard of living not just for their members but for all workers.  Protections we sometimes take for granted such as overtime pay, workman’s compensation, laws regulating child labor all exist because of unions.


Given that unions have managed to create a system wherein working and middle class Americans benefit financially from the country’s prosperity, it’s not difficult to see why they would become a target.  If you run a corporation, your primary function is to maximize wealth for your shareholders.  One of the ways you do that is by cutting labor costs.  If there are organizations of workers who collectively bargain for a fair share of the pie, that’s less money for the shareholders.  That’s how a corporation functions.  That’s why only 7 percent of workers in the private sector are organized into a union. To understand why these same organizations who don’t want private sector unions also turn their attention to public sector ones, we need to go back to the beginning.

The Birth of Neoliberalism

From the post war era through the late 1960’s, the United States had become the wealthiest nation in world history. Thanks to unions, workers shared in that prosperity: over 28% of the workforce was unionized.  To many business and political leaders, this was intolerable.  This concern was characterized by corporate lawyer and soon to be supreme court justice Lawrence Powell.  In 1971, Powell felt compelled to assert, in a memo that was to help galvanize business circles, that the “American economic system is under broad attack.” This attack, Powell maintained, required mobilization for political combat: “Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” Moreover, Powell stressed, the critical ingredient for success would be organization: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations. ”

In short, ordinary people were becoming too powerful, and that had to stop. What’s one of the ways you stop them?  Attack the organizations that give them power.

Get rid of their unions.







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