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America Without Unions

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The recent defeat of its effort to unionize workers at Volkwagen's Chattanooga, Tenn., factory was a crushing blow to the United Auto Workers, and a setback to the embattled U.S. labor movement, which could have used the morale boost of a high-profile victory.

It was also a big loss for the vast majority of Americans who must work for a living, whether they are union members or not. Without a large robust unionized sector, there is little hope that the relentless spread of low-wage work, job insecurity and economic inequality will be reversed.

Labor unions were key to the post-World War II social contract under which the benefits of economic growth were broadly shared. Collective bargaining agreements set industry-wide standards for wages and working conditions, which put pressure on nonunion firms to keep up or face union organizing drives. Politically, unions were the most important force supporting Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, overtime, job safety, progressive taxes and full employment policies that promoted prosperity far beyond their membership.

But as part of the rightward shift in our politics of the last three decades, business unleashed a relentless political and propaganda campaign aimed at destroying collective bargaining in America. Since 1979, the number of union members has dropped by a third. As a share of the labor force, union membership is at its lowest level since 1916.

It is no accident that as union strength declined, the social contract in America was systematically shredded. Yes, globalization and technology have changed the economy. But as labor weakened, both politically and on the job, business interests have been able to wring the benefits from these changes and shift the costs to workers.

Today, a chorus of political leaders and pundits express shock at the upward redistribution of income and wealth. Yet they have remained indifferent, if not hostile, to labor law reform that might rebalance the scales of economic power now so heavily tilted in favor those who own capital and against those who provide the work.

A common rationale for this indifference is the claim that although unions were once important, they are no longer necessary. This is a bizarre notion given the gilded age of inequality in which we find ourselves. Are capitalists less greedy? Are bosses more generous and humane? Are corporations no longer obsessed with squeezing labor costs? Can you trust politicians to maintain worker protections when they rely on the investor class to finance their campaigns?

So what will America look like if these "no longer necessary" unions disappear?

A non-union America will be of course a low-wage America. Most people will work harder for less. Employer contributions to pensions and health care will be a thing of the past. No longer even remotely threatened with organized resistance, employers will make "on-call" contingent work the norm. People will spend their working lives patching together a marginal income with constantly changing temporary and part-time jobs -- with the predictable increase in personal and family stress. Few workers will have vacations and paid sick days, and even fewer a 40-hour week. Unions, after all, are the people that brought us the weekend.

Employer-employee relations will increasingly resemble what they were before the New Deal. Laws against discrimination and employee protection may remain on the books, but without pressure from unions they will be harder to enforce. The humiliations of working life under raw capitalism will reappear: abusive supervisors, dirty and unsafe workplaces, being ordered about like a child, daily assaults on one's dignity, impossible demands, speed-ups, wage theft by employers.

More people will get their jobs through employment contractors, making it even harder to identify who is responsible for abuse of employees. Was it the company at whose office you worked? The agency that had the contract to supply labor? Or the subcontractor who actually sent you there?

These conditions will rise up the ladder of skills and education. The entry wage of college graduates, which have been declining for over a decade, will drop faster. Desperate young people will keep borrowing for education, piling up enormous debts that cannot be paid off with the salaries that are available. Indebted but still hopeful 20-somethings will turn into embittered 30- and 40-year-olds.

Class lines will harden. The tutored, traveled and connected children of the rich will be even more advantaged. As extended non-paying internships become the portal to professional jobs, those jobs will go to young people who parents can afford to subsidize them.

Without unions there will be little counterweight to the campaign financing from corporations and rich conservatives, other than the small number of affluent liberals, who are generally more interested in social and cultural, than in economic, issues

As a result, Wall Street will dominate national and state economic policy even more. Fiscal austerity will be the permanent macroeconomic policy of both parties, guaranteeing that the demand for labor will remain below levels that might increase wages. Deregulation, privatization and trade agreements will put more downward pressure on labor's share of productivity gains.

The generational conflict that pervaded life on the job in pre-New Deal America will return. Older workers, fearful of losing their jobs, will be less likely to share knowledge and experience with younger people. Politically, it will be easier for the Right to stir up resentment among the young against Social Security and other benefits to the elderly. And as retirement sails out of reach, more older people will remain in the labor force, further increasing job competition among age groups.

Finally, the consequences of the demise of labor unions will go far beyond paychecks and policies. Unions have not always lived up to their ideals, but they embody the values of solidarity, fairness and mutual self-help that undergird a decent society, and which are being elbowed aside in a culture that idolizes the egocentric, hyper-greedy worship of self. Let unionism's ethos of solidarity disappear and Americans will find themselves tossed back to a time when the workplace was a war of all against all -- and life on the job was brutal, feral and merciless.

Is this the future we want?