Why Bringing about Armageddon is a Good Thing

05/25/2011 01:05 pm ET
  • Steve Rosenthal President, The Organizing Group; Former Political Director, AFL-CIO; Founder, America Coming Together

Big Business is in an outraged panic.

"This is the demise of a civilization. This is how a civilization disappears." - Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot.

Is it that we've lost more jobs faster in the last three months than in any period since 1974, resulting in a national unemployment rate of 8.1 percent? Nope.

"This will be a firestorm on Capitol Hill, bordering on Armageddon." - Randel Johnson, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president of labor.

A reaction to the stock market dropping to a 13-year low, increasing home foreclosure rates, that more of our kids are unable to afford college, or that more families face bankruptcy due to rising health care costs? Not that either.

"Businesses are hearing about it, and they ready to riot in the street about it." - Mark McKinnon, chief media strategist for George W. Bush.

Taking accountability for the greedy, poor decisions made over the last eight years that got us in to this mess? Not even close.

The Employee Free Choice Act is "one of the two fundamental threats to society" - the other being radical Islam. - Sheldon Adelson, billionaire hotel magnate.


Each of these is a response to what Big Business and corporate special interests perceive as the threat of the Employee Free Choice Act. And they are gearing up for a whopper of a fight. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other attack groups have pledged to spend at least $120 million to fund their fight against working families (and putting some GOP consultants back to work while they're at it).

Clearly it's time for a little perspective.

The number of unionized workers in America has been on the decline for decades. Currently, less than 8 percent of America's private sector work force is unionized - the lowest on record. The last time that private sector union density was anywhere close to being so low was in 1929, a year that we've been reading all too much about recently.

Throughout the Great Depression, private sector union density hovered in the teens. But as the American workforce and economy grew, so did the percentage of unionized workers. By 1940, 24 percent of private sector workers belonged to a union - almost twice as many as in 1929.

By the end of World War II, another ten percent of America's non-governmental workforce had joined a union. And during the 1950's, the average private sector union density rate was just under 35 percent. It wasn't until 1981, the last time that our economy was in so much trouble, that density fell back below the 20 percent threshold.

So let's think about this for a minute. Even if the Employee Free Choice Act miraculously led to the greatest growth in union membership in history - let me repeat that - if miraculously the Employee Free Choice Act led to the greatest growth in union membership in history and 10 million workers organize into unions, the national private sector union density level would still be less than 17 percent. (Adding 10,000,000 union jobs to 2008 estimate of private sector unionized workforce from would create a union density of 16.9%.)

That means that even with 10 million new union members, more than 83% of America's work force would still be non-union. Armageddon? Apocalypse? I think not. Even the most hardened anti-union CEOs should be able to live with that.

And yet, according to news reports the corporate special interests are ready to spend $120 million to stop congress from passing the Employee Free Choice Act, thereby protecting their own way of life.

As we have been cruising in to the current economic crisis, income disparity has been widening. Corporations - especially their CEO's - prospered, but their workers did not. The top 1 percent of earners took their largest share of national income since 1928 in 2005. In 1965, when more than 30 percent of private sector workers belonged to a union, the average American CEO made 24 times as much as the average employee. By 2005, when the private sector union density rate had declined to less than 8 percent, the average CEO was taking home as much as 262 times that of the average employee. In contrast, between 2000 and 2007, real income for middle-class families actually fell $2,000 per household, about 3 percent.

The fact is that unionized workers earn more than their non-unionized colleagues: 30 percent more in fact. Union members are also 59 percent more likely to have employer provided health care. So of course it's not surprising that recent research shows that workers' reduced collective bargaining power and declining union membership are key contributors to declining middle class incomes.

What this really comes down to is one thing, best summed up recently by Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, "We like driving the car and we're not going to give the steering wheel to anybody but us." So what if these guys have driven us off a cliff?

Recent polling found that 53 percent of workers would join a union if they could. The problem is that if they try, and their employer resists, workers have only about a 1 in 5 chance of success. The Employee Free Choice Act will help level the playing field by ensuring that workers can freely choose to form a union without management intimidation or interference. The Employee Free Choice Act will help rebuild the middle class and stop the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest of us.

Isn't it time to create an economy that works for everyone?