12/20/2012 07:23 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

A Country Without Labor Unions

What would a country without labor unions look like? First, let's be clear about labor's role. The purpose of a labor union is to raise the standard of living of working people. That's really all there is to it. It's remarkably uncomplicated. By "standard of living" we mean wages, benefits and working conditions, all of which are acknowledged by federal labor law as legitimate topics of discussion for collective bargaining.

Of course, anti-labor propagandists and disinformation purveyors like to pretend that unions are cesspools of greed, corruption and ineptitude, and that the only things they care about are consolidating power and collecting monthly membership dues. That's the rancid version of unions they try to peddle. Unfortunately, many unsuspecting people actually believe it.

I was president of a union for nine one-year terms, representing 700 employees at a big-time, Fortune 500 manufacturing plant. We were not only hard-working, dedicated employees, we were also fairly militant union members who weren't averse to going on strike when the company got stingy. Hard-working employees and frisky union members... the perfect combination.

During my first term, my salary was $100 per month. At the end of my ninth term, it was $150. Based on some informal research, it turns out that my salary, compared to that of other local presidents, was a bit on the low side. The average was probably closer to $200-250. Still, even at $250 per month, no local president was getting rich.

If there were no unions in this country, there would be no resistance from working people. No resistance means no leverage. And without leverage -- without some form of bargaining power -- we become sheep. Without unions, you would have your classic "buyers' market," with management firmly in the driver's seat and working men and women along for the ride.

Historically, market forces tend to push wages downward. If there were nothing to resist that push -- if there was no union representation to prop up wages -- working people could find themselves in free-fall, eventually dropping all the way down to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour (which, if you worked 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, and never missed a day, pencils out to $15,080 per year).

Speaking of the minimum wage (established as part of FDR's New Deal), a significant portion of the Republican Party, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, would like to repeal it, believing the minimum wage to be an "artificial constraint," and the people who rely on it to be more or less "takers," too afraid or too lazy to take their chances in a free and open market.

Without unions, it's a cakewalk for Corporate America. Corporations are not only worshipped by the U.S. Congress, but virtually every industry in the country -- from bottle cap manufacturers, to cauliflower growers, to guided missile makers -- has lobbyists representing their interests.

What do working men and women have in the way of lobbyists? Other than unions, nothing. Other than unions, no one. Indeed, even with unions, they usually find themselves out-manned, out-spent, and out-gunned, which is why the accusations of unions being "too powerful" are so ludicrous. People have said to me with a straight face, "Unions were necessary long time ago, but now they've gotten too powerful."

Really? Too powerful? Here's a stunning fact: Only about 7 percent of all private sector jobs are unionized. Consider that figure. Seven percent!! That means that 93 percent of all private sector jobs in the United States are non-union.

No wonder statistics show that the American middle class is continuing to disintegrate at an alarming rate, and that the top 2 percent is continuing to get richer every year. The fact that the rich are getting richer makes eminent sense because, in the absence of union resistance, everything is being funneled upwards. Think of it as "reverse gravity."

Moreover, and equally ominous, if there were suddenly no unions, the quality of those well-paying non-union jobs would soon decline as well. No longer having to worry about competing with union wages and benefits, America's businesses would be free to jettison whatever the hell they wanted, and this whole enterprise would quickly become a race to the bottom.

Again, this is all about resistance and standard of living. It's all about our once vaunted middle-class being systematically bled-out, and the country being transformed into one vast gladiatorial arena where everyone is treated as either a winner or loser.

In the 1950s, the U.S. was prosperous, optimistic, and buoyant with confidence. And union membership was a staggering 35 percent. Today, we're not only struggling, we're polarized, pissed-off, overfed, underappreciated, pessimistic, and wrapped way too tight. And union membership barely moves the needle.

Yet you still hear people -- not just conservative pundits and free market fundamentalists, but regular working folks -- blame the unions for our problems. It's true. Regular working folks are now hostile to the only institution capable of representing their interests. How perverse is that?

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd Edition), was a former union rep.