Is "Democracy in the Workplace" Having a Moment?
Predatory industries — making millions by helping billionaires squeeze pennies out of working class people — are a tragic indicator of our having reached what I call “the cancer stage of capitalism”
In union news this week, Starbucks apparently isn’t happy when you go into the store and give your name as “Union Strong” so the baristas have to call that out when your order is ready. Management has apparently instructed their workers to refuse to shout out any name that has the word “union” in it:
The company’s founder is worth over $3 billion, and presumably most of that money came from years of scraping a few pennies off every hour of each workers’ paycheck. His employees aren’t wealthy, though, and Starbucks is spending millions with union-busting firms to keep it that way.
As America’s political democracy continues to deteriorate in the face of billionaires’ funding politics and media consolidation, democracy in the workplace is having a moment. From Amazon to Starbucks to Apple, workers are demanding the right to elect a union to represent them in negotiations with their employers.
Representative democracy — a system of government where people have an actual, meaningful say about the circumstances of their lives through elections — does a lot of good things.
It tends to lessen inequality, lift average people’s control over their own life situations, protect communities from predation by the rich and powerful, and meet the needs of individuals and families.
Democracy in the workplace — a union — does much the same. When workers have a say in how a company is run, they’re more likely to:
have high levels of job satisfaction
demonstrate better job performance
be more productive
earn higher wages and benefits
make the company more money (see item #1)
experience fewer sick days
offer suggestions to help improve the company and its products
stay with their employer longer (lower turnover)
champion the employer’s reputation in the community
respect their fellow workers, particularly in highly diverse workplaces
So why would giant corporations or billionaires like Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg and Schultz be so opposed to their employees unionizing that they’re willing to pay hundreds of millions to prevent or smash union efforts?
As simplistic as it sounds, greed is the most likely answer. As Bernie Sanders recently tweeted:
“If Jeff Bezos can afford a $500 million yacht, a $177 million Beverly Hills estate, a $78 million Maui estate, a $23 million DC mansion with 25 bathrooms & a rocket ship, you know what? He can afford to recognize the Amazon Labor Union & negotiate a fair first contract.”
When General Motors workers engaged in the 1936 Great Flint Sit-Down Strike against General Motors, the company’s CEO and board chairman, Alfred P. Sloan, was the Howard Schultz or Jeff Bezos of his day. Sloan bragged that he was worth over $70 million — around a billion in today’s dollars — yet was constantly putting the screws to his underpaid and overworked employees to help keep filling his money bins.
He also kept pushing his workers through ever-increasing speed-ups on the assembly line, unpaid shut-downs that could last over a month to retool every year for new models, and a seemingly arbitrary pay system that rewarded sucking up to management.
Finally, the last week of December, 1936, the workers had enough. Instead of walking out, they sat down on the job, daring their employer to remove them from the factory. Neighbors, friends and relatives brought in food and supplies, and the strike dragged on for two long months before Sloan and GM finally gave in.
The result was the birth of the widespread American middle class in which I grew up.
I remember the house my parents lived in when I was 5 years old and my brother Steve was 3; it’s one of my earliest memories. It was all my dad could afford to rent with his two jobs, selling Rexair Vacuum Cleaners and World Book Encyclopedias door-to-door.
The size of a small garage (which I think it started out as), our one-bedroom home in Lansing was scary tiny. Every weekend we’d visit Salvation Army stores (my mom would say, “Let’s go visit Sally’s!”) to shop for clothes and the books my parents collected.
Once a month we’d hit what I called “the cheese store”: the surplus food distribution center the city or county ran where we’d pick up a brick of American cheese, 20 pounds of white macaroni, and 10 pounds of dried nonfat milk. (I still hate powdered milk and have a total love/hate relationship with mac-and-cheese.)
Then, in 1957, dad got a job at a unionized tool-and-die shop. Within a year we’d bought a 3-bedroom house in the new south Lansing suburbs and dad had a brand new car that didn’t have holes in the floorboard. Every year we took a vacation, driving all over the country. We bought our first-ever TV that year, along with a living room full of furniture to sit on to watch it.
In other words, the Machinists Union lifted my family from poverty into the middle class. And we stayed there: dad died in that same house he’d bought brand-new in 1957, which is now occupied by one of my nieces and her family.
By 1980, about a third of all American workers were represented by a union. Between that and the top 91% tax bracket (dropped to 74% in the 1960s), America’s middle class grew faster than any had in world history.
Income and wealth were broadly distributed: the average CEO only took, at most, 30 times his employee’s salaries. The top tax rates made it a waste of time to try to take more out of the company, and stock distributions as compensation were illegal then.
All that changed, of course, with the Reagan Revolution of 1981.
Reagan was the first president in history to put an anti-union crusader in charge of the Labor Department, the first president since passage of the 1935 legalization of unions to openly work to destroy unions, and the first president since 1921 to drop the top tax rate on the morbidly rich all the way down to 28%. (Today they pay, on average, less than 3%.)
As a result of 41 years of this, today about 18,000 families — the top .01% — own more wealth than our entire middle class. And the middle class, rather than comprising the roughly 2/3rds of Americans it did when Reagan came into office, has now fallen to encompass fewer than half of us.
When I left home in 1967 to (briefly) attend college and start my first business, the top .01% of Americans held only 2% of the country’s wealth. Today, those 18,000 families have hit Gilded Age levels for the first time since the 1920s, clutching fully 10% of the nation’s wealth.
Three men today hold more wealth than the bottom half of all American families. To a large extent, this is the result of a generalized loss of American democracy.
At the level of government, our democracy was gutted by the Supreme Court’s legalization of political bribery with Citizens United. That betrayal of America compounded the loss of “democracy in the workplace” (unions) as every effort since that decision to restore the worker and union protections Reagan gutted has been shot down by now-bought-off members of Congress.
My dad was the guy who negotiated the union contract every few years on behalf of and with the other 13 guys who worked at Lansing Tool & Die and its owner, a wealthy local family. A lifelong Republican, he often told me how important it was that the democratic principles he was so proud America represented were reflected in the union shop where he worked.
In the 40 years since the Reagan Revolution, however, union busting has become a billion-dollar-a-year industry. There are entire law firms and companies that do nothing but show up in workplaces to terrify workers and litigate against “malcontents” who’re trying to form or join a union.
Amazon hires them, as does Starbucks and pretty much every other large company in America that wants to squeeze every last penny out of their workers rather than help revive what was once this country’s vibrant middle class.
The very existence of such a predatory industry — making millions by helping billionaires squeeze pennies out of working class people — is a tragic indicator of our having reached what I call “the cancer stage of capitalism” that Reagan started us down.
The good news is that Americans — particularly those young enough that they don’t remember the widespread lies of the Reagan era about “greedy union bosses” — aren’t taking it any more. As the Zoomers move into the workplace, democracy is returning and things are changing for the better.
Hopefully they can finally turn this country’s workplace landscape back around, before the morbidly rich steal everything else that isn’t nailed down…
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OK, folks, the old-timer speaks.
I was born in 1933 (don't do the math) and represent the last generation to enjoy the middle class prosperity Thom writes about. Also the last generation for which the American Dream of upward mobility was real and achievable. Our children have not and cannot do as well as my wife and I have managed. (Good education, hard work, a comfortable retirement. [Hell, we live like kings: our paid-for home, generous pension income, nutritious food, Medicare, no real worries.]) Our children are still working, already past the age of my retirement. Our grandchildren's futures are bleak, our great-granddaughter's future is hopeless.
The "morbidly rich" (love that term) predators who busted unions, exported manufacturing jobs, offloaded defined-benefit pension plans, etc., did far more than decimate the middle class. They sentenced the American economy to a slow death, because their actions are strangling the stupendous buying power the vibrant middle class represented. Consumer buying drives the economy, and the middle class was by far the greatest source of that.
In the early 1900's Henry Ford had a real epiphany: intuitively he recognized the importance of middle-class purchases to the survival of his company. He also recognized he wasn't paying his workers middle class wages. So, long before the United Auto Workers Union was organized, he unilaterally doubled those wages. The company flourished, and the American economy benefited, too.
Many decades later Henry's successors at Ford closed some plants in Michigan and built some in Mexico, to exploit the dirt-cheap labor there. The American autoworkers left behind lost their incomes--and hence their ability to buy cars. The Mexican workers weren't paid enought to buy cars, either.
Who was left, still earning enough to buy the cars? I was. I was by now a tenured full professor at a small university in the west: a product of the American Dream. So Ford kept selling cars to people like me--people in my generation who could easily afford them.
My generation has a life-expectancy probably in single digits. Who will buy Fords when we're gone?
The American economy is headed directly for a cliff. The buying power to support it has dwindled. The morbidly rich will prosper, transnationalizing their manufacturing corporations (and markets, notably in China), while the rest of you will live in squalor. (Not me: I will escape in the only certain way possible.)
"If something doesn't change," a wise friend once observed, "we're going to get where we're headed."
That looks to me like the Hunger Games scenario.
Thanks once again, Thom, for another heads-up.
Make something change, folks.
Thank you Thom for once again pointing out how important unions are in helping people enjoy a middle class life. Many times you have told the important story of your childhood and about your dad working in a union tool and die shop. I have never heard you say witch union until todays RANT. I have been a VERY PROUD member of the Machinists Union for 57 years. I have been retired since 2008 but continue to pay my dues. I was a Grand Lodge Representative for nineteen plus years and negotiated dozens of good union contracts. I handled all the National Labor Relations Board work in the Southern Territory for the IAMAW during the Reagan years. In many cases a member would have a legitimate Board charge and I would file a claim with the Board. In the same breath I had to tell them that the Board would more than likely render a decision in favor of the employer. Most of these charges came during organizing campaigns. Reagan's Secretary Of Labor; Ray Donavan; began removing Board Members- many forced to retire- and replacing them with corporate attorney's. It was pure hell dealing with this bunch of union busting hatful people. Thom I truly appreciate all that you do for our great nation. UNION YES; UNION STRONG. Just a PS to let you know that I will share your RANT with all my Facebook friends, mostly union. Also I will intend to ask them to listen to your show, let them know your phone number, and encourage them to subscribe to your daily Rant, Hartman Report.