Economist Adolph Wagner.

OSHEA: Strong Trade Unions Needed in America

In John Lennon’s fine album titled “Working Class Hero” he bemoans the betrayal of the American working class, “duped by religion, sex and TV” into believing the myth that they, above people in any other country, live in the land of the free and the home of the brave where every man and woman can join the elite.

On the same theme of workers’ abandonment in England, “The Red Flag,” the idealistic anthem of the British Labour Party, invites a cynical response from some party supporters that matches Lennon’s bleak words about American capitalist culture.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

"The working class can kiss my ass, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last."

Adolph Wagner, a famous German 19th century economist, assessed the burgeoning industrial revolution underway in those years and foresaw good times ahead driven by what is now called “Wagner’s Law” which confidently predicts that when countries get richer people always get better salaries and more generous social benefits from the government.

Congresswoman Katie Porter

Congresswoman Katie Porter

Wagner’s prognostication is affirmed by the progress of workers in many European countries, but unfortunately it does not apply to most people in America.

After adjusting for inflation, during the last fifty years the average worker’s salary has decreased by $43 a week, despite massive increases in worker productivity during that period.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, during the 25 years after the end of the Second World War - up to 1970 - workers’ pay increased in line with improvements in industrial production. But from 1979 to 2020 while worker net productivity increased by 61.8% their pay packets went up just 17.5% in over 40 years.

During the 1950s and 60s more than 20% of private company workers were unionized which had a real impact on the salaries and working conditions not only of union members but also because other employers felt pressure to match the negotiated agreements in organized workplaces. Today, the number of card-carrying workers is down to around an abysmal 6% in private sector companies.

There is nothing new or surprising about the ferocious union-busting in recent decades. The powerful and well-funded employer groups spread the message of needed subservience to the bosses. They preach about the risks they take and how sensible workers must realize that they are lucky to have a job with a guaranteed weekly salary. Big daddy in the top office makes the decisions and this approach does not include any formal consultations with his workers, and salary increases are decided not after negotiation, but at his discretion.

Back then the actual figure came close to twenty, so that for every dollar earned by the man dealing with supplies in the warehouse, the guy in the top floor office was paid twenty for his contribution. Today, that multiple is close to three hundred and sixty.

Employers get two chances to destroy a unionization effort. First, they use various nefarious efforts to intimidate the workers to persuade them to vote no in the private ballot that must be held in every union-aspiring company.

For instance, the message is clearly conveyed to ambitious employees aiming for a promotion that they are expected to influence the ballot outcome in the “right” direction, and family men and women are told about the dangers of voting affirmatively for unionization, especially as the company is considering moving to another state known for compliant workers.

The second opportunity amounts to refusing to negotiate with the union. After winning the unionization vote, workers can’t begin the process of realizing the gains that will lead to a better life for them – from ending torturous scheduling, to salary increases as well as obtaining better healthcare and retirement benefits – until they secure a first union contract.

Research covering the last ten years reveals that 52% of workers don’t have a contract twelve months after voting for unionization. This is a disgraceful statistic that shows the widespread corruption of the whole process, favoring employers at every turn.

At its core, this is a moral issue. Nearly every pope since Leo XIII in the late 19th century has affirmed in the clearest terms the need for trade unions to fight for workers’ salaries and benefits for workers that allow them to enjoy a decent lifestyle. According to John XXIII they also have a strong entitlement to ownership and profit-sharing in the company where they earn a living. When last did you hear a sermon dealing with these crucial moral issues.

In a study done about fifty years ago a representative sample of people was asked how many times greater the top boss’ salary should be compared to the ground floor worker. Respondents identifying themselves as liberal suggested six would be the appropriate multiple, while conservatives went one better at seven.

Back then the actual figure came close to twenty, so that for every dollar earned by the man dealing with supplies in the warehouse, the guy in the top floor office was paid twenty for his contribution. Today, that multiple is close to three hundred and sixty.

Of course, those men and women executives have convinced themselves that they fully deserve every penny of this huge yearly check. Who will challenge their assumptions about their own importance which they affirm at every opportunity?

Katie Porter, a congresswoman from California who is running for Diane Feinstein’s Senate seat, in a memorable colloquy at a congressional hearing with the CEO of Chase Bank, asked him how he would advise one of his female employees, a single mother, to pay her bills every month when despite very frugal budgeting she is still short over $600.

The CEO was clearly embarrassed and perplexed considering he was paid 31 million for his services at the bank the previous year. Ironically, he was reported to be a little miffed because the top man in Citicorp got a significantly better deal. As for Congresswoman Porter’s constituent, he evaded answering by suggesting that he would investigate her situation as if her economic profile is new to him.

The system overwhelmingly favors the rich and especially the super-rich. They even thumb their noses at the National Labor Relations Board by using unending delaying tactics to avoid meeting union representatives for contract negotiations. Again, they have the power, and this money game always comes back to power. As the popular saying reflecting these values goes, money talks and bullshit walks!

Teacher shortages in many states are being spoken of as a national crisis because the quality of teaching in any classroom is the primary determinant of student success. The situation is so dire that some school districts are forced to hire people without a college degree.

While there is no panacea for this calamitous situation, the number one cause relates to poor salary and working conditions. Many districts view teacher unions negatively, leading inevitably to poor pay and employment conditions.

Some schools offering a starting annual salary in the low 30’s will not get high-quality applicants. No wonder that close to 20% of teachers nationwide are forced to work a second job just to get by.

Finally, a positive recent report about the contract negotiations between United Parcel Service and its unionized workforce. The deal, struck in July, on behalf of the union’s 340,000 members ensures that UPS drivers by the end of the five-year contract will earn $170,000 annually, which includes salary, healthcare and pension benefits.

This is a triumph for the union, but also brings benefits to the company, which has seen a 50% increase in job applications since the deal was promulgated.

The message to all non-union employees emanating from the UPS deal is clear: end the subservience and organize! And expect no favors – to put it mildly – from the moneyed establishment.