Labor and Politics: Learning the Right Lessons from 2016

This post is part of a series on Labor in the Trump Years.

A presidential loss, especially an unexpected one, produces no shortage of scapegoating and second-guessing among activists and insiders of the defeated party.  In this regard, the otherwise unprecedented 2016 election proved utterly normal.  The emerging narrative pins the Clinton campaign’s shocking Electoral College defeat on its neglect of the white working-class, a constituency buffeted by decades of de-industrialization and declining union memberships.  As evidence, adherents of this theory point to Rust Belt counties and states that flipped from blue to red between 2012 and 2016, and exit polls showing a smaller share of union households backing Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama.  Journalists have had no trouble digging up disaffected white working-class voters who cast their first Republican ballot this year.

What’s remarkable is how quickly this narrative congealed into conventional wisdom.  As an interpretation of what went wrong, it leads to one obvious path for Democrats to take going forward, summed up here by the Times’ David Leonhardt: “Figuring out how to win more white working-class votes, especially in the Midwest, has to be at the center of any Democratic comeback plan.”

Choosing this path would be a mistake.

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French Lessons: Why Labor and Laborism Need One Another

The 2008 election produced the only institutional arrangement seemingly able to break legislative logjams in our age of polarization: consolidated party control over the entire federal government, alongside a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.  Union leaders and their allies saw an opening for significant labor law reform, a goal that had proved elusive for over half a century.  Combined with the hard-earned lessons learned by an increasingly diverse and creative leadership rank, organized labor looked to a new legal framework as a way to catalyze organizing drives and finally, at long last, staunch the steady loss of membership.

The excitement proved short-lived.  Labor’s signature piece of legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) stalled in the Senate in the summer of 2009, meeting the same fate as prior efforts to rebalance the legal playing field governing labor and management.  The 2010 midterm wipeout of Democratic officeholders in the House and Senate ensured another presidency would pass without reform.  Many analysts – myself included – believed that absent a fundamental change in the legal framework governing collective bargaining in this country, the labor movement would continue to recede into the background of the nation’s political economy.

By certain indicators, we were right.  Roughly 1 in 20 private sector workers belongs to a labor union today, 1/7th the rate during labor’s heyday, and the recent past has revealed the fragility of labor’s public sector power, spared a further legal setback only by the death of Justice Scalia.

Yet as we enter President Obama’s final months in office, it’s clear the prediction missed something important.  Yes membership remains at historic lows.  But, to borrow from Richard Yeselson, “laborism” is ascendant, in spite of the little actual labor to keep it afloat.   The Fight for 15 – begun as a small organizing battle in the town of Seatac, Washington – is transforming the lives of millions of low-wage workers.  Fast food protests and OUR Walmart’s spotlight on the retail behemoth pressured employers to improve working conditions.  President Obama’s recent executive orders and a newly-emboldened NLRB demonstrate what can be accomplished in the face of Congressional gridlock.  And the surprising success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign is pushing a worker-friendly agenda into the Democratic Party platform – and into Hillary Clinton’s policy program.

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Pay Transparency at Work: The Great Equalizer?

“Pay secrecy fosters discrimination and we should not tolerate it.”

So declared President Obama in the Spring of 2014 upon signing an executive order ratcheting up punishments for federal contractors that maintain pay secrecy policies.  Two years on and legislators in dozens of states are following the President’s lead by introducing policies that would crack down on employer retaliation against workers who discuss their pay.

But is President Obama right?  Does pay secrecy “foster discrimination”?  Last week Alexa Kissinger provided a fantastic overview on this blog of the many possible connections between pay secrecy policies and gender inequality.  And indeed the stories from Hollywood and elsewhere certainly buttress the claims of those who believe transparency is a potent tool to reduce gender inequality.  Lilly Ledbetter provides another piece of evidence.  Ledbetter was a longtime manager at Goodyear Tire & Rubber.  Company records revealed that Ledbetter’s pay was substantially lower than men occupying similar positions at the firm.  It took her years to discover the discrepancy, due to a complete lack of transparency regarding wages and salary rates at the company.

Pay secrecy policies refer to workplace rules, informal or formal, that ban or strongly discourage workers from discussing wages or salaries.  The flurry of legislative activity surrounding them obscure the fact that the implementation and maintenance of a pay secrecy policy is already illegal.  Courts have consistently ruled that discussion about wages is considered concerted activity, and protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  But, falling as it does under the NLRA, the penalties for violating this law and maintaining pay secrecy policies amount to little more than back pay and reinstatement. Hence all the recent attention.

And, as Kissinger highlights, it is not as if only a small slice of the American workforce is subject to these policies.  As the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has documented, approximately half of American workers report being subject to a pay secrecy policy of some sort.  Pay secrecy policies are illegal, incredibly commonplace, and may help explain gender inequality at work.

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Friedrichs Versus Wisconsin’s Act 10: A Brief Primer

This week the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Friedrichs case, and unions and their supporters are bracing for the worst.  The legal case in support of the Abood precedent has been persuasively defended by Benjamin Sachs, Katherine Fisk, and Andrew Strom on this blog.  Alas, if the oral arguments provide a guide, a majority of the Court disagrees.  What remains subject to much debate is the potential impact of the decision on public sector memberships and finances.

Many observers have pointed to Wisconsin in the years following the passage of Act 10 for clues as to what to expect for unions across the country should the Court overturn Abood (see here, here, and here for examples).  Since Act 10 took effect in the Badger State during the Summer of 2011, public sector unions have hemorrhaged members, declining by nearly 40% in three years.  Is Wisconsin the harbinger of the national scene if the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs?

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Wealth Inequality and the Labor Movement: What’s the Connection?

Tuesday’s report from the Institute for Policy Studies exposes an enormous concentration of wealth among America’s elite.  Among the shocking findings: The country’s wealthiest 20 people have a combined worth equal to the bottom half of the U.S. population, and the wealthiest 100 households hold as much wealth as the entire African-American population – all 42 million of them.

It also serves to highlight an important distinction often confused in ongoing debates about rising inequality: the difference between wealth and income inequality.  Wealth refers to your assets minus debts at any particular point in time – your total financial worth.  Income simply refers to how much you make, usually measured annually, weekly, or hourly.  To be sure, both types of inequality have been rising.  But their trajectories differ, as do their underlying dynamics.

By now a mountain of research has established that the decline of the U.S. labor movement is contributing to rising income inequality.  Remaining debates center on the size of the contribution.  My own research with Bruce Western of Harvard University suggests that unions’ falling membership explains roughly 1/3 of the rise in income inequality among private sector men, and about 1/5 among private sector women.  Other researchers arrive at different estimates, but there is wide consensus that union decline is implicated in the historic rise of income inequality in this country.

But when it comes to linking wealth inequality to the fortunes of the labor movement, the story is different.  We simply do not know nearly as much about how unions and wealth disparities may be related.  The comparative lack of evidence does not mean connections do not exist, however, and a scattering of case studies and studies suggest that the destruction of unions in the U.S. may actually lie near the center of today’s yawning wealth chasms.

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Guest Post: Public Sector Unions and the Poor

Jake Rosenfeld is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington and Co-Director of the Scholars Strategy Network Northwest.  His book on the consequences of labor union decline, What Unions No Longer Do, is available from Harvard University Press.  This post is the next in a series on progressives and public sector unions—the entire series is available here.

Dmitri Mehlhorn has eloquently presented the case against public sector unionism, raising important questions about its costs and implications for the future of the labor movement.  In his most recent post, for example, Mr. Mehlhorn takes issue with the argument that public sector unions have contributed to “social justice” and “prosperity” in the U.S. Instead, he contends that the demands public sector unions place on government coffers “increase the cost and reduce the availability of public services,” thereby hurting the disadvantaged more than others given poor Americans’ disproportionate reliance on public services.  But this notion that public sector unions hurt the poor gets the true relationships between poverty, the public sector, and organized labor all wrong.

If mid-1970s New York City—one of Mr. Mehlhorn’s examples—was a representative case of what public sector unions do to jurisdictions in which they are powerful, then we’d expect to find similar patterns today.  Of the ten states with the highest public sector unionization rates, seven have poverty rates below or at the national average.  Of the ten states with the lowest public sector unionization rates, meanwhile, seven have above-average poverty levels.  Is this decisive evidence that strong public sector unions cause lower poverty?  Of course not.  But it’s certainly not the pattern one would expect to see if public sector unions increased the cost and reduced the availability of services to the poor.

Other research is more dispositive: in a comprehensive statistical examination of what causes household poverty in the U.S., sociologist David Brady and his colleagues find that two key predictors of lower poverty is state-level unionization and working in the public sector.  That is, households with a member in the public sector are less likely to be poor, and households in highly-unionized states are less likely to be poor, net of a range of other important factors influencing poverty.  Reflecting on rising attacks on public sector unions, the authors conclude that, “Even if deunionization reduces public sector costs, the resulting increase in working poverty may lower tax revenue as well.”

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Guest Post: Public Sector Unions and the Public Interest–Rosenfeld Responds

Jake Rosenfeld is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington and Co-Director of the Scholars Strategy Network Northwest.  His book on the consequences of labor union decline, What Unions No Longer Do, is available from Harvard University Press.  This is his response to Dmitri Mehlhorn’s post, responding to Professor Rosenfeld’s reply to Mr. Mehlhorn’s Daily Beast article.

Dmitri Mehlhorn’s thoughtful reply highlights a few fundamental points of agreement, including the importance of unions in the private sector to better the living conditions of poor Americans.  Where we disagree is over the legitimacy and impact of public sector unions.  In what follows I take up two of Mr. Mehlhorn’s core claims: one, that public sector unions “bear some responsibility for the decline of organized labor,” and two, that public sector unions “hurt the overall interests of the working poor.”

I’ll address this second claim first.  Mr. Mehlhorn argues that because the “consumers” of many public services are themselves poor, then organizing the providers of these services pits public sector workers against their customers.  An example would be the BART strike, which disrupted the lives of thousands of disproportionately poor Bay Area residents.  By this logic, we should also oppose the collective bargaining rights of Walmart workers, fast food employees, and indeed workers at any business that serves low-income Americans (leaving chauffeurs and shoe shiners as possible routes for union expansion).  Strikes inevitably affect consumers — if they didn’t, they’d be a toothless tactic.  Unions endeavor to convince the public that management is to blame for any inconvenience, and management tries the opposite.  Sometimes unions succeed, as in the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012.  Sometimes they don’t, but this is true regardless of sector.

More generally, if public sector unionism did hurt the poor, we’d expect to see deeper levels of disadvantage in those countries with strong public sector unions.  The opposite is true.  Sweden, Norway, and Finland somehow survive with public sector union density rates over twice as high as our own, and yet have substantially lower poverty levels.  Closer to home, Canada has a public sector unionization rate of 70%, double that of the U.S., and lower poverty rates.  Just focusing on the United States, recent research has uncovered strong, negative links between a state’s unionization rate and its poverty level.  With nearly half of all union members now working in the public sector, much of the connection between union strength and lower poverty at the state level is due to public sector unions.

Regarding the relationship between public and private sector unionism: the causes of union decline are manifold, and we await a concise explanation that assigns each contributing factor a precise weight.  That does not mean that we lack an understanding of what these factors are, and what factors are unlikely to have caused private sector organization rates to fall so precipitously.  If public sector unions’ unpopularity put pressure on private sector unions, as Mr. Mehlhorn suggests, then the initial surge in public sector unions should have led to private sector decline in the same locations.  And if the rise of public sector unions drew away organizing talent from the private sector, then shouldn’t that too have occurred where private sector unions were in a free fall?

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