A good year for labor? For the big guys, yes
Plus, on Liz Cheney and other thoughts ...
Among the many legacies of the COVID-19 pandemic, the value of labor and the impact workers have on our lives has to be near the top of the list. After all, even after commerce returned to normal and the lock-downs were lifted, it was hard to find help — in some cases nearly impossible, either because federal relief payments created a disincentive to work, wages were not high enough or workers were afraid to return to the workplace for fear of contracting a deadly virus that they had been fortunate enough to avoid.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about organized labor. More about that later. But yesterday David Leonhardt of the New York Times reported that 2023 was a “very good year” for labor. Leonhardt is a level-headed analyst whose work I’ve long admired:
This year has been a good one for labor unions. They have won victories in Hollywood and the auto industry, and 67 percent of Americans approve of unions, according to Gallup. Still, I remain skeptical that union organizing is on the cusp of a major turnaround, unless federal law changes. For now, companies that aren’t unionized have many ways to prevent a union from forming even when most workers want to join one.
In other words, while there have been some high-profile victories, the law needs to change. Despite the fact that it’s illegal for fire an employee for trying to organize, companies still do it, in part because it takes years for the terminated employee to litigate and the financial penalty for the company, if imposed, is minimal.
So I’m not sure how great a year it was for organized labor. While the UAW and SAG succeeded — and so did Starbucks, whose union shops rose from zero in 2021 to more than 250 by the end of 2022, when ironically overall union membership in the U.S. fell to 10.1 percent of the workforce, its lowest level on record.
Unions have been more successful in organization in the public sector. Indeed, the government is the only jobs sector seeing significant union growth (about one third currently). Click here to see a breakdown from 2022 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This brings me to my next point. I’m sympathetic to organized labor in the private sector. It’s safe to say, though, that if I were business owner, I would not want to deal with unions of for all the usual reasons, but at least there is a healthy adversarial relationship. Even at the bargaining table, workers tacitly understand that if they push too far, the company could collapse under the weight of wages and benefits that are too high or corporate expenses that simply rose too quickly. This is what happened in the 1970s with the much of the domestic auto industry when the U.S. lost a great deal of market share to the Japanese. For further reading and some good examples, see David Halberstam’s The Reckoning, which highlights two companies in particular, Ford and Nissan. It is exquisitely written and impeccably researched.
In the public sector, there is no such fear because the likelihood of the government going bankrupt is low. And the government representatives who negotiate the contracts aren’t spending their own money. It’s public money, so in essence, it’s no one’s money.
The other problem with public sector unions, especially on the state level (which is where most of the organized public-sector workers are), is that while unions are still forbidden from giving money directly to candidates for office, they can make independent expenditures on advertising “and other political tools calling for the election or defeat of individual candidates.” Both unions and corporations have enjoyed this freedom thanks to the 2010 Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court of the United States.
So state employee unions can endorse candidates and spend unlimited sums to help candidates get elected. They can also lobby for state laws that serve the interests of organized labor. Then when their labor contracts are up, they sit down to negotiate with lawmakers and are, in effect, bargaining from both sides of the table.
The point of private-sector unions was for workers to get a greater share of the profits they helped create. This was the mantra of the UAW in recent negotiations with General Motors and Stellantis: “Record Profits Mean Record Contracts.” But the government doesn’t generate “profits,” so it workers instead negotiate for a greater share of taxpayer funds.
In my state, I think the salaries of government workers are fair (with the exception of some of the administrators in the state university system). It’s the legacy costs that are unsustainable. In Connecticut, most state workers have defined benefit pensions and lifetime enrollment in the gold-plated state employee health insurance program.
What has happened in my state (and many others) is that the programs are so expensive that lawmakers don’t put enough money into the pension and healthcare trust funds because adequately funding them would crowd out other popular spending. So the unfunded liabilities in many states are staggering. Illinois is the worst offender at $142.3 billion in unfunded liabilities and climbing. California and Illinois combined have a liability of $1.3 trillion.
No less a progressive than Franklin Roosevelt opined that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” FDR further described strikes by government employees as “unthinkable and intolerable.”
When confronted by these words, most modern-day progressives dismiss them by insisting FDR would never hold the same view if he were alive today. However, I see no evidence that this is true.
Disclosure: I’m a retired journalist who is employed part time as a municipal government worker. I work eight hours a week and do not require or receive any benefits.
Liz Cheney on tour
In other news, ex-Veep Dick Cheney’s daughter, a former congresswoman defeated by a MAGA candidate, has since Jan. 6 emerged as a leading renegade Republican, blasting Donald Trump at every turn. She has now officially embarked on a tour to promote her new book, Oath and Honor.
I’ve always found attacks on Trump from conservatives much more powerful than those from the left. After all, it’s easy for Republicans to dismiss the latter as snowflake liberals terrified by the orange monster. Not so easy to brush off the sharp elbows coming from the right.
Meanwhile, Trump dismisses his conservative critics as RINOs (Republicans in name only). But it’s worth noting that Cheney has very high ratings from conservative think tanks and, according to the 538, she voted in line with Trump’s agenda 93% of the time. No, the GOP is no longer a conservative party on the national level. More than anything else, it resembles a cult of personality.
Here’s an interview with Liz Cheney (conducted by Charlie Sykes, himself a former conservative radio talk-show host) on the Bulwark:
P.S. New evidence has emerged that perhaps George Floyd was not actually murdered by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, courtesy of newly obtained body-cam footage. Like Columbia University Prof. John McWhorter in the video below, I was convinced justice had been served when Chauvin was convicted of unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in connection with the death of Floyd , who was Black.
Strangely, McWhorter’s discussion with Substack writer Glenn Loury has been marked as age-restricted. Even after you click on the link below to view it on YouTube itself, you have to click through another warning that says, “The following content may contain graphic or violent imagery. Viewer discretion is advised.”