Demands and Concessions

If you are making a decent salary in a non-union company, you owe that to the unions. One thing that corporations do not do is give out money out of the goodness of their hearts.

Molly Ivins

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.

Frederick Douglass (1857)

In this week’s Sift:

  • What Unions Mean to the Rest of Us. If you think that because you don’t belong to a union, they don’t affect you — think again. Maybe you don’t really understand how our democracy works.
  • Who Wins the Wisconsin Stalemate? At first the Democrats’ walkout in the state senate only seemed to delay the inevitable Republican victory. But as the national politics of the issue play out, you have to wonder how long Republicans can let this situation continue.
  • Section 3 of DOMA is Indefensible. President Obama did something both reasonable for the country and courteous to his opposition. In response, they yelled “Dictator!”
  • Short Notes. Impeachment? What teaching is really like now. Why government shouldn’t resemble business. Huckabee sounds like a candidate. Spain investigates Guantanamo. Now Planned Parenthood is in the crosshairs. Sunday TV is for Republicans only. The last doughboy dies. And Anonymous starts hacking the Kochs.
  • This Week’s Challenge. Can any other kind of organization replace unions as the institutional center for progressive economic policy?

What Unions Mean to the Rest of Us

Back in the 1950s, about a third of all American workers were unionized, and just about everybody had friends or relatives in a union. Workers in non-union factories (like my Dad) knew that they were treated better because management feared the threat of unionization. Just like today, some people thought unions were wonderful while others thought they came from the Devil. But everyone knew why they should care.

That’s not true today. Unions represented only 11.9% of workers in 2010 and only 6.9% of private-sector workers. Both numbers are still dropping, for two reasons: The types of jobs most likely to be unionized are being shipped overseas, and the rules for organizing unions have gotten so badly out of whack that it’s almost impossible to organize a company if the management decides to resist.

So unions appear to be dinosaurs, and most Americans don’t know why they should care.

Coincidentally — or maybe not so coincidentally — the American middle class is also shrinking, and our country’s wealth is getting increasingly concentrated. We still have economic growth, but only for the wealthy.

It’s easy to play tricks with numbers, but this statistic seems both fair and important to me: Over the entire Bush economic cycle, from the beginning of the recession of 2000-2001 to the beginning of the recession of 2008-2009, inflation-adjusted median household income dropped. So the household at the 50th percentile (the actual middle of America), had less real income at the end of the economic cycle than at the beginning.

In all the economic cycles since World War II, that had never happened. If median household income dropped during a recession, it would grow even more during the expansion that followed. But not this time.

Now, I’d be over-stating things quite a bit if I attributed that all to the lack of collective bargaining power. But as books like Robert Reich’s Aftershock and Hacker-and-Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics make clear, changes in government policy have played a central role in ability of the rich to capture all of the economic growth. (That was clearly evident in the crisis of late 2008: A Republican administration and a Democratic Congress ponied up vast sums to keep the bankers afloat, while ordinary homeowners have been allowed to sink.)

Kevin Drum has written an important article in the current Mother Jones, explaining the significance of unions in American democracy. It’s a primer on democracy as it actually works, which is not precisely what we were taught in civics class.

The gist of Drum’s case is that public opinion changes nothing by itself. (Otherwise the health-care law would have included a public option.) Public opinion only has power when it is channeled by organizations that have the wherewithal to affect elections: the ability to put money and manpower into political campaigns. On the Right, billionaires and corporations provide the money and fundamentalist churches provide the manpower. On the Left, unions used to do both, but they are increasingly unable.

During their heyday, the unions pushed politically for workers in general, not just for their members. So, for example, unions supported minimum wage laws, even though their members already earned more than minimum wage. They supported worker-safety laws that covered all workers, not just their own. They supported Social Security and Medicare, not just their own pension and health-care plans.

With the decline of unions, there has been no organizational voice for progressive economic policy. A few meaningful (if less powerful) groups lobby for the environment and for the rights of various minorities and occasionally for peace, but no powerful organization defends the middle class in general or the rights of workers. And so we have seen decades of corporate deregulation and upper-class tax cuts.

Think about the effort to re-regulate the financial industry and prevent another 2008-style debacle. The vague idea of putting more restrictions on Wall Street is very popular, but who speaks for it? Who is going to draw a line in the sand about some particular provision and get people knocking on doors if it’s not passed? Nobody. And so, in spite of all the proven abuses that led to the crash, and in spite of having a Democratic president and (for two years) large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, nothing much has changed.

The same is true of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Taxing the rich is popular, but who speaks for it? Organizationally, who is going to stand their ground and not crumble when billionaire front-groups like Americans for Prosperity or corporate lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce launch attack ads?

Decades ago, the unions would have. Union presidents like George Meany and Walter Reuther would have been all over the TV talk shows, putting politicians on the spot and saying the things that today go unsaid.

That’s why billionaires and corporations want the unions gone completely. And why you should hope they bounce back instead.

The standard Republican talking point is that states are in trouble because they’re being bled dry by unions. Mike Konczai looks at the numbers and finds no correlation between the percentage of a state’s employees that are unionized and its budget deficit.

What does correlate? Mortgages with negative equity. In other words, if your state got hit hard by the housing bubble, it’s probably in fiscal trouble.

So if you wanted to change the rules in such a way as to make states more fiscally sound in the long run, stricter regulation of the financial industry makes a whole lot more sense than ending collective bargaining for the unions.

Matt Yglesias thinks getting rid of teachers’ unions won’t even save the taxpayers money in the long run:

When conservatopia arrives and kids all go to for-profit schools where they’re taught by non-unionized teachers, the school operators’ trade association will have all the same sometimes problematic incentives that the National Education Association has today. Heck, it’ll probably even be called the National Education Association. But instead of being a “union” that promotes high levels of education spending in sometimes inefficient ways plus egalitarian social policies, it’ll be a “business association” that promotes high levels of education spending in sometimes inefficient ways plus regressive social policies.

One of Daily Kos’ most popular posters is Kenneth Bernstein, better known among Kossacks as teacherken. Well, this week the teacher graduated to the major media with a piece CNN titled No Unions: Government by the Rich, For the Rich. His actual phrase is better: “Government of the corporations, by the already powerful, for the wealthy.”

Kiefer Sutherland’s grandfather (Canadian politician Tommy Douglas) warned about such a government back in the 1940s in his Mouseland speech, recently animated.

Who Wins the Wisconsin Stalemate?

At this writing, neither Governor Walker nor the Democrats in the state senate are backing down. Walker is refusing to make any changes in his “budget repair” bill, and the Democratic senators are staying out of state to deny the state senate the quorum it needs to hold a vote on the bill.

Obviously this can’t go on forever, but how does it end? Initially, speculation was that the Democrats would fold, because only one of the 14 senators needs to give in to create a quorum. Eventually, some combination of bribery, intimidation, family emergency, or simple boredom would bring one senator back home.

As the stalemate has dragged on, though, it becomes clear that the status quo works in favor of the Democrats. Walker’s hardline, no-compromise position is polling badly, and Democrats have done a good job of framing the issue in terms of workers’ rights rather than greedy bureaucrats. Usually, politicians have to decide between exciting their base and appealing to the center. For Democrats, this issue does both. It also unites economic progressives with social-issue Democrats; the lunch-pail brigade has not been so shoulder-to-shoulder with students and other DFHs since their falling-out at the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968.

Other Republican governors have been tepid in their support of Walker, a clear sign that their political instincts say this issue is a loser around the country. Democratic fund-raising is strong. The solidarity demonstrations across the country look enough like Cairo and Tripoli to associate Walker with Mubarak or Qadaffi. The rallies are the political equivalent of evangelical revivals,  and many liberals are feeling born again.

That all creates a second possibility. At some point the people who run the GOP, the Kochs and their fellow billionaires, are going to say “We need to get this off the front page.” Their first instinct will be to create a bigger distraction somewhere else. But if that doesn’t work, Walker may have to fold.

Yesterday the first Republican state senator defected from Governor Walker.

The “budget repair” bill in Wisconsin was originally supposed to be about making up a budget shortfall. But then people started blowing away the fog of propaganda and seeing that it was really about union busting. The budget was a pretext, and after the unions gave in on the financial issues,  it was a lame pretext. Even some people on Fox News see through it.

Well, it turns out that even that insight does not get you all the way to the bottom of this abysmal legislation. The bill also allows the governor to sell state-owned power plants (there are some, like the one that supplies the University of Wisconsin campus) without soliciting bids or going through the legislature. Why would Governor Walker want a provision like that? Well, it would be very handy if he were planning to sell state assets for pennies on the dollar to the companies that financed his campaign. Naked Capitalism and Paul Krugman explain how the scam works.

In the Third World and the former Soviet Union countries, this was called “asset stripping”. (For details, see Naomi Wolf’s The Shock Doctrine.) Under the pretext of some emergency, valuable assets bought or developed by the people wound up in private hands, with great profit to cronies of the ruling power. Now it seems that asset stripping is coming the the states. If we elect a Republican president in 2012, we may see it on the federal level.

The first people who noticed this gem in the Wisconsin bill figured that the Koch brothers, owners of Koch Energy and major financial backers of Governor Walker, would be the beneficiaries of the scheme. But then another Walker contributor, Alliant Energy, started posting jobs for power plant managers in Wisconsin.

So far, no specific sales have been publicly proposed. (In a serious asset-stripping scheme, you wouldn’t expect specifics until the law is safely in force and the public is looking in another direction.) So at the moment this is all speculation. But if the speculation were false, Walker could quickly end it by explaining where the sale-of-assets provision comes from and what it’s for. So far he hasn’t.

Section 3 of DOMA is Indefensible

To hear people like Newt Gingrich and Glenn Beck tell the story, you’d think President Obama had unilaterally decided to reverse one of the laws of the land, just because he doesn’t like it. What a dictator! Who does he think he is, George W. Bush?

Would it surprise you to find out that none of that is true? That it’s totally egregiously pants-on-fire not true?

Here’s what’s really going on: Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) says that for federal purposes, same-sex couples are not married even if a state says they are. So some couples legally married in, say, Massachusetts can’t file joint tax returns. Or if one of them works for the federal government, he/she can’t extend his/her health insurance to his/her spouse.

Last summer, a federal judge said that was unconstitutional, and more suits are on the way. Up until now, at considerable political cost, Obama’s Justice Department has defended DOMA in court, in line with what Attorney General Eric Holder calls “a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of duly-enacted statutes if reasonable arguments can be made in their defense.”

But now Obama/Holder have determined that they can’t find “reasonable arguments” that work in the federal districts where the new cases are being filed. So they’re not going to defend Section 3 any more, and AG Holder wrote a letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner to explain why — giving House Republicans the chance to raise their own defense if they so choose.

The legal issue is interesting, if you’re into that kind of thing. Each federal court district has its own precedents, established by its own appellate court, and sometimes legal interpretations can differ from one district to the next unless and until the Supreme Court steps in to make a precedent that is binding across the country. Currently, one such issue is whether gays and lesbians are a protected class like blacks and women. If they are not such a class, then laws discriminating against them are subject to the fairly loose rational-basis test. But if they are, then the court has to apply a higher standard, and consider the possibility that apparently reasonable arguments made for the law are actually rationalizations for bigotry. In particular, judges have to consider the arguments actually put forward by the law’s supporters in Congress rather than more legally defensible after-the-fact justifications.

Up until now, cases have only appeared in districts where precedent said that gays/lesbians are not a protected class, so the Justice Department was able to make arguments that it thought met the rational-basis test. (The judge disagreed, holding that Section 3 couldn’t even meet this low standard.) But the new cases are arising in districts where the protected-class question is still open. So to defend DOMA there, the administration would have to argue that gays and lesbians shouldn’t be considered a protected class.

Holder’s letter recalls the Supreme Court’s established standards for protecting a class: (1) a history of discrimination, (2) immutable characteristics that define the group, (3) minority status that prevents the group protecting itself through the political process, and (4) the group’s defining characteristics are unrelated to any legitimate government purpose.

Looking at those criteria, Holder says … well, duh. We can’t make the case that gays don’t qualify. And then he looks at what it would take to defend Section 3 under the heightened standards and says … we can’t do that either. If you look at the actual Congressional debate on DOMA, it was full of bigotry. So the administration is going to have to punt and let somebody else make the crazy-ass arguments that are necessary to defend Section 3’s constitutionality.

In the meantime, the Justice Department will continue to enforce whatever the courts’ interpretation of DOMA turns out to be, and it will continue to defend the parts of DOMA it can find reasonable arguments for.

That’s “dictatorship” for you.

BTW: Somebody needs to pin the Tea Partiers down on why this isn’t a states-rights issue. Massachusetts says these people are married. Where in the Constitution does the federal government get the power to overrule a state’s judgment on such matters?

Short Notes

There’s a Democrat in the White House and a Republican majority in the House. Must be impeachment time.

The demonization of teachers during the Wisconsin stand-off has produced a lot of responses explaining what it’s really like to be a teacher these days. Here’s the best one I’ve found, from an Oregon elementary school teacher with 34 years of experience.

Matt Yglesias explains why it’s a bad idea to run the government like a business:

A state is fundamentally an ethical enterprise aimed at promoting human welfare. A business isn’t like that. If you’re trying to look at America from a balance-sheet perspective the problem is very clear. … The optimal economic growth policy isn’t to slash Social Security or Medicare benefits, it’s to euthanize 70 year-olds and harvest their organs for auction. With that in place, you could cut taxes and massively ramp-up investments in physical infrastructure, early childhood education, and be on easy street. The problem with this isn’t that it wouldn’t work, it’s that it would be wrong, morally speaking.

If you worry about corporately irrelevant things like morality, that is.

Mike Huckabee is sounding a lot like a presidential candidate. His new book trashes RomneyCare in Massachusetts.

Huckabee is the most likeable of the Republican candidates and I think he would be the toughest for President Obama to beat. But in the Republican Party there are three major interest groups: neocons like Dick Cheney, corporatists like Mitt Romney, and theocrats like Rick Santorum. Huckabee is popular among the theocrats and gets neocon street cred for being more pro-Israel than most Israelis. But the corporatists are still suspicious of him. The Club for Growth declared him a “liberal” in 2006. That’s where the anti-Huckabee attack ads will come from.

Every country that has signed the Convention Against Torture has an obligation to investigate credible accusations of torture, particularly those that are being ignored by the country where the torture happened. That’s why Spain is going to start investigating Guantanamo.

ACORN … public employee unions … clearly the next thing to destroy is Planned Parenthood.

Liberal media. A funny thing happens when you watch Candy Crowley’s “Sound of Sunday” summary of yesterday’s Sunday talk shows — you only see Republicans: Scott Walker, Mitch Daniels, Halley Barbour, Mike Huckabee, and Chris Christie.

That’s only a slight misrepresentation of the shows themselves. Fox News Sunday, CBS’ Face the Nation, and NBC’s Meet the Press had only Republican guests: the ones listed above, plus John McCain. ABC’s This Week had a balanced line-up, but that seems to be the best you can hope for. When do we get an all-Democrat week?

In a week where labor issues were front and center, union leaders were nowhere to be found, at least on network TV on Sunday morning. After protest from liberals online, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was added to a five-person panel discussion on Meet the Press. But MtP allowed union-busting Governor Scott Walker to make his case without being part of any “balanced” panel. And so more falsehoods about unions got propagated without rebuttal.

Meanwhile, pro-union demonstrations were held all over the country Saturday, including a giant 70,000-person rally in Madison. It went virtually uncovered on TV. Recall how much coverage much smaller Tea Party rallies got during the health-care debate.

The last American World War I vet just died. He was 110.

The WikiLeaks-related hacker group Anonymous declared war on the Koch brothers and their astroturf organizing groups. Yesterday, the Americans For Prosperity web site went down. That’s amusing, but what I really want to see are internal emails where the Kochs laugh at the suckers who think they’re part of a grass-roots movement. Find and leak those, hackers, and you’ll have done something.

This Week’s Challenge

This week’s challenge comes from Kevin Drum’s article, discussed in more detail above:

If the left ever wants to regain the vigor that powered earlier eras of liberal reform, it needs to rebuild the infrastructure of economic populism that we’ve ignored for too long. Figuring out how to do that is the central task of the new decade.

Are there any 21st-century alternatives to re-envigorating the union movement? What would they be?


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  • macduff  On February 28, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    “Now it seems that asset stripping is coming the the states. If we elect a Republican president in 2012, we may see it on the federal level.”

    should be rephrased as

    “Now it seems that asset stripping is coming the the states. If a Republican president in 2012 is selected, we may see it on the federal level.”

  • Anonymous  On March 2, 2011 at 1:07 am

    Glad to see cogent comments on the difference between running a company and running a government. I'd offer an additional comment. Running the government does not allow you to “lay off” what you consider unproductive citizens.

    The health care debate blurred the lines between efficiency and morality with the expected explosion of miss-representation, emotionally miss-leading appeals and exploitation of fears.

  • kimc  On March 7, 2011 at 4:27 am

    What the new economics has to look like is a democracy. Democratically run worker-owned workplaces are the only viable future.
    As long as there is wealth with no work, there will be people who sell their souls for money.
    Worker-owned businesses distribute the money to the people who actually produce the value.
    Workers are assets to business, not liabilities. Stockholders are liabilities, not assets.

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