One of the reasons I started this blog was to force myself to think about things I did not understand. At the top of my current list is the question, “Why would the working, middle class expect an alleged billionaire (remember net worth is equal to assets MINUS liabilities) who has stiffed workers and small businesses to represent their best interests?” Then I realized I should have also been asking a similar question about the previous administration. “Why would the working, middle class look to a Harvard educated, community organizer who never spent a day on a shop floor to protect their salaries, job security and retirement pensions?”
The above is not meant to disparage the career choices of either Barack Obama or Donald Trump. But as past president and current occupant of the White House, these individuals have to constantly balance multiple interests. If I want someone to represent my economic future, I want my own hired gun. I want someone like Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), who when asked during contract negotiations what his workers wanted, he simply answered, “More!”
Keeping in mind correlation does not equal causation, it is hard not to believe there is not some linkage between the decline in union membership and dissatisfaction among middle class Americans they are being left behind in an otherwise growing economy. In 1954, 34.8 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to unions (Current Population Survey). By 2010, the last available census numbers, the percent of union membership dropped to 11.3 percent.
While both major political parties continually promise to improve the lot of the middle class, neither has done the one thing that would have really made a difference, protecting the institution which truly represents much of middle-class America. Instead, for the past 40 years, Republicans have demonized unions as a scapegoat for the failure of trickle down economics. But let’s be brutally honest. The Democrats stood by and watched. Instead of protecting the true representatives of the working class, Democratic candidates were more interested in promoting government policies which they hoped would translate into votes.
The graphic below, created by NPR, shows the percentage of current union membership by state. One can’t help but notice many of the states which tipped the electoral college in Trump’s favor have the lowest level of union representation.
And Republican governor and legislators in several mid-western states continue to do all they can to erode the power of both private and public sector unions.
Just imagine if any political party had been equally aggressive about protecting union representation as the Democrats have been on protecting voting rights. Or if law suits had been filed as often to challenge threats to workers organizing as the Republicans have to undercut the Affordable Care Act. Strong unions, not government nor corporations, should be leading the charge on economic issues important to the middle class. Government’s role and corporate America’s moral obligation should only be to ensure they have a meaningful seat at the table.
I still believe James Carville was right when he reminded then presidential candidate Bill Clinton, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Perhaps the opportunity for bringing Americans together again is not identity politics, but economy politics. A movement where factory workers who are told their jobs will disappear without major concessions while executive salaries skyrocket, women who demand equal pay for equal work, hamburger flippers who deserve a living wage and undocumented workers who, in fear of deportation, accept sub-minimum wage compensation come together and support each other. Just as Samuel Gompers founded the AFL to promote harmony among various craft unions to minimize jurisdictional conflicts, leadership by the workers, of the workers and for the workers is sorely needed.
Too bad the slogan “Workers Unite” is already taken.
For what it’s worth.