Michigan and the Atomization of the American Worker

Protesters in Michigan fight the further erosion of their rights

The stark contrast between the treatment of America’s workers and Wall St has never been clearer after Michigan lawmakers gave approval on Tuesday to ‘right-to-work’ legislation. The Republican continued efforts to smash unions and atomize American workers was successful, as the legislation aims to severely curtail the influence of unions when it comes to negotiating contracts for non union employees. From the Huff Post:

Once the laws are enacted, the state where the United Auto Workers was founded and labor has long been a political titan will join 23 others with right-to-work laws, which ban requirements that nonunion employees pay unions for negotiating contracts and

This is no small feat when it comes to the war on unions. As Senator Carl Levin stated, “For millions of Michigan workers, this is no ordinary debate. It’s an assault on their right to have their elected bargaining agent negotiate their pay, benefits and working conditions, and to have all who benefit from such negotiations share in some way in the cost of obtaining them.”

Cleverly advertised as a ‘right’, the Republicans Orwellian propaganda campaign centered around giving Americans more choice when it came to employment. House Speaker Jase Bolger said during floor debate, “This is about freedom, fairness and equality. These are basic American rights – rights that should unite us.” But as President Obama accurately described it, the Right-to-work laws are in actuality, “Giving you the right to work for less money.”

The relentless assault on unions and the rights of working Americans is not a passing trend, and it is having a devastating effect on economic equality. While Republicans would have you believe that unions are the scourge of the nation and the reason why the economy is still in the doldrums, it is worth noting that according to the US Department of Labor, union membership is at historic lows. Only 16 million people, out of 153 million US workers, are in a union, and if you don’t count unionized government workers, the percentage comes to only 7%. For comparison roughly 28% of the US working population was unionized in 1954. And if you compare this to wealth inequality over the same period of time, you can see a direct correlation between declining union numbers and rising inequality:

 While American workers are being left to fend for themselves in the increasingly competitive jobs market, Wall St and the wealthy continue to float on the back of public subsidies and the implicit government guarantee of limitless cash should anything go wrong.

The financial bailout in 2009 saw the public pour billions of dollars into Wall St to prop up a sick banking system that had been bloated with debt and risky investment portfolios for decades. The bailout was sold by the political classes through obfuscation and fear – we were told that without a bailout, the economy would collapse, and the terms used to describe it vague and meaningless to most people unfamiliar with financial lingo. Politicians used phrases like ‘quantitative easing‘ when it came to taking the public’s money and using it to stabilize the banks, and the numbers so high that they were completely incomprehensible. The result was that the public was completely removed from what was one of the greatest transfers of wealth in US history, and sat helplessly as their politicians consigned them to generations of debt for the crimes of the ultra wealthy.

While the public does not understand the concept of trillions, is certainly understands thousands, and the Republicans have used this unfortunate flaw to vilify unions and public sector workers and pass legislation over and over again that further erode’s basic worker’s rights. Incredibly, they have managed to portray unions as greedy and corrupt in an age where bankers take home literally hundreds of millions of dollars in earnings while Walmart employees barely make $7/hour. It is an age old trick that pits worker against worker. Republicans use the fact that there are always people who will sell their labor for lower wages and pit them against others who believe that collective bargaining will raise everyone’s lot. The implication that unions are denying people’s right to work, particularly during hard times, is an incredibly effective way of ruining labor movements. That is why Republicans are so intent on foisting their ‘self interest is best’ ideology on the public at all costs. Through repetition and a lot of money, Americans have been conditioned to believe that they must make it by themselves – that seeking help from others is weak and that failure is their own doing, not their leaders.

The war on unions and the continual gift giving to the wealthy is now becoming a sick joke. The notion that this set of priorities is good for the country is beyond laughable. It sent the economy into one of the worst depressions in modern US history, and is currently destroying Europe’s chances of economic recovery. The new legislation in Michigan is another nail in the coffin for unions in America, and the trend will continue if there isn’t a sustained effort from the Left to reframe the debate and remind the public just how important it is for them to have some control over their working life. Otherwise it will be gone forever.