Monday, February 28, 2011

This Is What Class Warfare Looks Like


Everyone should know by now that the American super rich have been gobbling up a larger and larger piece of the American pie since around 1980, as shown by the first chart above. One of the ways they've been able to do this is by crushing the labor movement in the private sector, as shown in the second chart. Power has been consolidated in the hands of upper management, and wealth has been consolidated in the bank accounts of the richest of the rich.

But the logic of modern hypercapitalism is that enough is never enough. So now the right wing--the corporate elite, their puppet Republican Party, and their duped working class foot soldiers who make up the Tea Party--have set their sights on one of the last vestiges of organization and power left in the working class: public employee unions.

This has nothing to do with budget deficits. That's just the PR strategy from the right. In Wisconsin, the forefront of the battle right now, the unions have agreed to all of the financial cuts that the Republican governor has asked for. But he's not to content simply to strip away union benefits. He wants to dismantle the unions themselves.

Public employee unions are the obvious and logical next target for the right wing and the so-called conservative movement. Union density is still fairly high (36%) in the public sector. That's roughly the union density we had in the private sector in the 1950s when America was a much more middle-class nation. By crushing public employee unions, the right wing crushes one of the last pillars of the once great American middle class and they get an even bigger piece of the pie of our national wealth. The fat cats are never full.

La Femme Follette had an excellent post a couple of days ago that lamented how even many seemingly progressive "hipsters" view unions as "a quaint...relic whose time has passed." If the right wing is able to destroy public employee unions the way they have private sector unions, that's how we'll be describing the middle class pretty soon.

The glimmer of hope I see in all of this is the militant response by the labor movement--public and private sectors--in Wisconsin and the solidarity rallies all across the country this past week. Here, locally in DC, I can tell you that the assault on Wisconsin unions has ignited a broad coalition of progressive groups centered around the labor movement. Even though I believe the right has been planning this assault on public employee unions for a long time now (more on that later), I still believe they've been surprised by the forceful reaction from the left. But rallies and marches are one thing, organizing the unorganized is another. What we saw in the auto industry of the 1930s with the great sit-down strikes, we need to see today in the retail and fast-food industries. Bosses everywhere need to fear that their workers are talking about a union. That is where the progressive/labor movement can actually begin to turn the tide and once again build power and economic justice for working people.


Camp Papa said...

The American middle class is no accident, nor is it the natural consequence of "the market". Our middle class is the result of policy choices, and the development of institutions, public and private, that supported the growth of the broad base of a middle income class of people. I don't understand how, even the super rich and the predatory/klepto-capitalists can think that the destruction of the middle class and the creation of a permanent underclass serves even their long term interests. Wake up and smell the coffee, tea drinkers.

Dave said...

I think maybe the "klepto-capitalists" are so focused on their numbers for the next quarter that they overlook even their own long-term interests.

Jenni said...

Hi, Dave, saw this joke the other day and it made me think of your blog:

‎"A public union employee, a tea party activist, and a CEO are sitting at a table with a plate of a dozen cookies in the middle of it. The CEO takes 11 of the cookies, turns to the tea partier and says, 'Watch out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie.'"

Veronica said...

Great visuals -- I feel like I "know" the issue, but seeing it like that shows me that I allow myself to forget how bad it really is.

Dave said...

Jenni, I love it! I saw this making the rounds on Twitter recently. Funny, sad, and true all at the same time.

Veronica, I know what you mean. I feel like a number of progressive groups and publications frequently show this kind of stuff. Mother Jones and The Nation have had some really good articles on extreme inequality and "The New Gilded Age." But every time I see it laid out visually I'm blown away.

Mason said...

I'm up late tonight and kind of bored, so I might as well ramble for a while.

A minor critique is that we shouldn't necessarily look at personal income as a zero sum game or a "pie," as in if they get more we get less. It's just that there is more dessert in general and they are getting all the new goodies.

Another is that this chart is tracking average income for the top %1 rather than median. Income data is strongly skewed (especially if you're looking at the top %1), so the visual representation is more striking than a graph based on the median data (the more common statistic for income data).

Also, I suspect that much of that big increase in income from about 2002 to 2007 is from the use of high risk high return derivative investments, through hedge funds for example. The rich have access to these markets and others do not. I would be curious to see the graph for post 2007.

Labor is a fixed cost of doing business and industry capitalists have been, and will continue to be against labor unions in order to boost their profit margins. We shouldn't expect them to do anything else. That's why the firms exist - to make profit, not provide jobs and nice salaries/benefits for people.

Even so, the war is on! Clearly there is class warfare going on against the unions. But I'm not sure I want to say that it's "class" so much as an ideology too. There are many working class citizens out there that are anti-union. I think "duped" is the right word.

But it's also interesting about the hipster view of unions. My thought is that many feel that unions represent a less-educated working class, while the educated white youngsters view themselves as in a more elite ruling class (and would be embarrassed if their friends found out they were in a working class union).

I think that things will have to get much worse before they get better. A critical mass of citizens will have to realize they are being screwed and are missing out on their ability to provide themselves with what they want (jobs, pay, benefits, rights) through democratic government.

It's absolutely amazing that we went from a situation in 2008 where the upper class free market capitalists wrecked the entire economy, and now somehow we are battling over whether or not state government workers are the proper target for our frustrations and anger. Yes, many of the older state workers in Wisconsin have great pension benefits, but that's a GREAT thing. Besides the benefit to the retirees and the local economy, don't we want our governments to attract the best and brightest workers? It's incredible how the right winger free marketers want government to do an excellent job at everything it does, but expect the workers to have poor pay and benefits. The real budget problem in many states is a general downturn in the market and failure of state lawmakers/governors to properly plan ahead with sound policies and budgets and tax structures.

Finally, I'd say it's clear that the capitalists are indeed serving their interests. There are no long term interests; these are short term individual interests and they do pay off. The issue here is that sustaining a middle class for long term profits would require a kind of altruistic cooperation among many industry players. Instead of relying on other capitalist masters to play cooperatively, it's in each player's interest to gain as much profit as possible as soon as possible while it's still possible.