Usually I offer up my opinions in this space. It’s not like I’m short of them. However, one issue has been plaguing me lately in which I can’t seem to decide where I stand. so I’m throwing it out there to see if any of you can tip me to one side or the other of this fence.
The topic is labor unions. Back in the early 20th century, unions were largely responsible for the rise of the middle class. They fought hard to put an end to the exploitation of laborers for the benefit of corporate stock holders and executives. They negotiated by leveraging the availability of labor, which the companies needed to survive, to force company profits to be shared more equitably amongst all employees. In the end, it would be hard to argue that all didn’t benefit. The rising wealth of the middle class created a whole new consumer market, which in turn fostered the growth of companies to sell additional products to those same people.
Yet like all good things, too much is as problematic as too little. The 1980’s and 90’s were marred by global competition beginning to erode domestic market share. Companies needed to streamline and automate as a way of reducing costs to stay competitive, but in many cases existing labor contracts made that difficult or impossible. In some cases, unions wound up destroying the companies and/or industries whose workers they represented, and clearly that was not ultimately in the interest of the workers. The end result is the era of unions faded as people realized they needed any job more than they needed a union job.
Today we find ourselves in a situation where the economic gap between the haves and the have-nots is larger than at any time since the Great Depression. Executives are once again getting fat off the backs of everyday Americans. This is very similar to the situation which sparked the rise of unions before. And many are clamoring for unions to rise up once again. But would that be a good thing? Would labor unions save the American middle class? Would they be able to again effectively redistribute corporate wealth for the benefit of us all?
I’m not so sure. Technology and overseas outsourcing have eliminated a significant and growing chunk of non-professional jobs. And unemployment as a whole is relatively high now, and projected to not fall for awhile. It’s not at all clear to me that the collective bargaining power unions represent offers significant leverage against the companies of today. It strikes me as too easy for companies to just pull up their tent stakes and move their operations to places where people would be willing to work for what they are willing to give.
Yet it still strikes me that some sort of union-like movement needs to arise in this country and unite the (almost former) middle class as some sort of an equalizer against the corporate machine that feeds the fat cats and increasingly controls our governments, media, and other institutions originally intended to protect us. I just don’t know what that is. Maybe you have some ideas?