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October 1, 2009

Critical Forces

Tony Soltero

The Frederick County Republican Party recently attempted to engage in a clumsy bit of character assassination with a missive that tried to create controversy out of Democratic mayoral candidate Jason Judd's background with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). For good measure, they threw in a reference to their boogeyman-du-jour, ACORN.


While this is typical for the Republicans – since they can't win on ideas, they need to make campaigns out of wedge-issue innuendo – The Frederick News-Post's decision to feature this silly little partisan manifesto as its lead story in a recent edition is an excellent illustration of why newspaper sales nationwide have been plummeting.


Be that as it may, this ginned-up kerfuffle offers a revealing and insidious glimpse into the anti-labor, anti-union mindset that permeates conservative thinking. At a time when our economy is shedding jobs right and left, when working people are seeing their employers abscond with their pensions, losing their health-care coverage, and falling ever further into Third World standards of living, we need unions, and the protections they offer working people, more than ever.


In the years immediately following World War II, a far greater proportion of Americans belonged to unions than do today. And it's no coincidence that the postwar years were the most prosperous period ever enjoyed by any nation-state in world history. Prior to that, as America industrialized in the 19th century, living conditions for most working people remained miserable, even as the economy went through brisk "growth." Once working people got organized and found a way to share in the national prosperity they were instrumental in creating, our nation reached levels of affluence as of yet unmatched by any others.


The reason for this is self-evident. Healthy workers with good medical coverage miss fewer days of work, and produce more. Well-paid workers with ample leisure time spend money on vacations and other entertainment pursuits, stimulating those sectors of the economy. They buy products with more value added and higher profit margins. And well-treated workers, free from occupational hazards, harbor more loyalty to their companies and are much less likely to quit for trivial reasons. Demand-side economics works.


This win-win scenario did not last forever, of course. Employers found that they could make their stockholders happier (in the short term) by shipping manufacturing jobs overseas, freed from the "regulations" and "high taxes" that separate first-world countries from third-world ones.


Why hire an American for a textile mill when you can get a 10-year-old Vietnamese girl to sew dresses for one-tenth the cost? And the cascade of free-trade agreements with economically poor nations – entered into by leaders of both parties – further weakened American labor and drove our standard of living further down. This process is still occurring, and it's a major contributor to the current Great Recession – people don't spend money they don't have.


This is why unions like SEIU are so critical to our future. Manufacturing jobs can be shipped overseas; but the kinds of positions represented by the SEIU cannot – those are mainly service jobs, which usually must be performed at the location. You can't relocate your Baltimore hotel to Indonesia. And these jobs are currently low-pay, low-benefit positions that don't enable workers to participate in the economy – exactly what steel-mill jobs were in the 19th century. SEIU's mission is to do for hotel workers and waiters what the AFL-CIO did for assembly-line workers. And when this is accomplished, we'll have a better chance of regaining much of our lost prosperity.


Of course, conservatives are acutely aware of this, and because conservatism is all about the preservation of hierarchical power relationships, they view the empowerment of working people as a threat to the established order. That's really what's behind their opposition to unions – it’s not "economic competitiveness." (That was one of the main arguments used in support of slavery. Freeing the slaves would have been "bad for the Southern economy.") And so we see them denigrating labor unions at every turn – while defending the Wall Street banks that have played an enormous role in our economic problems.


But the labor movement is a major player in American history, and had a huge role in securing America's level of prosperity. There's no reason it can't do so again.


Jason Judd should be proud of his association with SEIU.


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