The United Auto Workers strike against the nation’s big three automakers is a high stakes gambit that comes at a time when an increasing number of Americans support the union movement but the percentage of them actually in one is at an all time low.
John Samuelsen is the international president of the Transportation Workers Union that represents 155,000 workers across the airline, railroad, transit, universities, utilities, and service workers. It’s the largest airline workers union in the country.
Samuelsen said in a phone interview, that as the president of a national union he saw the Teamster’s recent UPS contract gains and UAW’s strike as signs of a “potential paradigm shift is a way that could represent a kind of great leap forward that could resonate across the trade union movement and for all working people.”
“In the same way that Reagan turned back the clock for the labor movement [in 1981] by firing all of the air traffic controllers—these two events [UPS and UAW] can turn the clock forward,” Samuelsen said.
On August 5, 1981, President Ronald Reagan, the former president of the Screen Actor Guild, executed a mass firing of 11,345 striking [PATCO] union air traffic controllers and banned them for life from federal employment after declaring that there would be “no negotiations and no amnesty.”
It’s hard to overstate what a kick in the teeth Reagan’s actions were for the labor movement that was already hurting. In the process of undermining unions, the Great Communicator captured a huge chuck of rank and file union households, a voting block Donald Trump built on in 2016.
The American union movement had already started its decline from its zenith in 1945 when over a third of the nation’s workforce, buttressed by military production, were organized. By the early 1980s, it was down to one in five. Last year, despite a major spike in strike and organizing activity, it declined from 10.3 percent in 2021 to 10.1 percent in 2022, the lowest on record.
And for the private sector today, where the UAW is making its stand, just six percent of workers are in a union as compared to the 33.1 percent that are organized in the public sector.
Reagan’s decimating of a union was rewarded in the opinions polls that showed the public, perhaps inconvenienced by the canceling of 7,000 flights, sided with Reagan against the union. One poll suggested that only 28 percent of the public thought the air traffic controllers should even have the right to strike.
That’s a universe away from polling today that shows that 71 percent of Americans support labor unions, the highest approval level since 1965. All it took was decades of flat or declining wages accompanied by a dramatic concentration of wealth at the very top that created vast wealth inequality. That great skewing upward came along with U.S. multinationals shifting production offshore, subsidized by the U.S. tax code, as corporations shifted their tax burden onto American households.
Ironically, the issues that caused the PATCO job action almost a half-century ago have only gotten worse. And like today’s UAW, under the leadership of Shawn Fain, the stressed-out air traffic controllers were looking for a four-day work week. They wanted a $10,000 raise, a better retirement package, and an upgrade of the antiquated equipment that put the flying public at risk. At the time, air traffic controller pay was in the $20,000 to $50,000 range.
The New York Times recently found that the “nation’s air traffic control facilities are chronically understaffed” and that “the shortages are more severe and are leading to more dangerous situations than previously known.”
“As of May, only three of the 313 air traffic facilities nationwide had enough controllers to meet targets set by the F.A.A. and the union representing controllers,” the newspaper reported. “Many controllers are required to work six-day weeks and a schedule so fatiguing that multiple federal agencies have warned that it can impede controllers’ abilities to do their jobs properly.”
Decades ago the air traffic controllers were trying to do something about it and were punished.
“PATCO was also concerned about on-on-the-job stress for its members, as it reported 89 percent of those who left air traffic controller jobs in 1981 were either retiring early and seeking medical benefits or leaving the profession entirely,” according to Michael Barera, labor archivist with the University of Texas at Arlington Library.
PATCO had endorsed Reagan, the former national labor leader in his 1980 bid for the White House. By the fall of 1981, the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) had the sad distinction of being the first federal workforce union to be decertified.
THE GREAT UNCOUPLING
As the role of organized labor declined, the power of capital and corporations ran the table in City Halls, State Capitals and in Washington DC as both political parties fell into line with business interests that filled their campaign war chests. It was in the 70s that the historic linkage between increased productivity and increased workers’ wages was severed, ensuring that only the owner class would see the wealth generated by technological advances.
“Starting in the late 1970s policy makers began dismantling all the policy bulwarks helping to ensure that typical workers’ wages grew with productivity,” wrote Josh Bivens and Ben Zipperer for the Economic Policy Institute in 2018. “ Excess unemployment was tolerated to keep any chance of inflation in check. Raises in the federal minimum wage became smaller and rarer. Labor law failed to keep pace with growing employer hostility toward unions. Tax rates on top incomes were lowered. And anti-worker deregulatory pushes—from the deregulation of the trucking and airline industries to the retreat of anti-trust policy to the dismantling of financial regulations and more—succeeded again and again.“
From 1973 until 2016, the Economic Policy Institute reported productivity had increased by over 73 percent, actual hourly pay for workers had only gone up by 11 percent — or more precisely, productivity had grown by more than six times the wages earned by workers.
And during COVID, a mass death event that killed 1.1 million, including thousands upon thousands of essential workers who perished, wealth concentration continued to accelerate here and around the world. In response to union organizing drives the likes of Amazon and Starbucks dug in regularly running afoul of U.S. labor law.
“The pandemic’s most significant outcome will be a worsening of inequality, both within the U.S. and between developed and developing countries,” wrote Joseph Stiglitz, in Scientific American. “Global billionaire wealth grew by $4.4 trillion between 2020 and 2021, and at the same time more than 100 million people fell below the poverty line.”
WORK VS. YOUR LIFE
There was a profound, almost existential re-evaluation of work by Americans. In 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 47.4 million Americans left their current job. To get a sense of the scale of this upheaval, consider the AFL-CIO, with its 57 constituent unions has an enrollment of 12.5 million members.
Republicans in Washington joined by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WVA) felt Washington had extended the safety net too widely during COVID and so they blocked the extension of the Expanded Child Tax Credit that in the brief six months it was offered lifted millions of children out of poverty. Their agenda was to try and give capital and the bosses more leverage on the working poor. It was time to crack the whip.
Their lash hit the mark with childhood poverty skyrocketing from 5.2 percent in 2021, a record low, to 12.4 percent, almost a 140 percent increase in a single year.
And while Americans were increasingly coming back to full time work, they were financially worse off for doing so, for two years in a row.
“Real median household income fell by 2.3 percent from $76,330 in 2021 to $74,580 in 2022,” the U.S. Census reported. “Between 2021 and 2022, inflation rose 7.8 percent; this is the largest annual increase in the cost-of-living adjustment since 1981.”
The agency’s analysis continues. “The real median earnings of all workers (including part-time and full-time workers) decreased 2.2 percent between 2021 and 2022, while median earnings of those who worked full-time, year-round decreased 1.3 percent. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of full-time, year-round workers increased by 3.4 percent, compared to a 1.7 percent increase in the number of total workers. This suggests a continuing shift from working part-time or part-year to full-time, year-round work in 2022.”
The annual Federal Reserve analysis of what percentage of Americans could cover a $400 emergency expense “with cash or its equivalent” dropped from 68 percent in 2021 to 63 percent last year. For Black Americans, it slid from 48 percent in 2021 to 43 percent. For Latinos, it was an even steeper drop off, going from 54 percent in 2021 to 47 percent.”
THE ROT FROM WITHIN
Perhaps the saddest part of the steep decline of the American labor movement has been the role that its internal corruption of varying degrees.. It’s impossible to grasp the full historical significance of the United Auto Workers strike against the nation’s big three automakers unless you know that just a few years ago a massive criminal corruption prosecution resulted in at least 15 felony convictions of national and regional union officials.
As it turns out, UAW union officials actually sold their members out to Fiat Chrysler [FCA US LLC], one of the Big Three automakers. It was cheap enough. FCA US LLC spread $3.5 million around to get the UAW leadership to betray the membership from 2009 through 2016.
“FCA US LLC conspired to make improper labor payments to high-ranking UAW officials, which were used for personal mortgage expenses, lavish parties, and entertainment expenses,” said Irene Lindow, Special Agent-in-Charge with the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General, back in March 2021, when the company was hit with a $30 million fine. The announcement from the Department of Justice continues, “Instead of negotiating in good faith, FCA corrupted the collective bargaining process and the UAW members’ rights to fair representation.”
As a consequence, thanks to a court appointed Special Master and a referendum, for the first time in its history the UAW’s close to one million active and retired workers, got to vote. Shaw Fain won the run-off by under 500 votes of the almost 140,000 that were cast.
In the on-line candidates’ forum Fain blasted the UAW’s incumbent leaders.
“I am running because I am sick of the complacency of our top leaders,” Fain stated, blasting the UAW leadership for viewing “the [auto] companies as our partners rather than our adversaries” and for feathering their own nests with “wage increases, early retirement bonuses, and pensions,” even as the rank-and-file failed to be made whole after major concessions made during the Great Recession of the late 2000s.
Now, having won by the smallest of margins he’s standing up to a system that’s kept the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour since 2009.
“If they’ve got money for Wall Street they sure as hell have money for the workers making the product,” Fain said. “We fight for the good of the entire working class and the poor.”
It’s been way too long since the president of anything has recognized just how many working Americans are poor.