“Why Unions Matter has been so popular because it provides both a guide to the basic structure, functioning, and history of American labor, and a critique of the ways in which union agitation, education, and organization have fallen short.”
Michael Yates and Fred Magdoff, The ABC’s of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know (Monthly Review Press, New York, 2009), 144 pp
Michael Yates, Why Unions Matter, 2nd Edn. (Monthly Review Press, New York, 2009), 183 pp
Michael Yates, In and Out of the Working Class (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, Winnipeg, 2009), 217 pp
Michael Yates, Cheap Motels and a Hotplate: An Economist’s Travelogue (Monthly Review Press, New York, 2007), 208 p
As the U.S. workforce continues to suffer from the worst recession since the “Great Depression,” organized labor now represents only one in eight workers and faces a difficult recovery too. Even “friends of labor” wonder when unions will be back on their feet, if ever. With no working class comeback in sight, political scientist Mark Schmitt recently warned readers of The American Prospect that they might have to get used to the idea of “a vibrant liberal movement” that “doesn’t have organized labor at the center of it.”
According to Schmitt, who serves as executive editor of TAP, “labor’s lack of clout to pass EFCA [the Employee Free Choice Act] in even the most overwhelmingly Democratic – and progressive – Congress in decades is an indication that we already have a successful progressive movement in which labor plays only a modest role.” While “dozens of engaged liberals” still have “no idea why EFCA matters,” Schmitt believes that key union goals shouldn’t simply be jettisoned. A “new progressive coalition” propelled by “minority, professional, and younger voters, with help from a large gender gap” may end up downplaying “the economic crisis facing American workers” by “casually reassuring us that more education is the answer to all economic woes.”
To avoid that, Schmitt argues, “the rest of the progressive world needs to feel a sense of moral obligation about questions like the future of American manufacturing and the working middle class.” Even if liberals “can begin to imagine a progressive coalition that doesn’t have organized labor … at its core,” they need to keep the concerns of labor “at its heart,” he said.
Radical economist Michael Yates grew up in a now-depressed manufacturing town in western Pennsylvania. Even after 32-years spent working as a college professor, he keeps the blue-collar experiences of his one-time high school classmates, friends, neighbors, and family members very close to his heart. He believes that embattled workers today need and deserve more than just liberal sympathy. During the 1930s, progressives enthusiastically embraced labor’s cause because newly-organized workers were a major force behind New Deal legislation that provided employment, workplace protection, and the beginnings of retirement security for millions of people. In ABCs of the Economic Crisis, Yates joins forces with fellow Monthly Review contributor Fred Magdoff to explain the “great unraveling” of American corporate capitalism – and our under-funded “welfare state” – eight decades later.
Yates and his co-author total up the tab, so far, for “a potentially deep and long-lasting downturn” that “is no ordinary recession.” The financial toll – in terms of lost homes, jobs, pensions, and living standards – has been devastating for many workers and their families. Unlike many mainstream media commentators, who tend to cloak the workings of our troubled economy in a fog of mystery and mystification, Yates and Magdoff strive for “straightforward and easy to understand language.” (In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that Yates, an editor at Monthly Review Press which published my own labor-related essay collection last summer, is damn good at straightening out other people’s tangled prose as well!) The intended audience of The ABCs is “workers, students, and activists who are trying to grasp what is happening and want to organize and do something about it.” In one slim volume, the authors provide a very readable account of what makes capitalism tick and become unstuck; why modern capitalist economies are so prone to recurrent crises; and how “neo-liberalism” has, throughout the world, undermined labor via the triple-whammy of privatization, deregulation, and free trade.
The book also sifts through the debris left behind by the bursting of our domestic “housing bubble” and related speculative scheming in complicated new “financial products” like “derivatives.” They show how, alongside “the real economy of production,” a financial economy has arisen that began “to take on a life of its own, not always connected to the world of production.”
The financial economy, sometimes referred to as a ‘shadow banking system,’ greatly overshadows the real economy in which actual physical products are made and sold and real services provided. This increasingly important sector for generating profits was built on a base of rising levels of debt and the invention of new ways to gamble. It became a highly leveraged giant casino.
The authors make a strong link between long-term wage stagnation – another sign of union weakness – and the pressure on Americans to work longer hours, take on a second job, and/or assume huge amounts of debt in the form of home mortgages, auto and education loans, and unpaid credit-card balances. While this “debt and credit binge of the past few years worked out pretty well for the wealthy,” even some of the biggest institutions they own and control ended up demanding – and getting – a huge infusion of tax-payer dollars in 2008-9 to keep the “giant casino” on Wall Street afloat a little bit longer.
Yates and Magdoff warn that this costly federal bail-out is deeply flawed, providing far less relief than workers and their families need. Their book concludes with a laundry list of “things worth fighting for” – in the area of food, housing, education, health care, and jobs – that may or may not be achievable under our current economic system, but will certainly require a much stronger labor movement.
Which is where Yates’ new edition of Why Unions Matter comes in. Originally published in 1998, this book has sold more than 20,000 copies – making it a best-seller in labor circles, due to its widespread use in working class studies programs, union education courses, and other venues. In his updated version, Yates covers recent developments, including labor’s post-Seattle involvement with the global justice movement and the growing role of immigrants in key workplace and community struggles for a “living wage.” He views the influx of foreign-born workers not as a threat but a great opportunity because it “offers the labor movement new and enthusiastic troops for rebirth and revitalization,” on a broader multi-ethnic, multi-racial basis.
Why Unions Matter has been so popular because it provides both a guide to the basic structure, functioning, and history of American labor, and a critique of the ways in which union agitation, education, and organization have fallen short. As Yates points out, workplace representation still makes a big difference in the lives of millions of people. The data he cites is “clear and decisive” on the advantage of having union-negotiated pay, benefits, due process rights, and paid-time off, rather than no “voice at work” in places where management reigns supreme. Yet the author notes with alarm how the continuing decline in union density – described at length in his new edition – has weakened labor’s past impact on income inequality by curtailing the “spill-over” effect of collective bargaining on non-union wages and benefits.
Yates also worries, with considerable justification, that unions are losing ground on the “ideological terrain” of American society as well. A key element of current management attacks on labor (and the big business campaign against EFCA) is debunking “the notion that collective organization and action are good things.” As Yates summarizes this well-financed “bad rap,” Americans are being told, over and again, that:
Unions are outsiders interested only in dues money. The government is a denier of individual freedom and a thief that takes our hard-earned money. Its only legitimate function is to defend the country from the collective hordes bent on destroying our hallowed way of life. We are, each of us, on our own, and this is a good thing. When we act in groups, we inevitably act against our own interests and trample the liberty of others.
Yates believes “the labor movement has not challenged this world view effectively,” although he does laud U.S. Labor against the War for thwarting the same kind of “full-throated support” for “U.S. imperialism” that the AFL-CIO once routinely provided during the Cold War. Composed of local, national, and regional union bodies, plus individual trade unionists, USLAW has campaigned widely and effectively against the Bush-Obama wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Its statement of principles – a just foreign policy, an end to U.S. occupation of foreign countries, a redirecting of the nation’s resources, bringing U.S. troops home now, protecting civil rights and the rights of workers and immigrants, and solidarity with workers and their organizations around the world – is remarkable,” Yates argues, given “the sordid history” of organized labor’s past support for costly military adventures abroad.
“We all need a compass to find our way,” he concludes in Why Unions Matter. Through greatly expanded labor education and more creative forms of political action, “class conscious and democratic unions” could provide a progressive framework for “rank-and-file workers to improve their lot in life and, at the same time, think about larger issues – like the “alternative mechanisms of production and distribution” recommended in ABCs of the Economic Crisis. Yates’ insightful new collection of autobiographical essays and short fiction, In and Out of the Working Class, describes how he made his own way back to the labor movement. That journey toward home began after he achieved, with some ambivalence, advanced degrees and upward mobility that many others have used to leave the world of blue-collar work far behind them. Yates grew up among “factory families” whose lot had been greatly improved by mid-20th century industrial unionism. His father was a World War II vet and life-long hourly employee of Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company; his mother, a coal miner’s daughter and hard-working child of Italian immigrants. Complicating this family tree, in typical real-life fashion, was the author’s paternal grandfather, “a time study engineer who worshipped efficiency…and the piece rate.” Yates’ “grandpa” was a suit-and-tie-wearing Baptist and Republican teetotaler who plied his management trade on the same shop floor where his son worked, among fellow union members quite comfortable with elbow-bending at the bar and the temptations of off-track betting. (“They hated his stopwatch and always slowed down when he made his rounds…”)
In an essay entitled “The Seeds of Consciousness” – one of the best in this book – the author recounts his own uncomfortable transition from the small factory-town of his youth to the wider world of college teaching, after being radicalized by America’s war in Vietnam and its pervasive problem with racism. “My parents wanted me to get an education and a professional job and sacrificed so that I could,” he writes. “And I didn’t want to live in my hometown or work in the factory [where he had spent several summers]… I had gone far beyond my parents and nearly all of the townspeople in terms of what I knew. My values, too, were now different than theirs. I had scrapped religion and patriotism. This created some tension and guilt. I tried to live in both worlds.”
To succeed in his new career, Yates felt pressure “to take on the habits of mind and behavior of other professors, thinking and acting in ways alien” to anyone with his “class background and consciousness, such as they were.” His new work-mates in academia “had little knowledge or sympathy with working people,” although some, as their own job conditions began to deteriorate, did join Yates in four attempts at faculty unionization (all unsuccessful, due to strong administration opposition). Over time, Yates decided that, even if he was no longer a member of the working class – as traditionally defined – he “could ally myself with it, actively” by helping other workers organize, and by teaching and writing about labor economics.
Even before his early retirement from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in 2001, the author found his work with union-based “adult learners” to be far more rewarding than the always frustrating challenge of arousing undergraduates. In his classes and books for auto workers, steel workers, postal employees, nurses, and electricians, he could “reconnect with the working class in a more satisfactory way,” by drawing on the life experiences of his students, as well as his own. This enabled him to move “beyond being a radical academic, tilting so often at windmills and being part of a conservative and ideologically repressive institution no matter what I did.” Yates’ essay on “Teaching The Workers” and another entitled, “The Division Chair,” should be required reading for any younger progressives hoping to combine fruitful classroom work with union building in higher education; Yates’ continuing search for methods of making opposition to capitalism more than a private creed is much worthy of emulation.
After leaving full-time teaching, his career as a writer and researcher took an unusual turn, but readers of the Yates “oeuvre” are much better off for it. The author embarked on an episodic tour of the country that resulted in a genre-blending book entitled, Cheap Motels and a Hotplate: An Economist’s Travelogue. If a more mainstream economist, still in love with Adam Smith, had followed the same itinerary between 2001 and 2005, we no doubt would have gotten a guide to all the great vacation bargains still available courtesy of the free market. Instead, Cheap Motels is more in the tradition of Clancy Sigel’s Going Away, the mid-1950s radical road trip classic, with a little bit of Barbara Ehrenreich thrown in as well. Accompanied by his wife, Karen Korenoski, Yates surveyed life on the road – and the condition of workers and the environment – at select stops as diverse as Estes Park, Colorado, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Flagstaff, Arizona, and Moab, Utah. The result is a sad, funny, and angry travel book – one that Jim Hightower accurately reports “the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t want you to have.”
In Yellowstone National Park, Yates got himself hired as a hotel front desk clerk – experiencing first-hand how contingent workers for park service concessionaires get Nickel and Dimed in remote locations. Even during a stop in more counter-cultural Portland, Oregon – a place where the civic slogan of choice seems to be “Keep Portland Weird” – the sharp-eyed author found many a contradiction in the local job market there as well. In short, Cheap Motels and a Hotplate is a wonderful synthesis of an important body of work, reflecting the author’s working class roots, professional training, socialist sympathies, and enduring belief in the old Wobbly truth that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Read together with ABCs, Why Unions Matter, and In and Out, Yates’ excursion through the world of Cheap Motels rounds out a unique syllabus on the interrelated topics of race, class, economic inequality, and the not-so-hidden injuries of American labor. Anyone interested in binding up those wounds and helping to rebuild unions should check these books out at their local library – or, if still employed, order them on-line from www.monthlyreview.org or the Canada-based www.arbeiterring.com.
Steve Early has been active in labor since 1972 as a lawyer, journalist, organizer, and union representative. He worked for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years and was involved in CWA organizing at AT&T, Verizon, Lucent, and many other companies. He is the author of a forthcoming book for Monthly Review Press (Spring, 2009) called Embedded With American Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War At Home. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com .