We used to fight for great things. Noble things. Now look at us. What Democrats want these days is a look at Trump’s tax returns and the unredacted version of the Robert Mueller Report. Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to get those documents. Transparency is important. But they’re hardly talking about the great issues of our time like poverty, the retirement crisis or ecocide.
Democrats are optimistic about their prospects for this November’s Congressional midterm elections. But, as I argued in The Wall Street Journal last week, the party’s growing (and increasingly powerful) progressive base may well decide to sit on their hands, staying home on Election Day — just as a determinative number of Bernie Sanders’ supporters did in 2016.
Don’t be mad at them. Would you vote for a party that promised you nothing whatsoever?
To avoid again snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Democratic leaders must energize their long-neglected base. They should take their cue from Newt Gingrich in 1994 by nationalizing the election with an unapologetically left-leaning platform promising substantial change if they take back the House and/or Senate. Item one seems obvious: they should promise to impeach Donald Trump.
But anti-Trumpism wasn’t enough to win in 2016 and it won’t be enough this year either, especially in races featuring incumbents defending gerrymandered districts. Democrats should set aside identity politics in favor of a class-based agenda that leverages the low unemployment rate in order to restore some of the power workers have lost to decades of downsizing, outsourcing and deunionization.
If not now, when? True, many employers are deploying monopsonic tactics like non-compete and no-poaching clauses to keep workers toiling at their firms without giving them a raise. Even so, there are so many new jobs that corporations are complaining about labor shortages. Working Americans are never going to have a better chance to pressure their bosses to treat them better.
What should the Democrats’ pro-worker platform for 2018 include?
Let’s start with a $25-an-hour federal minimum wage. Sounds radical, but it’s what the lowest-paid workers would earn if Congress had tied the rate either to increases in worker productivity since 1960 or to the official inflation rate (the real one is higher) since the end of the Vietnam War. Going forward, the minimum wage should be indexed to the (real) inflation rate. Bosses say they’d have to lay people off but studies show that’s a bluff. As a concession to employers, the minimum wage could be adjusted downward if there’s deflation.
The United States is one of the few countries on earth — perhaps the only country — with “at-will” employment. Under U.S. labor law, employers can fire workers for any reason that isn’t specifically illegal, such as discrimination by gender or race, or retaliating against a whistleblower. In Europe, there are no independent contractors. All employees get a contract. Unless it’s for good cause (like a worker caught stealing), bosses can’t lay you off without paying you months, or even years, of severance pay. American workers too deserve to be treated with dignity. Democrats should end the obscenity that is at-will.
Under a Clinton-era law, American workers get up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for events like the birth of a baby. Talk about cheap! According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. is the only one of 41 countries that doesn’t offer at least two months of paid leave. Estonia gives more than a year and a half. Paid. Are Estonians better people, more deserving of time with their kids, than Americans? Germany offers more than 40 weeks — so who really won World War II?
Employers often fire workers because they want to join or organize a union. This is already illegal. But that law is toothless because employers simply make up some other reason to get rid of pro-union workers. Getting rid of at-will employment would solve the problem.
These fixes address issues that have long afflicted workers. Going forward, after this fall, Democrats should also take on the big systemic shifts in the workplace that are leaving even more working people underpaid and underprivileged despite putting in a hard week’s work.
Freelancers and independent contractors currently make up more than a third of American workers. They don’t get an employer-matched 401(k), much less a pension. They pay for their own healthcare. The 1099 set needs and deserves paid family leave, protection from fickle at-will employers and a nest egg for retirement.
Just shy of 20% of workers work part-time; many people hold multiple part-time jobs because they can’t find one full-time position. The system needs to take care of their health, retirement and worker-protection requirements as well.
No one is talking about the looming Generation X retirement — or lack of retirement — crisis. Nevertheless, it’s coming. Gen Xer retirement saving rates are terrifyingly low. An obvious solution is beefing up Social Security, but Republicans are slashing benefits instead.
Based on their record of inaction and subservience to corporate interests, I don’t expect Democrats to roll up their sleeves and take on the pocketbook issues progressives — and many swing voters — care about. But if I’m wrong, and they get serious about the stuff that matters most, they’ll win.
(Ted Rall’s (Twitter: @tedrall) brand-new book is “Meet the Deplorables: Infiltrating Trump America,” co-written with Harmon Leon. His next book will be “Francis: The People’s Pope,” the latest in his series of graphic novel-format biographies. Publication date is March 13, 2018. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
Not long ago, journalists were expected to work stories by getting out of the office and tracking them down. The new breed of online journalists who have replaced them sit on their butts, monitoring tweets in the hope that some celebrity or politician will say something stupid so they can trash them. This is what, in an age of minute budgets, passes for journalism.
My mother retired recently from teaching under pretty much the best possible working conditions one could expect in an American high school: she taught high school French in an Ohio suburb whose demographics are at least 90% white, ranging from middle to upper-middle class. By the end of her career, she was relatively decently paid. Her students weren’t hobbled by poverty or challenged due to not having mastered English. Since French was an elective, her kids pretty much wanted to be there (though getting cut due to low enrollment was a worry).
Still, it was a tough job. Sure, class is 8 to 3 and she got those long summer vacations. But I remember watching her get up at 5:45 so she could prepare for class during the calm before the morning bell. She rarely got home before 5 — there’s always some meeting to attend — and then she had to grade papers and prepare the next day’s classes. Teaching is a performance. You’ve got roughly six hours to fill, keeping the kids entertained and engaged enough to get them to pay attention to what they need to learn. It’s exhausting, especially when you were up until 11 the night before correcting tests and averaging grades.
The summers were nice, but my mom spent the last half of June and the better part of July crashed out, recuperating. As for the last half, it wasn’t like we could afford to go on any trips. Not on a crummy teacher’s salary. For the first few decades of a teacher’s career, the pay is crap.
Raises don’t keep up with inflation. Parents constantly complain, often without cause. Administrators constantly lard on more responsibility, more paperwork, more rules, always more stuff to do on the same crummy salary. Moreover, budgets are always being cut. Even in lily-white districts like my mom’s, teachers find themselves hitting the office supply store to buy stuff for their students — out of that crummy paycheck.
During the last few decades, particularly since Reagan, the Right has waged war on teachers and their unions. From No Child Left Behind to the sneakily anti-unon, anti-professionalization outfit Teach for America to the Common Core, conservatives are holding teachers accountable for their kids’ academic performance. Sometimes it’s fair. Sometimes it’s not. Even the smartest and hardest-working teacher is going to have trouble getting good state test scores out of a classroom full of kids brutalized by abuse at home, poverty, crime and neglect.
The latest skirmish in the edu-culture war is over tenure, and it’s unfolding this week in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Superintendent John Deasy of the Los Angeles Unified School District is supporting a lawsuit, backed by a right-wing front group called Students Matter, that would eliminate teacher tenure as we know it in California. Tenure, say nine students recruited as plaintiffs, makes it too hard to fire bad teachers.
Not so fast, counter the unions. “Tenure is an amenity, just like salary and vacation, that allows districts to recruit and retain teachers despite harder working conditions, pay that hasn’t kept pace and larger class sizes,” James Finberg, a union lawyer, told the court. It also protects workers/teachers from being fired over their political beliefs, gender and religion — or just being too “mouthy,” i.e., speaking out against budget cuts.
As a parent, it’s easy to see why it would be good to make it easier to fire bad teachers. As the son of a hard-working teacher, it’s easier to see why teachers would need tenure. As in any other workplace, which teachers are judged “good” or “bad” falls to the boss — in this case, usually the school principal — who may or may not render a fair judgment free of personal bias based on personality or philosophy. Accusations of wrongdoing or incompetence levied by parents may or may not be fair.
Until my mom got tenure, she was afraid of disciplining students. She didn’t dare be active in her union. She didn’t want to reveal, in a Republican town, that she was a Democrat. Tenure didn’t make her lazy after she got it, but it did make her more relaxed, less terrified of her boss. Which made her a better, wiser, smarter teacher.
Tenure doesn’t prevent districts from firing teachers. It makes it hard. (Not impossible: two percent of teachers get fired for poor performance annually.) Which, frankly, is something that every worker who has ever experienced an unfair review should be able to empathize with. If anything, the only thing wrong with tenure is that only teachers can get it.
Susan here. Now that the Margaret Thatcher funeral celebrations are winding down, I think it best to present a passionate disection of her character by someone who has fought her for 40 years:
Please watch the entire episode before commenting. It’ll be worth the time spent.
I draw cartoons for The Los Angeles Times about issues related to California and the Southland (metro Los Angeles).
This week: L.A. teachers agree to shortening the school year by 10 days to 175 days, and accept a commensurate pay cut. This is the fourth year in the row that the school year has been shortened.
Labor Leaders to Blame for Workers’ Weakness
I will never understand why the people who are jealous of unionized workers who earn $50,000 a year give a pass to the incompetent bank executives who get $5,000,000. Resentment is a terrible thing to waste.
Given how terribly companies have treated workers in recent years—mass layoffs, outsourcing, stagnant wages, piling on the work, while they pay their executives seven-figure salaries—you’d think Americans would be more receptive to unions. But organized labor’s bad rep isn’t surprising. A half-century of smears by big business and their media allies and sleazy laws passed by corrupt anti-worker politicians (c.f. the Taft-Hartley Act) have established today’s image of organized labor as corrupt, selfish and marginal.
As if that propaganda colossus wasn’t enough to contend with, labor unions have responded to these attacks with a series of poorly thought-out strategies that fed into that narrative.
As a result fewer than seven percent of private-sector workers belong to a union. And the last union stronghold, public-sector employees (36 percent represented), is under siege by Republicans in states like Wisconsin and Ohio.
Where did union leaders mess up? They made so many bone-headed decisions that it’s hard to know where to start.
During the 1980s unions forgot what they were and who they represented. They abandoned their traditional oppositionalism to management on the ground that their fates were interlinked: if the plant closed, union members would lose their jobs. Embracing schemes like “quality circles” and the “team concept,” in which workers and shop stewards worked side-by-side with bosses, unions increased efficiency at their own expense, essentially crossing their own non-existing picket lines. Unions took seats on the boards of companies they were supposed to be pressuring for higher wages and benefits.
The results of hobnobbing with corporate executives were predictable: givebacks and concessions to companies so they can pay their executives more and more. In 2009, for example, the United Auto Workers agreed to freeze their salaries to help save the big three Detroit automakers. They also slashed employee benefits, including healthcare.
Did the Big Three use those savings to invest in new plants? Hell no. They continued to outsource jobs overseas. Meanwhile, as UAW members got laid off and struggled through pay freezes, Ford gave president and CEO Alan Mulally a raise in his stratospheric annual salary, to $17.9 million. GM forked over $9 million to CEO Daniel Akerson. Despite having no apparent God-like superpowers—at this pay scale the dude ought to be able to shoot flames out of his mouth—Chysler-Fiat felt it appropriate to pay $7.7 million to its CEO, Sergio Marchionne.
This “please let me sit at the jocks’ table” mentality persists. UAW President Bob King said in January that seats on the boards of each of the big three Detroit automakers are at the top of his wish list. Memo from reality: you don’t hang out with your enemy. You fight them.
What is the point of a union that sells out its members?
The byword of American labor is “solidarity.” Considering that employers have the media and government on their side, sticking together is the only way to win.
Yet all too often unions under siege during the 1980s and 1990s did the opposite. They created two classes of workers—old and grandfathered-in, versus the young and screwed. In return for protecting wages and benefits for their existing (older) membership, unions such as the International Longshoremen’s Association agreed to a drastically lower tier of wages for new hires. By looking out for their narrow short-term interests, the ILA confirmed the perception that they were less interested in workers rights than self-preservation. Ironically it mortgaged its future in the process.
John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO from 1995 to 2009, spearheaded a drive to organize women, minorities and low-paid workers. Though laudable, the new emphasis neglected labor’s traditional base, white males, who also happen to be politically influential “Reagan Democrats,” a.k.a. swing voters. These “angry white males” became today’s right-wing Tea Party.
Big labor’s abusive love affair with the Democratic Party has been bafflingly counterproductive. I don’t have a problem with the “forced” collection of union dues; it’s fair to require everyone who benefits from higher wages and benefits to support the union that makes them possible. But it’s ridiculous to use those dues to support one political party—the Democrats. Between 1990 and 2008 unions made more than $667 million in political campaign contributions, 92 percent to Dems.
Which might be justifiable, if unions got anything in return. NAFTA, GATT and WTO (signed by Clinton and continued by Obama) gutted American manufacturing jobs. The 2009-10 Democratic majority Congress ignored labor’s top priority, the Employee Free Choice Act. Neither Clinton nor Obama even considered repealing Taft-Hartley, which bans wildcat strikes, solidarity strikes, secondary boycotts, union shops and allows courts to break strikes arbitrarily.
A still bigger mistake has been labor’s inexplicable refusal to go after the ersatz “while collar” workplaces.
“There’s something new in the air,” UC Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken, who studies labor issues, told Reuters. “There is a sense that white-collar workers have become the blue-collar workers of the 21st century in terms of job security, wages and benefits. That’s certainly how they’re treated. And if you’re treated like a blue-collar worker, you may respond like a blue-collar worker and seek to protect benefits and maintain some job security.”
The AFL-CIO and other unions talk about organizing the white-collar ghetto. But they aren’t doing much. Few workers in the tech sector or advertising or finance or the media have ever met a union organizer. If labor had its act together, no cubicle farm in America would go a year without an attempt to unionize it.
Without the passage of a “card check” law to reduce employer retaliation, union organizing attempts might fail—but the workers who voted yes would always appreciate that they were trying to help them live better lives.
Labor is on the ropes. With the economy getting worse, however, there has never been a greater need for union leaders to get smarter and more militant—or a better opportunity to reverse their long slide.
(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)
COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL