Friday, August 19, 2016

Raymond Hogler - How labor’s decline opened door to billionaire Trump as ‘savior’ of American workers

Out of the economic maelstrom of the last decade, Donald Trump has emerged as the improbable, and self-proclaimed, champion of American workers. And that’s despite the fact that Trump has failed to articulate substantive policy positions regarding labor issues, other than generic railing against foreign competition and bad trade deals. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, for one, has attacked him by tweeting a number of examples in which Trump’s past behavior shows that he is no friend to working people.

The important question is how has Trump – a wealthy real estate mogul and reality TV star – managed to attract substantial support among white men without college degrees, a demographic that makes up the base of industrial unionism? The answer is an interlocking set of changing economic and cultural conditions in the U.S. that has undermined middle-class incomes and values. And it starts with the steady erosion of the American labor movement.

In my recent book on labor decline, I explored the historical evolution of the movement and concluded that state right-to-work laws are instrumental in breaking down working-class solidarity. Paradoxically, it is in these states that Trump’s support is strongest.

The decline of unionism: In 1950, Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers negotiated a landmark labor contract with General Motors known as the “Treaty of Detroit,” which set the terms for working-class prosperity over the next three decades. According to a study by economists Frank Levy and Peter Temin, the golden age of the American working class depended on a set of institutional supports that included collective bargaining and union power.

Deteriorating economic conditions and membership declines in the late ‘70’s led organized labor to mount a pivotal effort for labor law reform to reinvigorate the movement, but a proposed bill was defeated by a Republican filibuster in 1978. Subsequently, union membership fell at a faster rate than at any time since the 1920s and presently stands at 11.1 percent of workers.

The effect of union deterioration on income inequality is nicely illustrated by the relationship between membership and the income share of the top 10 percent. In 1956, membership in unions was 33.2 percent, which was slightly higher than the share of national income taken in by top earners. In 2013, the figures were 11.2 percent and 47 percent, respectively.

The role of culture: Coupled with stagnant wages, changing social conditions have inflamed the cultural divide among identity groups. A psychological theory known as “cultural cognition” argues that Americans fall primarily into two ideological camps that shape their responses to such divisive issues as guns, race, gender and public toilets… read more: