We all took a respite last week from the organized horror over the prospect that the economy will be overrun by unionized workers to indulge the great tide of populist rage over taxpayer-supplied bonuses to AIG executives who helped engineer the collapse of the global financial system.
Actually, there was little sign of a break in Arkansas, where the ads, editorial writers, columnists and cartoonists kept up the drumbeat to force Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor to vote against cloture and stymie the Employee Free Choice Act, which would let workers form a union and bargain with the boss when most of them formally express a wish to do so. Washington's panic over the AIG bonuses was only a discordant note.
Lincoln's and Pryor's votes to stop a filibuster against the so-called card-check bill may be pivotal, so the national anti-union campaign is focused on their constituents. Arkansas also is a focus because the bill's card-check provisions and tougher penalties are supposed to be aimed at Wal-Mart, which has employed the forbidden strategies to keep its workers from bargaining collectively through the Service Employees and Food and Commercial Workers unions.
An analyst for Citigroup, which has joined Bank of America in leading the battle against the union bill, ceremoniously downgraded its rating on Wal-Mart from buy to hold because she said the bill might pass and the big retailer would become less profitable, a warning both to Arkansans and Wal-Mart shareholders.
But here is another way to look at the card-check and executive bonus controversies. They form a natural and maybe unavoidable intersection of economic forces, the long decline of unionizing and the fortunes of workers and the simultaneous meteoric rise of the financial sector and executive compensation. Let us remember that the 418 executives of the big insurance conglomerate, who got “retention” bonuses of $165 million after federal bailout funds arrived, followed bonuses to bailed-out executives at Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and other financial houses.
The fact that the big banking houses are the recipients of post-bailout executive bonuses and also leaders in the campaign against union legislation is more than coincidence and more than symbolic. One affects the other. When unions and bargaining are a consideration, you don't want to be handing out obscene executive packages. If you're never going to the bargaining table, the restraints are gone.
After the passage of the Wagner Act in the Depression, which protected the right of workers to join unions and bargain collectively, the great surge in unionizing the next 30 years helped fuel the vast expansion of the middle class and the standard of living of workers. The prospect or threat of unions kept non-union employers raising wages and benefits competitively.
But then business developed a boilerplate strategy for defeating unions through delays, selected firings, intimidation and resilient bargaining. Wherever employees petitioned to be represented by a union, the company demanded an election and supervisors were trained with the whole union-busting package. Unions rarely won elections again, and union membership and influence began a long steady descent.
Nearly 40 percent of private-sector workers belonged to a union in the 1950s and the numbers and percentages fell almost yearly until fewer than 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized today.
The well being of working families stagnated and retreated during that period but remarkably things progressed differently in the executive suites. From the '80s forward, while unions declined precipitously, executive compensation skyrocketed. The average compensation of CEOs of major companies has risen from 30 to 40 times that of the average worker to 365 times the worker's compensation.
Alan Greenspan, that great socialist and egalitarian, took note of the growing income disparity in the workforce and rocketing corporate profits three years ago when he was testifying before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. For many years, the Federal Reserve chief said, the 80 percent of the workforce represented by nonsupervisory workers had seen little if any income growth while the executive force and investors had realized spectacular income growth.
“As I've often said [not where many people heard him],” Greenspan testified, “this is not the type of thing which a democratic society — a capitalist democratic society — can really accept without addressing.”
Greenspan hasn't endorsed the Employee Free Choice Act. At that time he had not even acknowledged that the deregulation of finance he had so ardently championed had brought disaster to the nation and the world. But if not by leveling the playing field for employees, how would he address the problem?
But back here on the plantation, that is not the question. It is how do you stop a young woman from the Service Employees International Union from terrifying stock workers and clerks and forcing them to sign union cards for the company? If you don't recognize her, that is she in the Ramirez cartoons and the editorials and columns in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette looking like one of the barrel-chested toughs in “On the Waterfront.”