Truthdig Radio: Power in a Union
Posted on Apr 7, 2011
Truthdig Radio airs every Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles on 90.7 KPFK. If you can’t listen live, starting on Wednesday nights look for the podcast and transcript of each week’s show right here on Truthdig.
We put together a very special show on the labor movement, covering the gamut from farmworkers to teachers and even millionaire athletes.
This special edition of the Truthdig Radio show was broadcast nationally as part of Pacifica’s national teach-in on the subject.
The show below features Bill Boyarsky and Jim Mamer on teachers, Philip Dray on why “there is power in a union” and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta and former United Auto Workers officer Paul Schrade in conversation with Robert Scheer. Also: Howie Stier reports from the streets of L.A. and Mark Heisler puts millionaire athletes in context.
Click to listen to the show, or continue reading the full transcript below.
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Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio from KPFK Los Angeles, coming to the whole Pacifica network on a special day of themed programming around the subject of labor. Today we’re going to run the gamut from farmworkers to teachers to millionaire athletes, and later we’ll be speaking with Dolores Huerta and many, many other guests. But first, Philip Dray.
Josh Scheer: Well, we’re sitting here with Philip Dray, and we’re here with Robert Scheer, and I’m Joshua Scheer. We’re discussing Philip’s book, “There is Power in a Union.” Why do you think people overlook labor history?
Philip Dray: Good question! You know, I think it’s because the labor movement, over the past half-century, went into kind of a decline. It began losing numbers; unionized jobs disappeared, because of new technology; you had large industrial centers like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, sort of dwindle in size; you had charges of corruption against unions, which tended to stick in people’s minds. And then, of course, you had globalization in the last 15, 20 years, which reduces the leverage that unionized workers have, and so tends to reduce the power of unions generally. And I think they’ve been cast sort of unfairly as organizations that bargain for generous pensions, and that kind of thing, and then wind up messing up cities’ fiscal situations, or what have you. But you know, I think there’s been a lot of negative public relations about unions, from various sources; I don’t think that much of it is really deserved.
Robert Scheer: This is Robert Scheer cutting in. Let me just say, what your book captures is the vibrant, robust contribution of trade unions to American democracy. And what has really happened is that the political system, through the work of lobbyists, has been turned against unions. So you can go back to Taft-Hartley and that whole battle, but globalization, all these things didn’t happen by accident. In your book you talk about Ronald Reagan’s role, the air traffic controllers issue going back to 1981. So the destruction of unions was not a natural phenomenon.
Philip Dray: Yeah, that’s a very good point, you know. People have been out to get unions through one means or another for a very long time, whether it was the misuse of the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Palmer Raids, what have you, and now this most recent assault, of course, against collective bargaining in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
Robert Scheer: You know, speaking of that, I mean, what is so infuriating about this—the Wall Street Journal on Monday has a big story about how wages are stagnant, this is the wageless recovery. You know, unemployment has gone down to 8.8%, and we’re supposed to be happy with this, and there’s a very large number of people who can’t, have given up looking for jobs, and the people who get jobs are very often getting them below their skill set, below what they had expected. And you have, now, these multinational corporations can move their practices abroad, where they don’t have taxes to face, and they can take advantage of this reserved army of the unemployed, if you like, to drive wages down. Does this foretell a whole erosion of the American middle class that was built on good-paid jobs?
Philip Dray: Well, I think that’s already underway. You know, I think that really a lot of people think of the PATCO strike of 1981, when Reagan got rid of all the air traffic controllers in one fell swoop, as kind of the beginning of all that. It certainly ushered in an era when workers were seen as contingent workers, as temps, they could be replaced, and so on. And then of course, again, as you point out, as the power of the corporations goes global, labor just had no way to keep up with that. And so yeah, as a result, you find the labor, you know, work force disenfranchised, in a sense. And of course now, they’re actually trying to disenfranchise and really kind of deny them some of their most essential, quasi-constitutional rights, really, for collective bargaining.
Josh Scheer: You know, in your book, it’s not just about Reagan; you go back into the 1870s, and I was wondering about the Tompkins Square Riot. And you talk about riot after riot, and these kind of very vibrant scenes. Is that something that’s going to be required in the future, do you think? To get unions back, to have more of a, you know, there’s going to be a battle?
Philip Dray: That’s a really good question because, you know, if they start taking away collective bargaining rights, it does cast the workers back to the conditions that they were in before collective bargaining. And of course, that’s what collective bargaining was partly meant to get rid of, to ameliorate, was this sense of working people having no rights, really. And the idea was it was part of the progressive movement of the early 20th century, what they called industrial democracy. It was literally a way to bring workers into the American system, and give them some status, some standing. And so when you take that away, yes of course, you are asking for all kinds of unseen problems.
Robert Scheer: You know, it’s interesting, your book deals with a sort of mythology in America; the self-made person, and why do you need unions. And unions challenge that notion; they say no, it’s not a level playing field, we have to collectively work for our common rights and so forth. And we’re in a very odd moment now when you have an economic meltdown that is directly the result of Wall Street policies and government policies purchased by Wall Street, deregulation of the financial industry. And yet the people paying the price for this are unionized, primarily unionized government workers, who are being told they’ve got to take it in the neck now because of what Wall Street did. And there’s a disconnect here that the mass media doesn’t seem to comment on.
Philip Dray: I mean, you’re right on a couple of accounts there. Of course, there’s always been that kind of myth of the rugged individual; it has always played against the collective might of unions in America. You know, that’s always been a factor. And now, you’re absolutely right of course, it’s—you know, I think it’s almost comical, if it wasn’t so tragic, that the people who are blamed now are public school teachers—of all people. Like, of all the stuff that’s gone on in the last decade, with the corporations and the big banks and whatever, the idea that it’s the fault of the public schoolteachers, who are pretty … you know, they’re a hard-bitten bunch; I mean, they work hard, they have a hard job, they don’t earn all that much money, whatever. And yeah, I mean, you know, these pensions or whatever they are were negotiated in good faith. Corporations and employers love to give away things over the rainbow, in exchange for lower wages in the near term. So then to come back years later and say, “Well, it’s your greed that’s causing all this meltdown,” yeah, of course, it’s totally fallacious.
Robert Scheer: Why did you write a book on labor? I mean, it seems sort of a thankless task. It came out in October of last year. And, you know, we don’t teach labor history in the schools; newspapers have huge business departments; sometimes they have a labor reporter; rarely, though. And what prompted you to capture this history, and why do you think it’s important, and why should people read your book?
Philip Dray: Well, again, I think it was something…a little perverse, I agree. And I remember at the time I thought, “Gee, a book… who would even…” You know, it was not an easy sell to the publishers, to be perfectly honest. People thought “Labor history?” But yeah, I felt…you know, when you look into it, of course—you’re aware of this, I’m sure a lot of your listeners are, too—it’s an enormous history; it involves millions of people, there were all kinds of dramatic episodes and victories and setbacks. So it just seemed kind of ridiculous that it would be forgotten, particularly given the kind of pernicious assaults on unions. And going forward, I believe in the title of my book. I believe there is power in a union, and how that’ll work out in years ahead, I don’t know. But I do think, as we see recently with Wisconsin, I do think people will respond; I think people do cherish collective bargaining and other essential rights for working people, and they will collectivize and turn to those, turn to their colleagues when necessary.
Robert Scheer: Well, let’s end with a bigger plug for your book than you’re giving. I think it provides an indispensable point to the current debate that’s been ignored. The labor unions have been the main way of expanding the middle class, preserving American democracy; you capture that rich history in this book published by Doubleday, and people should go out and buy it.
Philip Dray: Well, thank you for providing more amplitude. [Laughs]…thank you so much.
Josh Scheer: Well, thank you for joining us, Philip. And again, go out and buy the book, “There Is Power in a Union.”
Peter Scheer: Last week, the labor movement could be found on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. We sent Howard Stier to take a look.
Howie Stier: Pershing Square, a vast expanse of concrete in downtown Los Angeles, is where, during the Great Depression, authors Charles Bukowski and John Fante came to take in the pageant of human life. It’s where crowds gathered in 1960 to catch a glimpse of presidential candidate John Kennedy arriving to accept a nomination at the Democratic National Convention. And it is where thousands of union workers—truck drivers, movie technicians, farmworkers, and nurses and teachers and janitors rallied last weekend in a show of support for the beleaguered state public workers of Wisconsin. [Indistinct yelling] Timothy Sklekens, a supermarket cashier, motivated unionists from UFCW Local 770, representing food industry workers. You’re protesting Ralphs, particularly?
Timothy Sklekens: Ralphs is one of the stores, one of the big three, that’s not negotiating contracts with us. We’ve had several meetings with them, and they’re not taking us seriously. We want a decent contract, we want a fair wage. Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons are the big three that we’re negotiating with now, and we just want a fair contract. We’re out here to show that we want a fair wage, like everybody else.
Howie Stier: So where does Ralphs come in?
Timothy Sklekens: Right now, they’re negotiating, trying to [take] away our benefits again, like they do every contract. So we’re out here to fight it.
Howie Stier: Tim Canova is an attorney and a professor of law at Chapman University in Orange, California, and a consultant to labor organizers. He’s concerned that an assault on union rights will hinder an economic recovery.
Tim Canova: We have a major jobs crisis, the most severe jobs recession in a century, and unions have to get on board to try to apply a lot of political pressure to create jobs. The private sector’s not creating them; the whole trend has been for austerity and budget-cutting, and now is not the time to be cutting budgets. Now is the time for the government to step up and to actually have jobs programs.
Howie Stier: Well, with unions, as we saw in Wisconsin, being undercut by legislators, what hope is there other than coming out in the streets?
Tim Canova: Well, there needs to be recalls in places like Wisconsin. Politicians who think that they can just bust public-sector unions and have anti-worker policies have to pay a big price for it. And an immediate price. So the recalls that they’re now undertaking in Wisconsin—that’s the way to go. The biggest inequality in income since the Gilded Age. You know, Wall Street executives haven’t been taking a hit at all; their salaries, their bonuses, keep going higher and higher. They’re the ones that wrecked this economy, not the teachers, not labor, not workers, organized or unorganized. And while wages are going down, that hurts the economy for everyone. You need more purchasing power in the economy. You see, right now, gas prices going up again, more than four dollars a gallon here at the pump in California. That means less money for people to spend on all other kinds of things. So it has ripple effects throughout the entire economy. And it’s all part of this fantasy that if you could just get rid of government, somehow the private sector will create jobs. That’s never been the way that jobs and economic development has occurred in this country. So regulation is only a bad word when the regulators get captured by industry.
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