Big Government Is Back, So Are The Trade Unions, Honoring Thy Father

In 1946, congress, imbued with the success of wartime planning, decided that within ten days of submitting his budget, the President must submit an Economic Report of the President. President Truman complied with a document of some 54 pages. It told of an America that has “never been so strong or so prosperous”, yet fearful of “another depression, the loss of our jobs, our farms, our businesses.” Plus ça change …..

The President Reports

Last week, Joe Biden submitted his 2022 Report, some 432 pages. He congratulates himself for rescuing an economy in dire straits with “nimble … well-designed and well-administered policies.” And his Council of Economic Advisers announces the end of “the retreat of the U.S. public sector from its complementary role vis-ὰ-vis the private sector in economic growth.” The era of thinking that the era of big government is over, is over.

Bliss It Is In the Biden Dawn For Trade Unions To Be Alive

Of particular interest in this day of active union organizing efforts is the section of the President’s Report in which his Council of Economic Advisers deals with the role of trade unions in America and their relation to government. For decades the share of private-sector employees who felt the need to belong to a trade union has declined, from 16.8 percent in 1983 to 9 percent in 2000, to 6.1 percent today. This has riled a President who learned at his father’s knee that unions created the middle class. Biden is often accused of being a disciple of Claude Rains’ captain of police in the movie Casablanca. Reynaud, asked about his political convictions, candidly replied, “I have no conviction…. I blow with … the prevailing wind.” Biden is no Reynaud when it comes to the importance of unions in making the American dream a reality: his commitment to his union supporters – the men who run the unions, if not so much their members – is rock-solid. His Report calls for a “counterweight” to employer power – “there is a valuable role for policy efforts that support the right to union organizing.

It Ain’t Your Father’s Labor Force

He arrives on the scene when the labor market is changing. The lunch-pail carrying, hands-calloused, hard-hat wearing laborers who toiled to give their families “a little bit of breathing room” shaped his and his father’s view of the world of work. They have been supplemented by a new flock of potential union members, younger workers with computer-calloused fingers more likely to take their lunch breaks in a salad bar serving health drinks. Never mind that to Biden sauce for the coal miner is sauce for the Apple “Genius”, as the company dubs members of its retail sales force.

They are eager to wrest control of their working hours and their very lives from their employers, and cannot be soothed with the wage increases generated by a worker-short market with 11 million job openings. “Spoiled” in the view of grumpy oldsters, who remember when jobs were scarce, benefits meager, and “take this job and shove it” not a viable strategy.

When this scribbler taught labor economics, he pointed out that selling labor was like selling “strawberries in the sun”. Unsold fruit, like unsold hours, could not be recovered. Which is why unions were needed to correct the imbalance of bargaining power between workers and employers, the latter benefiting from the presence of “a few hungry men at the gates.” Fortunately, the new pool of potential union members does not find itself in the dire circumstances of an earlier generation living in a take-it-or leave job market in which they fought for what the great Billie Holiday, in a different connection, called “a few crusts of bread and such.”

Amazon Workers, Starbucks Baristas and Apple Geniuses

Amazon workers are unionizing in pursuit of better safety conditions and a relaxation of productivity standards; Starbucks workers, already receiving full university tuition among other benefits, believe unions can extract better working conditions and less intense on-the-job supervision; and retail workers in Apple’s flagship New York City store see union membership as the way to move their $20 per hour wage to $30, while their Atlanta counterparts seek pay and status comparable to employees at corporate headquarters and “a clear way to grow”.

Woe Onto The 94% Of Non-Union Private Sector Workers, And Elon Musk

The President is not on their side. He has ordered that high-wage, unionized firms be given preference when government-funded infrastructure contracts are awarded, the higher cost to be borne by taxpayers and jobs lost to non-union workers who might have won the contracts in a fair bidding contest. Buyers of Teslas and other EVs not produced in unionized factories will be denied many subsidies ladled on customers of unionized carmakers, penalizing Elon Musk, the major driver of innovation in an industry dominated by risk-averse giant corporations. In fact, Musk is not invited to government meetings to plan the future of EVs in America, leaving those conferences in the hands of innovation-averse automakers and union leaders who know that EVs require one-third less labor than the gas guzzlers they will replace. More to come from implementation of the 70 recommendations of the President’s Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment.

This effort to enable unions to recapture their political and economic clout has little appeal to the Democrats’ progressive wing, which shot down the President’s plans to make Social Democrat Bernie Sanders his Secretary of Labor, perhaps because the senator had a rather bitter dispute with the union representing his campaign workers. Socialists and trade unions typically compete to become the source of worker benefits. Socialists prefer the political process and the government, union leaders collective bargaining and union power, which also  confers political power. Trade unions generally do not do well in socialist countries, with the possible exception of among public sector workers, who see unions as a constraint on the power of their employers, the government.

Long-Time Dance Partners Collect Their Dues

Biden is no socialist, but he is a trade union fan, believing they created the middle class. Now, after some 50 years of their support, it is payback time. The two-million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the unions backing the Starbucks and Apple dissidents, spent over $75 million supporting Democratic candidates in the 2019-2020 election cycle, nil on Republicans, and has watched some of its leaders carted off to jail for misuse of union dues.

To Biden’s convictions add the experience of a politician who knows who “brung him to the dance” and kept him whirling around the floor for half a century despite numerous missteps.

Many are the ways of honoring thy father’s memory.