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Organized Labor: The Missing Piece of George Packer’s Equation


It’s fairly unlikely that I’ll read George Packer’s new book, The Unwinding of America. But I did read this excerpt, presumably from the introduction. Packer bemoans the decline of the fabric that held American society together, leading to today’s plutocracy, individual aggrandizement, and dysfunctional government. In part:

This deterministic view is undeniable but incomplete. What it leaves out of the picture is human choice. A fuller explanation of the Unwinding takes into account these large historical influences, but also the way they were exploited by US elites – the leaders of the institutions that have fallen into disrepair. America’s postwar responsibilities demanded co-operation between the two parties in Congress, and when the cold war waned, the co-operation was bound to diminish with it. But there was nothing historically determined about the poisonous atmosphere and demonising language that Gingrich and other conservative ideologues spread through US politics. These tactics served their narrow, short-term interests, and when the Gingrich revolution brought Republicans to power in Congress, the tactics were affirmed. Gingrich is now a has-been, but Washington today is as much his city as anyone’s.

It was impossible for Youngstown’s steel companies to withstand global competition and local disinvestment, but there was nothing inevitable about the aftermath – an unmanaged free-for-all in which unemployed workers were left to fend for themselves, while corporate raiders bought the idle hulks of the mills with debt in the form of junk bonds and stripped out the remaining value. It may have been inevitable that the constraints imposed on US banks by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 would start to slip off in the era of global finance. But it was a political choice on the part of Congress and President Bill Clinton to deregulate Wall Street so thoroughly that nothing stood between the big banks and the destruction of the economy.

Much has been written about the effects of globalisation during the past generation. Much less has been said about the change in social norms that accompanied it. American elites took the vast transformation of the economy as a signal to rewrite the rules that used to govern their behaviour: a senator only resorting to the filibuster on rare occasions; a CEO limiting his salary to only 40 times what his average employees made instead of 800 times; a giant corporation paying its share of taxes instead of inventing creative ways to pay next to zero. There will always be isolated lawbreakers in high places; what destroys morale below is the systematic corner-cutting, the rule-bending, the self-dealing.

Earlier this year, Al Gore made $100m (£64m) in a single month by selling Current TV to al-Jazeera for $70m and cashing in his shares of Apple stock for $30m. Never mind that al-Jazeera is owned by the government of Qatar, whose oil exports and views of women and minorities make a mockery of the ideas that Gore propounds in a book or film every other year. Never mind that his Apple stock came with his position on the company’s board, a gift to a former presidential contender. Gore used to be a patrician politician whose career seemed inspired by the ideal of public service. Today – not unlike Tony Blair – he has traded on a life in politics to join the rarefied class of the global super-rich.

Packer misses one big thing here: the decline of labor unions. He talks of the Roosevelt Republic and its collapse. The New Deal state was complex and came into being for a cluster of reasons. Organized labor was not really one of them, not at first anyway, with the AFL neutral to uncomfortable with much of the New Deal. But the primary factor allowing the New Deal state to stay in place for forty years was the political power of organized labor.

Packer likes moralistic bromides. For example, I just finished Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture today. Rodgers writes an intellectual history of the fragmentation of American thought and society in the late 20th century. He quotes Packer after 9/11: “What I dread now is a return to normality, to the hedonisms of the past. Instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines.” OK, OK, we get it, we are a nation of sinners.

What Packer’s moralism about the choices elites make misses is that they always made those choices when they could. The Roosevelt Republic only changed their behavior because of the combined strength of a federal government seeing corporate behavior as destabilizing the nation and threatening capitalism with tens of millions of unionized workers providing the votes and public pressure to cower corporations as best they could. One frequently sees progressive commentators today cite some business exec or Republican politician from the 1950s or early 60s on the need for labor unions or Social Security or some such thing. It always makes me chuckle because it is out of context. Rarely did these people truly believe in such social programs. And when they actually did, it was because the power of the American working class to demand these programs had become internalized within them, so they could not fathom eliminating them.

It’s one thing to leave labor unions out of such an analysis. But when you start your piece by talking about the decline of Youngstown, you really have to talk about organized labor. It was unions who improved the working and living conditions of the American working class. It was unions who fought for increased wages and shorter hours, for OSHA regulations and safety committees. Without unions, all of this has collapsed, along with Youngstown and so many other places.

The decline of labor unions isn’t the only reason for the collapse of the Roosevelt Republic. But Packer can’t understand his subject without making unions central to his inquiry. And at least from the excerpted piece, he fails to do so. I hope he does in the book.

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