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Thursday, December 18, 2003

A Mighty, Mighty Union
is what retail workers need.
The best present New York City's retail workers could get this holiday season is a card -- a union membership card, according to a new report issued today by the Economic Policy Institute. "Unionization and Poverty: The Case of New York City Retail Workers" analyzes the 10-year decline in wages and benefits paid to New York's retail workers and reviews the failure of existing public policies to address these declines. It concludes that the surest way for retail workers to improve their lives is by joining a union and the most effective public policy to help them get there would be policies that protect their right to organize.

My brother explained it to me decades ago. During World War Two, millions of working-age Americans went off to Europe or the Pacific, where economically speaking they were strictly consumers and not producers. And even though the quality and quantity of some of the things they consumed, like food and housing, may have declined from their previous standards they were still consuming these, and overall the Americans abroad were far more voracious consumers than before. Ships, airplanes, guns, bombs, ammunition, and so on were being consumed at incredible rates. And not just by American soldiers and sailors. The American "arsenal of democracy" was supplying the British, Soviets, Chinese and several others with whatever they needed to continue fighting the Axis powers. All of this was being produced by a drastically reduced workforce at home. Of course, women and others who hadn't worked in factories before were employed, and many people worked very long hours. Nevertheless, it was demonstrated that America could produce goods in amounts dramatically larger than would normally be needed in peacetime with only a fraction of the workforce.

The war ended; the troops came home. Rather than figure out a way to share the work and the wealth in some way that guaranteed nobody would get too much of the former or too little of the latter, it instead became common policy and wisdom that the only economy we could have is one with constant growth and excessive consumption. Not only does this economy destroy the environment, it also concentrates wealth. And wealth is power. When you buy something at a store, the clerk you give your money to has basically no say in how that money is distributed. The CEO sitting at his desk will get a much higher cut than the clerk will; probably hundreds of times as much. And since we have this incredible excess of "productivity," the clerk is easily replaceable if she complains or tries to take a larger cut. Only by organizing do the clerks of the world have a chance at anything like a fair share.

I don't know the answers, but I'm quite sure that things can't continue in the direction they're going now. The goal of the "cheap-labor conservatives" is to continue increasing their share of the pie to as close to 100% as possible, and they're already very close. People deserve to be able to live, but that right is systematically being denied them.

So, in the short term at least, do whatever you can to support unions.