Shortchanged: Joe Nocera on Unions and the Middle Class

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Nearly 1,000 public workers and their unions massed at lunch time in front of City Hall. (Sam Lewis/WNYC)

In light of the failed Wisconsin recall, Joe NoceraNew York Times op-ed columnist and co-author of All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, discusses the correlation between the decline of unions and the widening gap between the rich and the middle class.

Comments [32]

Ellen from nyc

Mr. Nocera said on Richard Heffner's TV show that he is a pragmatist, politically. So he's not an ideologue then? Ok, but when does it become necessary to take a firm position based on principles? You didn't always think unions were that crucial? If our democracy and living standards are being stolen by the 1 percent influencing our laws, then what exactly is a 'pragmatic' response? Aren't corporations actually "unions' themselves--groups combining their capital for leverage to increase profit and influence? But some expect salaried employees to remain 'individuals', thereby denying them the leverage that combining their efforts together brings.

Jun. 08 2012 01:16 AM

This is a comment from yesterday's Wisconsin discussion that may be apropos to this topic:

"Blaska’s Bottom Line: next time someone asks why can’t Republicans elect a moderate, turn the question around on them. Why can’t Democrats elect a moderate?" (referring to Barrett)

Why did President Obama's former Chief-of-Staff, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, encourage Mayor Barrett to run - in opposition to the Union backed candidate, Kathleen Falk - and then fail to supply anything more than pro-forma campaign support to Barrett?

Jun. 07 2012 05:53 PM
Calls'em from Qatar

I'm all for private unions - they are protected bu freedom of speech and freedom of association, but the guest got part of the story wrong. Nothing has been done at the federal level to make unionizing more difficult. Unions have just become less relevant. In fact recently, the House has blocked efforts by 0bama to make it unionizing ridiculously coercive, invasive and undemocratic. Unions take too much money for the little they do and spend it on the leadership and the pols in ways that many union members don't want it spent. The near 1/3 vote for Gov. Walker in Wisconsin shows this clearly. One half of all union members in the US are gun owners - many in Wisconsin voted for their gun rights and against the wing-nut leftist Democrat mayor who would have restricted their Constitutional rights. They also voted against Gore and Kerry. BTW - Big unions contribute 95% or more of the union workers money to liberal Dems while 1/3 to 1/2 of the workers are independents or Republicans. By contrast, large corporate political donations only go approximately 67% to Republicans and 1/3 to Dems. More fun facts that NPR & WNYC keep from you.

Jun. 07 2012 10:41 AM
jwbanner from NYC

I am a member of an arts union working in television/film production. I worked non-union for almost 20 years and never could achieve a middle-class living with insurance as I do now. However, we are a small membership, and even as a group our costs rose to an extreme where our eligibility threshhold and administrative fees were at a rate where much of the membership couldn't afford coverage, especially at a family level. We have a larger National affiliation which we are joining in a hybrid way to increase our pool of members to make their lower rate available to us as well. Strength in numbers is a precept which is understood by unions and Big Business alike. I do not understand why no one objects to the unification of banking and corporations(which is itself a sort of a union) which derive their collective power and now hold sway over anyone who has the misfortune to be an individual.

Jun. 07 2012 10:35 AM
Kelly from Manhattan

1. GIVEBACKS--unions have to give givebacks, you say, Joe. Then why don't the obscenely wealthy have to give givebacks??? They're called tax increases.

2. The benefits unions in the private sector gain for their members also apply to those who are not union members. At least they did at the firm from which I retired a few years ago. It's the non-union members who are taking advantage of the work done on behalf of all employees by the unions.

3. It is fascinating to hear Joe Nocera discuss this as an intellectual issue with stats and studies. He's a journalistic "star," a man who gets to negotiate directly with his bosses about his salary and benefits. Ask any of the wage laborers at any media company where he has worked in the last 20 years, and you will learn that we don't need a study to tell us our jobs are being outsourced, our benefits are being cut, we are being asked to do more for less, and meantime the shareholders are getting richer. Glad to hear you've finally smelled the coffee, Joe. It's not too late to make your union-member parents proud.

Jun. 07 2012 10:31 AM
Maria Lopez from Nassau

The peoblem is we as a country can not afford such an expensive public work force. Here in NY we pay on a small house over 1000 per month in just property tax. Basically we are only home owners in name, we have a built in ever increasing rent. At the same time, the average teacher salary in our small town in Nassau is about 100k, many making much more, superintendent over 350k, police averaging 180k. THen there are the payouts at retirement and the benefits for life. All wonderful, but it means all theese people are paper millionaires depeining upon how long they live. THis is all imploding as the expenses are causing REAL cuts in current services to pay for all of this. I am a social liberal, but even I can't close my eyes to the fact that pulic union support is so important to a politician (particularly over the past decades) that they do very little to reign in contracts -- until now when their back is against a wall.

Jun. 07 2012 10:30 AM
g in staten island from staten island

Why is having a civil servant having a comfortable retirement seen as being extrravagant--the pension is based on the amount of time you worked. 3 decades + of service is a loyale employee. Why is no one (including radio hosts) commenting or ranting about the pensions of our politicians--who often are not reelected to many decades of service. How about the "gold plated" health care that politicians get? When politicians have to have "only" the same pensions and healthcare of the civil servant, you will see their tune change. Perhaps it is time to speak about radio hosts--- union member? pensions? how is your pension calculated?

Jun. 07 2012 10:28 AM
Dan from Sunset Park

Wait a moment. Pensions are just delayed compensation. The workers and employers (are supposed to) put money into the pension each year an employee works. That money is invested so it grows over time. Then those funds are used to pay the retired workers later.

Increased pension costs in the current years are due to a combination of market downturns and mismanagement.

Also, regarding the delayed compensation, public workers take lower salaries up front in the expectation that they will receive a good pension later. If we want to reduce pension obligations, the workers need to be paid better up front.

Jun. 07 2012 10:28 AM

Joe Nocera hits a homer this time!

I'm with RJ, Jacob HSansom, Joe, Dan & Bill

Jun. 07 2012 10:26 AM
lanvy from NYC

union talk...It's all Greek to me.

Jun. 07 2012 10:25 AM
Estelle from Brooklyn

Taking away collective bargaining is a deceptive idea. Businesses and governments are automatically bargaining as a unit. It's only workers who are left to bargain individually if there's no union power.

Jun. 07 2012 10:24 AM
andy from manhattan

as for the promised benefits of the past- promises are promises. they should be kept. the system should never operate without those promises in mind.

union workers frequently suffer poor wages in exchange for their cushy benefit packages. to pull them out from under them after long years of service due to fiscal malfeasance of governments.

let's not pretend the market looks after anyone except those in positions of exploiting the markets. unions have their faults, but not moreso than big business. unions lean in the favor of the worker, where i'd much prefer to have the mistakes be made, since mistakes will always be a part of human interaction.

Jun. 07 2012 10:24 AM
amalgam from NYC by day, NJ by night

The other major benefit to anti-union and union-busting for conservative politicians, and Republicans in particular, is that they can destroy the last bastion of big Democratic support and money. Essentially, the right wing can use their concentrated, gilded wealth to destroy wages for the middle class and give all power and rights to employers at the expense of employees.

Good for those who have already got the most.

Jun. 07 2012 10:24 AM

Unions have certainly been their own worst enemies in many areas. It seems to me that they have suffered from a divergence of management and membership in much the same way that firms have seen a split between management and stockholders.

New York State has the highest rate of union membership in the country. Anybody think NY has the weakest economy nationwide?

Jun. 07 2012 10:23 AM

The big box discount store trade-off is not always just lower wages in exchange for lower prices on goods of the same quality. It's sometimes lower wages combined with cheap goods. The low prices may be helpful with short term cash flow problems, but I wonder what repeatedly buying and replacing cheap goods is costing American consumers in the long run.

Jun. 07 2012 10:22 AM
RJ from prospect hts

Thanks Joe--the difficulties it is to organize is hard to understate. The money poured into anti-union firms, that are paid enormous amounts of money to develop anti-organizing strategies--has also contributed behind the scenes long before the individual wealthy donors jumped in in the wake of Citizens United.

Jun. 07 2012 10:22 AM

Public sector unions become sources of envy when their wage structure outstrips the average wage for the taxpayer. This is a symptom, not the disease. The basic union 'cure' - keeping wages relevant to the national income - seems nonsensical when income distributin is as skewed as ours.

The Buffett Rule fixes this...Putting average wage back on par with 1962 levels would fix it, too. It would also unleash a rage of inflation but that's another story.

Jun. 07 2012 10:21 AM

why don't you ever ask your guests and listeners who were brought up in homes made comfortable from th wage earners who were also members of a strong union, how they feel about unions NOW? for example, just look at all th beautiful teeth people get to show off that was made that way from th orthodontia paid for by union healthcare plans. unions today are suffering form their own success because today many of th workplace conditions that are taken for granted were fought for, sometimes in th streets, by unionists many decades ago.

Jun. 07 2012 10:21 AM
Tony from Brooklyn

Without any Union pushback there are no reasons for a private company like Verizon or Walmart to do the right thing for their employees. Verizon has no problem giving exhorbibant pay to their CEO while short changing their shareholders and demanding givebacks from their employees. In respect to Wisconsin, the workers had existing contracts and promises that are all broken.

Jun. 07 2012 10:20 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

The market will take care of that?? We know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Diamonds: very expensive. Water: practically free. Try living without water. (High-maintenance women excluded....)

Jun. 07 2012 10:20 AM

"Just 6 Walmart heirs have as much wealth as 30% of Americans"

Meanwhile the GOP War On Workers marches on.....

Jun. 07 2012 10:19 AM

A report in the Times or on NPR noted that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker benefited by some legal difference that allowed him to accept a far greater number of very, very large donations. Do either Mr. Nocera or Mr. Lehrer know what this legal difference was?

Jun. 07 2012 10:19 AM
RJ from prospect hts.

Union workers have given up current benefits--below cost of living increases--for future benefits. Period. Now those are being taken away.

Dan Connolly in Connecticut has taken a much better approach than Cuomo, who has everyone scared.

Taxes are paying for tax breaks to corporations not public sector workers.

Public sector workers are also taxpayers, aren't they? They don't have the breaks that corporations have.

Jun. 07 2012 10:19 AM
Jacob from Brooklyn

What about private contractors that get great deals due to political connections? How is that different from public employee unions?

Jun. 07 2012 10:18 AM

Greg David really does enormous damage to his own credibility when he makes assertions which are glaringly undermined by an enormous body of economic, econometric, and political studies.

Larry Bartels, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Simon Johnson, James K. Galbraith are all among a huge number of economists and political scientists who have studied this. There is near-unanimity on the basic observations. Conservative economists like Gregory Mankiw agree on this much.

The divergence of views comes on the political and moral issues: Is this a problem? How does government action affect inequality? Can government address this? Should it?

Greg David often comes off as decidedly dishonest.

Joe Nocera's response to David is exactly on target.

Jun. 07 2012 10:17 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Bad union contracts are the result of weak politicians and the lack of campaign finance reform.

Like I said yesterday, we are going towards "privatization" and outsourcing of all our services.

That's what the corporations want. We may think we are saving money but as taxpayers, we will end up subsidizing these minimum wage workers via food stamps, medicaid etc. Wisconsin is just the beginning.

Jun. 07 2012 10:16 AM

Take a look at this disturbing income equality graph which shows in long term numbers how income in this nation has been redistributed upward:

We Grew Apart, 1947-1979 vs. 1980-2007

(Thnx jawbone)

Jun. 07 2012 10:16 AM
Dan from Sunset Park

Walmart prices could be even cheaper or the employees paid better if the owners/etc weren't paid so much.

Jun. 07 2012 10:14 AM

Martin, I don't know Nocera's argument yet, but I'm guessing that a correlation in the decline of unions and the declining middle class could be an indication not that unionized public-sector workers are getting too much, but that private-sector workers aren't getting their due. If it weren't for the decline in private-sector unions, perhaps there would be no disparity. The gap between the rich and middle class has come through the former's monopolization of the last 30 years of growth. Our wages haven't kept place with inflation. If public sector unions have been an exception to this trend, good for them. For the working class to turn on them out of resentment is just more divide-and-conquer to the benefit of the rich.

Jun. 07 2012 10:10 AM

Over the past 30 years CEO pay has expanded exponentially while workers' wages stagnated, why would any sane person think workers will get treated any more fairly if unions are done away with? Unions have been under attack in a propaganda war that demonizes them by forces that hoard power as well as money. Watch Carlin's video called "Why you are in debt"- he captures it perfectly.

As far as Walker goes- the rules were rigged in favor of the incumbent, who got UNLIMITED donations (most were from out of stae billionaires), while the challenger was limited to $1o,ooo (most were in state donations). A monkey could have won with rules like that!
"Divide & conquer" worked in Wisconsin.

Jun. 07 2012 10:06 AM

I second Martin Chuzzlewit.

I would expand it even further by stating that what this country needs is a social contract for EVERYBODY, not just unionised labor.

Jun. 07 2012 10:03 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

BRIAN - (As a former industrial sector union member myself long ago) PLEASE don't succumb if NOCERA sticks to the generic term "unions" in a discussion of a Wisconsin vote that was really about PUBLIC WORKER unions. The difference is like goldfish to sharks. And, unless you are a public employee, this is NOT about the "middle class" ...... not when public employees now make more in pay and benefits than the non-governmental "middle class". Public unions are not interested in the "middle class" or any wealth gap, but in the growth and feeding of a leviathan state that will take care of them generously, be unable to fire them for any reason (however egregious), and retire them early.

"The public sector unions are critical to what remains of the American left and they are the only bright spot in the dismal world of modern American unions. A Democratic Party dominated by its public sector unions is a party married to government and to bureaucracy. To the degree that the public unions shape its agenda, the Democrats become a lobby for the servants of the state."

Walter Russell Mead - voted in 2008 for Barack Obama - Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations - Professor at Yale and Bard College

Jun. 07 2012 08:25 AM

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