The conservative plot to destroy the middle class: Scott Walker, "right-to-work" and America's new Gilded Age

The Wisconsin governor is working tirelessly to disempower labor unions, but he's just following the GOP playbook

Published March 10, 2015 4:30PM (EDT)

Scott Walker                               (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
Scott Walker (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet From the Gilded Age to the Great Depression to today, the economic agenda of conservatives has been easily summarized in two words: "cheap labor."

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Republican efforts to make as many states as possible “right-to-work” states—more accurately described as right-to-work-for-less states.

During his 2014 reelection campaign, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker denied that right-to-work-for-less was going to be part of his potential upcoming term. As an issue that could cost him votes he needed for reelection, when asked about possible right-to-work-for-less legislation in Wisconsin he said, “I'm making it clear in this campaign, as I'll make it clear in the next [legislative] session, that that's not something that's part of my agenda.” Walker continued, "My point is I'm not pushing for it. I'm not supporting it in this session."

This week, Scott Walker signed right-to-work-for-less legislation making Wisconsin the 25th state to do so.

In Illinois, right-to-work-for-less is taking a far different, and likely unconstitutional path. Bruce Rauner, the newly elected Republican governor of Illinois, issued an executive order just days after his inauguration, declaring that state workers who don’t want to join a union do not have to pay the fees needed for collective bargaining costs: a move meant to starve unions in his state.

Despite the fact that there is an Illinois law, duly enacted and signed by the governor (a prior administration), Rauner has simply promoted himself to “King” and directed state agencies not to follow that law.

In addition, Rauner is faced with a Democratically controlled Illinois state legislature that will not entertain, much less pass right-to-work-for-less legislation.

So, he has proposed so-called “empowerment zones.” Rather than changing laws at the state level, Rauner’s ploy seeks to have local governments gut unions by enacting right-to-work-for-less laws at the local level.

These two governors’ actions occur against a backdrop that could not be more important to understand and emphasize:

Only two entities have the power necessary to stand up for working people against the massive control of oligarch employers: government and unions.

Instituting right-to-work-for-less laws is a not-so-subtle plot to starve and destroy one of the only two institutions that can stand up and demand a decent living wage for American workers.

Right-to-work-for-less laws ensure the cheap labor conservatives have sought for generations.

Unions have been a bulwark of the middle class ever since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Prior to Roosevelt’s 1935 Wagner Act, which guaranteed workers' rights to unionize, America had been mostly either very rich or very poor.

At the founding of the United States, the closest we had to a middle class was the "plowmanry" class Jefferson exalted, small family farmers, who were a major force in American politics from the time of the Revolution until the Civil War.

But the industrialization of America, and the formation of huge agricultural monopolies made possible by rail transportation, began to wipe out the farming middle class (leading to the progressive Grange movement in the late 1800s), and from that time until 1935 America was increasingly a Dickensian nation of richer and poorer, with a rapidly vanishing middle class.

Workers protested, but conservatives of the Gilded Age held both economic and political power. Eleven workers were murdered in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 when the B&O Railroad cut wages: That year only three national unions existed, and all were under siege.

In 1886, Boston police fired into a crowd of protestors – part of 340,000 strikers nationwide – who were calling for a change in the national workday from 12 hours to 8. One Boston worker died in the hail of police gunfire that injured scores of others, and four labor leaders were hanged, seriously crippling the union movement.

Of the 12 million working families in America in the census of 1890, the average income for 11 million of them was $380/year (equivalent to about $7900 today), keeping them deep in poverty.

In 1893, federal troops did battle with railroad strikers in 26 states, breaking a national strike and sending labor leaders to prison. Eleven years later, while the majority of American workers were still desperately poor, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish made society headlines by throwing a dinner party for her dog, who made a grand entrance wearing a $15,000 diamond collar.

Following the Wagner Act's implementation, and Roosevelt’s raising of the top marginal income tax rate on multi-millionaires to 90 percent, the first true American middle-class came into being.

By 1947, over a third (roughly 35%) of America's workers were unionized, and for every union job there was a non-union job in the private sector with nearly identical pay and benefits, because unions had set the floor for labor costs and employers had to compete for workers.

This meant that about 70% of American workers were able to raise a family, put children through school, pay for healthcare, and plan a good retirement, all on a single wage earner's salary.

During this era, CEOs earned, on average, around 30 to 35 times what their lowest paid employees did, and senior management salary ratio caps averaging 20:1 were put into place in civil service, the military, and most colleges.

But in 1947 the cheap-labor conservatives fought back.

In the elections of 1946, Democrats lost control of both the U.S. House and the Senate, allowing Republican legislators to push through the Taft-Hartley bill, which essentially allowed individual states to opt out of portions of the Wagner act.

It was an early domestic version of the "free trade" disaster we're seeing now with NAFTA, GATT/WTO, CAFTA and coming soon, the TPP—a race to the cheap labor bottom that started to take root in the American south right after passage of Taft-Hartley.

Although President Harry Truman vetoed the Taft-Hartley assault on labor, Republicans in the House and Senate overrode his veto and it became law.

From then until the end of the Jimmy Carter presidency, unionization, and thus, average worker wages in the United States, only gradually declined.

When Ronald Reagan came into office, a quarter of the American workforce was unionized, meaning half of Americans could raise a middle-class family on a single salary.

But then Reagan declared war on the middle class, starting with the air traffic controller's union (PATCO) during his first year in office.

The conservative assault on labor has been unrelenting since then. Today only about 6 percent of the private-sector American workforce is unionized.

Former Education Secretary under George W. Bush described the teachers' union as a "terrorist organization."

While gutting the American middle-class, conservatives also launched a well-funded propaganda campaign, using right-wing "think tanks" and talk radio to convince workers that their growing economic woes were the fault of minorities ("affirmative action") and the poor ("welfare queens").

At the same time, they began stacking federal benches with conservative judges, and passing thousands of federal, state, and local laws, ordinances, and regulations that further weakened the powers of organized labor and their ability to unionize.

It's just fine, they said, for capital to organize in the form of a corporation. It's great when corporations organize into trade associations, chambers of commerce, industry groups, and lobbying consortiums. But to have workers organize to level the playing field? Inconceivable.

The result has been an explosion in CEO and executive pay, a rush of wealth to the conservative elite (the top 10 percent of Americans now own 75 percent of the nation’s wealth), and preferential capital gains taxes continue to consolidate wealth for those who "earn their living" by sitting around the pool waiting for their dividend checks to arrive.

Last term, the conservatives on the Supreme Court sent a warning shot that they are prepared to deal another massive blow to unions in their Harris v. Quinn ruling, authored by Associate Justice Samuel Alito.

Alito spent most of his opinion bashing “fair share” union fees—money paid by workers who decline membership in their union, but receive massive benefits (in increased pay, benefits and job security) from their union that is required by law to represent them, even though they are not members and don’t pay full dues.

“Fair share” fees help curtail the problem of these “free riders.” And the Supreme Court upheld them in the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Ed.

Last term, however, Alito wrote in Harris v. Quinn, “The Abood Court’s analysis is questionable on several grounds. Some of these were noted or apparent at or before the time of the decision, but several have become more evident and troubling in the years since then.”

Alito spent the next four pages of his opinion listing all the ways that he believed that the Abood case was based on questionable grounds. While the Supreme Court did not overrule Abood, it is clear from the Harris v. Quinndecision that five justices —Alito, Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas—are ready to do so, if the right case gets to them.

And that’s exactly what Gov. Rauner is up to. His executive order, directing his administration officials to defy the law is nothing but a plan to get the unions in Illinois to sue him.

And the case could very well end up before the five conservative justices who are ready to strike down “fair share” laws, dealing yet another critical blow to unions, per the decades-long conservative playbook.

We must stand up with unions and fight against this wave of middle-class destruction.

We must bring back the phrase “good union job.”

We must remember, remind, and for those too young to remember, teach Americans what life was like when unions were strong and fought to bring us a thriving middle class.

Because if we don’t, the conservative plot to destroy one of the only two institutions that protect the American working class from the greed and power of the oligarchs will result in what Vice President Henry A. Wallace warned us of, keeping “the common man in eternal subjection.”

By Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of "The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America" and more than 25 other books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.

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