LBO News from Doug Henwood

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February 17, 2022 Toronto-based activist and organizer John Clarke on the politics and personnel behind the Ottawa convoy • Dave Zirin on racism in the NFL (and Brian Flores’s lawsuit over it) • Justine Medina on working at Amazon and trying to unionize it

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February 10, 2022 Thomas Sugrue and Caitlin Zaloom, authors of The Long Year: A 2020 Readeron the common and varied impacts of the pandemic around the world • Laura Kipnis, author of Love in the Time of Contagionon the challenges of living together, a steep climb even in the best of times

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February 3, 2022 Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative on how prison sickens and kills people • Terry Kupers, from a 2013 interview, on the effects of solitary confinement on mental health • refinery worker and union VP BK White talks about worker safety and health at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California

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January 27, 2022 Peter Goodman, author of Davos Man, on plutocrats and their pretensions • Vijay Prashad, director of The Tricontinentaloutlines a plan to save the world, essentially from Davos Man

Union membership resumes its fall

Union membership fell by almost 2% in 2021 as employment rose by over 3%. That took union density—the share of the workforce belonging to unions—down from 10.8% in 2020 to 10.3% last year, where it was in 2019. Density rose in 2020 because more nonunion workers lost their jobs in the covid crisis than their unionized counterparts, but 2021’s return to employment undid that.

For the private sector, just 6.1% of workers were unionized last year, down from 6.3% in 2020, an all-time low for a series that goes back to 1900. (Official numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics began in 1983; I’ve assembled figures for earlier years from various sources.) Public sector density also fell, from 34.8% to 33.9%, not quite a record low. But the number of government workers organized in unions fell by 2.7%, almost four times as much as private sector members. The full history is graphed below.

Union density history 2021

Motion pictures and sound recording (17.3% unionized), transportation and utilities (15.4%), private education (12.9%), and construction (12.6%) are the most heavily organized industries. Towards the bottom of the list are retail (4.4%), agriculture (2.9%), finance (2.3%), and food service and drinking places (1.2%). Aside from finance, the low-density industries are classically low-wage, and the weak union presence is a major reason why. Manufacturing, once a union powerhouse, is down to 7.7%—half 2000’s level (when the data begins). And over that period, the hourly wage in manufacturing has gone from being 3% above the overall average to 9% below.

As the map below shows, density varies widely by state. At the bottom are South Carolina (1.7%) and North Carolina (2.6%); at the top, Hawaii (22.4%) and New York (22.2%). The eleven original states of the Confederacy (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) have an average unionization rate of 4.4%, well under half the national average of 10.3%. Curiously, the Confederacy’s two latecomers, Kentucky and Missouri, come in much higher, an average of 8.1%, which takes the average for the full Confederate thirteen up to 4.9%. The average of the non-Confederate states is 11.2%. (These averages aren’t weighted by population.) The persistence of historical legacies is striking.

Union density map 2021

Since 2000, only four states have seen an increase of unionization, Vermont (up 2.0 percentage points), Oregon (+1.7), Washington (+0.8), and Kansas (+0.2). The rest, including DC, have all seen declines, led by Wisconsin, the home of former governor Scott Walker’s war on public-sector unions, down 9.7 since 2000, and Michigan, down 7.5. Seven states, mostly in the South and Midwest, declined by 5 points or more.

Why care? Unions raise wages and benefits and increase job security. For example, 95% of unionized workers in the private sector have access to health benefits, compared with 68% of nonunion workers; figures are similar for retirement benefits and sick leave. And the union wage premium is significant across industries, occupations, and demographics. Weekly earnings for unionized workers overall are 20% higher than nonunion for all workers, and 14% in the private sector.

Not only are union wages higher in general, unions also compress traditional race and gender gaps. As the graph below shows, for all groups except Asian Americans union wages are higher, often substantially so—20% overall, as noted above, but 29% for black workers and 37% for Hispanics/Latinos. The Asian exception looks to be the result of a high concentration in high-wage, union-light sectors like tech.

Wage by demo & union status

Overall, unionized women’s wages are 90% of unionized men’s; nonunionized women’s weekly earnings are 84% of nonunionized men’s. Black men’s wages are 80% of white men’s if they’re unionized; 73% if not. For women, it’s 88% and 84%. This runs counter to the myth that unions reinforce privilege. They counter it.

Wage gaps & union status

As I’ve done for several years in these annual union stats write-ups, I’ll conclude with this:

There are a lot of things wrong with American unions. Most organize poorly, if at all. Politically they function mainly as ATMs and free labor pools for the Democratic party without getting much in return. But there’s no way to end the 40-year war on the US working class without getting union membership up….

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January 20, 2022 Erin Thompson, author of Smashing Statues, on the politics of public art • John Huntington, author of Far-Right Vanguard, on the history of the far right and its often close relations with the “respectable” right.

No strike wave in 2021

There was a lot of enthusiastic talk about a wave of labor militancy last year—remember “Striketober”? With the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) preliminary data for December out—it will be slightly revised next month, but not by much—we can now look at the full year in historical perspective. It was a quiet year, even by recent standards.

First, the number of “stoppages” involving 1,000 workers or more.*

Stoppages yearly through 2021

There were about half as many major strikes in 2021 as there were in 2018 (the year of the teachers’ strikes) and 2019 (which included a five-week strike against GM), and nothing compared to the pre-Reagan decades.

Comparing the number of workers involved in strikes to the labor force yields even less impressive results: 0.02% of total employment, a sixteenth as much as in 2018 and less than a hundredth the average of the 1950s. Even the 1990s, hardly a decade known for class struggle, saw eleven times the share of the workforce walking out.

Share of workers on strike

Yet another view: what the BLS calls, with a touch of moralism, “days of idleness” expressed as a percent of total hours worked. Again, the line is almost indistinguishable from the x-axis, so close it is to 0—0.002%, to be precise.

Idleness yearly through 2021

Here’s a closeup of the idleness measure since 2000 using monthly data. That blip on the right is what was called “Striketober,” even by bourgeois outlets like NPR. Hours of “idleness” during October 2021 were a quarter as many as in October 2019, the month of the strike against GM.

Idleness monthly 2000-2021

I’d love nothing more than a strike wave and an upsurge of militancy. It’s just not here yet.


* Two data notes: First, the BLS combines strikes and employer lockouts because exact causes can be hard to tell apart. And second, whenever I write these up, people say there are lots of smaller strikes that fall under the 1,000-worker limit. There aren’t really. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) used to publish data on smaller strikes, in an extremely user-unfriendly form. I wrote about that data in 2018 and they followed the same pattern as the larger strikes. The FMCS stopped updating the data in the early Trump years and the historical data has disappeared from their website.

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January 13, 2022 The new Cold Wars: Katrina vanden Heuvel on Russia • Tim Shorrock on China and North Korea

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January 6, 2022 William “Sandy” Darity, co-author along with A. Kirsten Mullen, of From Here to Equalityon reparations for black Americans

Nation pieces: inflation, AI

I had a couple of pieces in (on?) The Nation, recently.

The first is on inflation, which is real, not easy to solve, and a potential problem for a green agenda. 

The standard remedy—raising interest rates and provoking a recession—would be disastrous in an economy still recovering from the Covid shock. But we can’t deny that huge deficit spending and an infusion of trillions of dollars conjured out of nothing has something to do with the problem. The deficit spending financed a remarkably generous, though too temporary, aid package. It boosted household incomes despite sudden and massive job loss in the early months of the pandemic. That aid is still keeping millions of households afloat and has left many others with unusually large savings balances.

It would be a crime to take those benefits away, but an immense amount of purchasing power was introduced into an economy that was stretched to the limit, with workers in some areas hard to find, taut global supply chains vulnerable to interruption (a lesson for labor militants!), a preference for keeping only the thinnest possible stock of inventories, and a public infrastructure ragged from decades of underinvestment.

And the second is a review of former Theranos board member Henry Kissinger and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt at the Council on Foreign Relations, chewing the fat about AI.

Just for a moment, let’s cede the point that AI is something big that is changing the way we live. Schmidt and especially Kissinger worry about what this means for being human. (It’s weird when the architect of the secret bombing of Cambodia becomes the humanist on the program, but such are the politics of elite organizations.) Over the next 15 years, Schmidt claims, computers will increasingly set their own agenda, exploring paths and producing results beyond the intention or understanding of their human programmers. What will this do to our sense of ourselves, Schmidt asked, “if we’re not the top person in intelligence anymore?”

One response might be, “Well, maybe don’t let them go there?” But the authors will have none of that. “Once AI’s performance outstrips that of humans for a given task, failing to apply that AI, at least as an adjunct to human efforts, may appear increasingly as perverse or even negligent,” they declare. Will we delegate our war-making capacities to machines—not merely in guiding weapons to their targets but deciding whether to attack in the first place? Schmidt apparently thinks so, though he acknowledges that there are some complexities. “So, you’re in a war and the computer correctly calculates that to win the war you have to allow your aircraft carrier to be sunk, which would result in the deaths of 5,000 people, or what have you…. Would a human make that decision? Almost certainly not. Would the computer be willing to do it? Absolutely.”

I meant to add, Henry Kissinger would have made such a decision.

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December 30, 2021 Ben Burgis, author of Christopher Hitchens, on why he still matters • Patrick Blanchfield, author of this article, on the death drive

Who’s not getting vax’d and why

This is hardly an exhaustive treatment of a complex topic—just a quick attempt to illuminate who isn’t getting vaccinated against covid-19 and why. I started looking at these stats after a Twitter exchange and I thought I’d share the resulting graphics. The stats are drawn from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Surveyhealth table 5a, two-week period ending December 13, for those who are keeping score at home.

First, vaccination rates by income. Almost 80% of people in the lowest income category,  report having gotten at least one shot—51% have gotten two and 22% have gotten three. This is the lowest of any income category, and the share rises as you go up the income ladder. It tops off at 95% who’ve gotten at least one shot among the $200,000+ set. (The under-$25,000 group accounts for 12% of the population; over $200,000, 6%.) Over half, 55%, have gotten three. By the way, racial gaps have largely disappeared; 82% of blacks and 84% of whites have been vaccinated.

Share vaccinated by income

And now a closer look at vaccine refusers—the share saying they will probably or certainly never take a shot. The highest share of refusers are in the lowest income bracket. Here the gradient isn’t as steep as with vaccination rates: about 9% of the bottom two income categories are determined never to take the needle, as are 7% of the next three. Then it starts falling, bottoming out at 4% of the richest group. In all categories, “definitely” exceeds the “probably” by 2–3 times.

Share prob or def not by incoe

And now reasons for not getting vaccinated. On the left, you often hear it said that difficulties getting a shot (sorry, can’t say “jab”) or worries about cost are important factors, but they’re way down on the bottom of this survey. Fear of side-effects, distrust of vaccines and/or the government, and belief in one’s invincibility are far more prominent reasons. Given these reasons, it’s not clear how persuadable the hard-core resisters would be with mere argument.

Reasons for not getting vax'd

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December 23, 2021 Two interviews on Chile: Antonia Mardones Marshall on the recent presidential election and its winner, Gabriel Boric • Antonia Atria, in an interview from October 2020, on that country’s constitutional referendum

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December 16, 2021 Sam Adler-Bell, author of this article, on the young counterrevolutionary new right • Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica on how the very rich can pay no taxes

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December 2, 2021 Matt Kierkegard and David Adler of the Progressive International on the Honduran and Chilean elections • Sarah Lustbader, author of this article, on why trials are no substitute for politics

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