LBO News from Doug Henwood

Fresh audio product: global reconfiguration and nukes

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

April 7, 2022 Vijay Prashad on the reconfigurations of global power prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine • Charles Komanoff, author of this Nation article, on why it’s a bad idea to shut nuclear power plants

Fresh audio product: Yemen and gendering

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

March 31, 2022 Annelle Sheline of the Quincy Institute, author of this policy brief on the Yemen war, on the reasons behind Saudi Arabia’s brutal war on that country •  Natalia Petrzela, author of this column, on how we went from Muscle Beach to gender neutral cosmetics products

Fresh audio product: Ukraine, libraries, Cold War fiction

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

March 24, 2022 Richard Seymour, author of this article, on the cultural politics of the war in Ukraine • Emily Drabinski on the war against libraries • Annie Levin on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Cold War fiction [info on Current Affairs]

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

March 17, 2022 Lily Geismer, author of Left Behindon the market-friendly New Democrats, from the 1970s into the 1990s and beyond • Barry Eichengreen on the role of the dollar and threats to its pre-eminence.

Oil and gasoline prices move together

I keep seeing people on social media saying things like, “Well oil prices are down but gasoline prices are still high.” Look, the last thing I want to do is defend the fossil fuel industry. It should be put out of business as soon as possible because it’s a threat to civilization and maybe human life itself. But on this point, the social media pundits are wrong.

For example, in August 2013, crude oil (as measured by West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark) was $107 a barrel and the average gasoline price was $3.66. Two years later, oil was $43 and gas was $2.75. Aha!, you might say—oil fell by 60% and gas by only 25%. But it works the same in the other direction too. In June 2006, oil was $71 and gas was $2.96. Two years later, oil was $134, up 89%, and gas was $4.12, up 39%.

The graph below makes the point visually. Oil and gas prices move almost exactly together, with gas moving less than oil. A simple regression on these stats shows that for every 10% change in the price of oil over the course of a year, the price of gas moves by about 4.5%. The relationship hold in both directions. That 45% ratio almost exactly matches the percentage changes in the previous paragraph. And the relationship holds if you take the analysis back to 1975 instead of beginning in 2000.

Again, this is not to defend the oil industry, which should be put out of business ASAP. But people who think gas prices won’t come down if oil prices come down are going to look silly if oil prices ever come down again—assuming the world isn’t blown to bits before they get a chance to.

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

March 10, 2022 Alexander Zaitchik, author of Owning the Sun, on how the pharmaceutical industry became such a high-priced racket • Zongyuan Zoe Liu, co-author of this article, on sanctions and the global pre-eminence of the US dollar

Anatol Lieven on the roots of disaster

[Here’s an transcript of my interview with Anatol Lieven, broadcast on March 3, 2022, edited to make it read more like prose than spoken word. My comments are in square brackets.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Lieven covered the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and the southern Caucasus, for the Financial Times and the Times of London. In the 2000s, he worked at several think tanks in Washington and is now a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He’s also got seven books to his name, most recently Climate Change and the Nation State.

Some background on the first question. In February 1997, George Kennan, one of the architects of the Cold War policy of containment of the USSR, wrote this in the New York Times:

[E]xpanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking….. Why, with all the hopeful possibilities engendered by the end of the cold war, should East-West relations become centered on the question of who would be allied with whom and, by implication, against whom in some fanciful, totally unforeseeable and most improbable future military conflict?

In May 1998, the usually dopey Thomas Friedman did something useful by calling Kennan for a follow-up on the topic. Kennan said: “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely… it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else…. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.”

Kennan is usually credited as the lead architect of “containment,” the policy of limiting Soviet geographical and ideological influence. Soon after writing up this policy in a 1947 article in Foreign Affairs, he was marginalized by the Truman administration for not being tough enough: it wasn’t enough to contain Soviet power, it had to be rolled back.]

This war is horribly brutal, and everyone I know is a terrible state of mind over it. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. What George Kennan worried about 25 years ago has pretty much come to pass.

Exactly. Since the mid-1990s, when the issue of NATO enlargement first came up, Russian officials, Russian intellectuals, and leading Western experts, including George Kennan, the architect of containment—and myself in a small way—have all been saying that if this were extended one day to Ukraine and Georgia it would lead at best deep confrontation and at worst to war. The Yeltsin administration warned of this—this is not just a Putin thing. And over the past almost three months, before the war, the Russian government was making clear that there was a threat of war if the west did not compromise on what Russia regarded as its vital interest.

The Russian government has committed a very grave crime under international law by invading Ukraine. I think it’s also made a terrible mistake, but as you say, in international relations, one also has to take account of realities. And the reality is that Russia has always regarded keeping Ukraine out of a hostile Western Alliance as vital to Russian national security.

How much manipulation of the political scene in Ukraine has the US and other Western powers been guilty of? Are the Russians rightly concerned about that, or are they just getting carried away?

In 2014, it was obvious from funding—including by institutions that are rather comically in America called non-governmental institutions even though they’re funded by Congress like the National Endowment for Democracy—to the Ukrainian opposition made clear the West’s desire to overthrow the then-elected government of Ukraine, President Yanukovych. [The NED has deleted the records of its grants to Ukraine on its website; they’re archived here.]

And obviously there was the famous intercepted telephone conversation by Victoria Nuland, which made clear the role of the Obama administration in manipulating the formation of the next Ukrainian government. [Audio, with Sex Pistols outro music, here. Transcript, annotated with tendentious BBC commentary, here. In the call, Nuland, the Obama administration’s resident neocon, and Geoffrey Pyatt, US ambassador to Ukraine, planned the personnel of the government that would replace Yanukovych’s. The scandal of Nuland’s intemperate “fuck the EU” comment overshadowed the content of the call.]

Since then, it hasn’t been exactly a matter of covert manipulation. The west has aided Ukraine and has strongly encouraged Ukraine to try to join the Western alliance while not actually offering Ukraine anything but the vaguest possibility of membership in future. The West has funded, educated, supported, large numbers of the Ukrainian elite, but this is not covert manipulation. This is overt. You can say it is Ukraine’s development towards free market democracy, which is quite true, but it is obviously also an attempt to turn Ukraine into a Western ally. If the West, as it’s done in some other places, had supported democracy in Ukraine and economic reform but without raising the possibility of NATO membership for 12 years now, which they’ve had no intention of actually implementing—if we’d stuck to the one without introducing the other, maybe this catastrophe could have been avoided.

You said in the Prospect interview that we never had the slightest intention defending Ukraine. Was that ever expressed? Did the Ukrainians understand it? Did they not hear it? Were they not told it?

I think they must have understood it more or less, or at least sensible Ukrainians did. Because after all we’d done the same thing to Georgia in 2008, when there was this half promise of NATO membership, but when this led to war with Russia—well, actually, Georgia’s attack on the Russians in South Ossetia—America never came to Georgia’s aid. And the West didn’t come to Ukraine’s aid in 2014.

But there are problems. One is that for a long time now, ever since the 1990s, we have made membership of NATO and the European Union synonymous with belonging to Europe and that has two problems. It makes it virtually impossible for democratic reformers anywhere in Eastern Europe not to try to join the EU and NATO because they are basically branding themselves as second class Europeans or non-Europeans. So, the option, which was entirely viable in itself, of joining Finland and Austria as free market democracies, but non-aligned ones—we morally and emotionally and politically speaking closed that door.

But the second thing of course, was that by defining Europe in these terms and, and going in for this NATO rhetoric of Europe home and free, we told the Russians completely explicitly, “you are not Europeans, go away. We don’t consider you part of Europe and we’re not going to consult you about European affairs.” That is about as deep an insult to Russia as one can easily imagine. It was not going to go down well with any Russian government, let alone Putin’s.

Putin’s goals

What are Putin’s goals here? Do we have any idea if he really believes Ukraine is a fiction, or more of a fiction than most nations are? Does he just want a buffer zone or complete absorption? What’s the endgame?

I don’t know. The, the striking thing is, I’ve been talking to quite a lot of what you might call the outer Russian establishment. They were all surprised by many aspects of this invasion. And they all said that now the decision-making circle in Russia, in the Russian government and the circle of people who Putin actually listens to has narrowed to fewer than ten people. It’s become very, very, very closed.

Putin's table

Those pictures of him at that gigantic table are capturing something aren’t they?

Yeah, and of course COVID, as many people say, has made this worse. Like US administrations in the run up to Vietnam, but much more, it seems likely that Putin has been cut off or cut himself off from accurate and objective information. If Putin and his immediate followers were so incredibly stupid as to believe that they could impose a puppet government on the whole of Ukraine, then, unless they’re blind as well as mad, they must realize that the strength of Ukrainian resistance and the display of Ukrainian unity since the war began have rendered that completely impossible. This isn’t Czechoslovakia or Hungary during the Cold War where you at least had the structures of a Communist Party to maintain Soviet domination.

You will not be able to create anything but the most grotesque, ridiculous, obvious puppet authority in Kyiv. If that’s what Putin wants, it will lack all legitimacy. It will be totally incapable of running a stable state. It will face continual protests and resistance, which will have to be put down by ruthless means. And it will necessitate the permanent presence of a Russian army to keep it in place, just like the Soviet Union or America in Afghanistan.

The war so far has clarified some things.One thing it’s clarified fight is that although NATO has imposed harsh economic sanctions, NATO will not fight for Ukraine, which of course makes the idea of Ukrainian NATO membership completely empty. Ukraine might as well give that up and sign a treaty of neutrality. But on the other hand, I think it has completely destroyed Russian plans if, if that’s what they were, to impose a puppet government.

To capture the cities in Ukraine, Russia can’t just walk in. The Ukrainians will fight back very hard, even in the Russian-speaking areas. And in the process, large parts of these cities will be destroyed, and large numbers of civilians will be killed. Well, how can you possibly set up a pro-Russian government on the basis of that? It does look as if the Russians are going to storm Kharkiv and they’re attacking Mariupol and in the south. As far as Kyiv, by far the biggest Ukrainian city, is concerned, whether Putin has made up his mind yet actually to storm it or whether he is aiming to blockade it in an effort to put pressure on the Ukrainian government to make peace on some version of Russian terms, perhaps not full Russian terms, isn’t known. We don’t know how far Russia will compromise on its terms. We’ll have to see, but I think the maximal Russian aim Ukraine, thank God, has already been defeated by the Ukrainian people and army.

How long can that go on?

This is beginning to take on aspects of Chechyna in, in 1994 to 1996, which I covered as a British journalist, or even in a way, the American occupation of Iraq. I don’t know how much the Russian army as a whole was really behind this invasion. There are suggestions that the bulk of the generals were not consulted and certainly some of them have looked extremely unhappy on television, but, when an army is in a war, particularly a war of this kind of importance to Russia, they want to win. And of course, Putin cannot leave Ukraine without the appearance of at least a limited success, or I think he would be finished. I think there would be some form of coup against him from within the regime.

So, I have this horrible feeling that if they can’t get a peace agreement, which allows them to claim a measure of success, that they will feel that they have no choice but to go on, irrespective of the destruction and the civilian casualties. I hope very much that Putin will be overthrown as a result of this, but I don’t believe that any Russian government will simply withdraw from Ukraine as a whole and give up Crimea and Donbas. So, Russia will not withdraw from Ukraine the way that the Soviet Union or America withdrew from Afghanistan. So, in the end, there will always have to be some form of negotiated solution by which Russia withdraws. My own view is we should all seek a negotiated solution now because it may be that in ten years, twenty years, we will get basically the same solution that we could have got today. The difference of course, will be tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian lives.


What about the nuclear threats? I find myself being nostalgic for the Soviet leadership, which is, at least seemed rational. Is Putin so unhinged that these should be taken seriously?

No, I don’t think so. He knows, for very good reasons, that people are scared of nuclear war. In a rational world, it would be crazy, but of course we don’t live in a rational world. In the actual world it’s an obvious weapon for Russia to brandish, to frighten the West. But that doesn’t mean that he’s going to launch a nuclear attack. Nor of course are we.

What I worry about more is that if we get into a state of permanent deep tension, if we have a guerrilla war on Russia’s borders, probably overlapping into terrorism in Russia itself backed by the West, through Poland, the level of tension and the potential from clashes will be such as has not existed in Europe, between Moscow and the West, since the Berlin blockade of 1948.

And in those circumstances of heightened tension and fear on both sides, there is always the possibility of some disastrous accident or miscalculation. We really need to remember the number of times when by accident there could have a nuclear exchange during the Cold War. It came down to the wisdom and caution of one man on either side. Just because Putin is not going to deliberately fire missiles at us, doesn’t mean that the threat isn’t genuinely there.

Sanctions and discontent

What about the Western reaction? Are sanctions really that effective? And now we hear yahoos on cable TV talking about attacking the Russians or declaring no-fly zones. What about the Western reaction? How much can the West do?

I haven’t noticed that any of these people calling for no-fly zones are going to be flying US or NATO planes themselves. As far as I can see there are no pilots among them. As I’ve said again several times in recent days, chickenhawks don’t fly, they squat on the ground at a very safe distance and squawk loudly. No, sanctions are what we’ve got basically.

Plus I fear—I think this is a terrible idea by the way—I fear support for a Ukrainian insurgency against Russia. If, if of course Russia occupies areas where such an insurgency can be launched. Now as the effectiveness of these sanctions. Obviously, what the west is trying to do is to hurt Russia as badly as possible without hurting the West, and of course, in this case, particularly the Europeans who are dependent on Russia for energy imports. We’ve sanctioned everything we possibly can short of cutting off the gas and oil.

That means that Russia will still have an international revenue stream. [This was recorded on March 2. Oil and gas sanctions are coming.] But on the other hand, the sanctions that have been imposed will hit Russia very badly, and are harsher than Russia expected, particularly the sanctions against the central bank, and will lead to Russia’s isolation from at least the Western economies, except in the area of energy. In addition, the measures introduced by the West and the countermeasures introduced by Russia will hit very badly the international lifestyles of the Russian elites and especially the younger elites to which they’ve become accustomed. This doesn’t affect the inner circle around Putin. These are hard men, as they say in Ireland, and they are undoubtedly deeply patriotic, and they are very, very determined and resolute—and of course completely ruthless.

But I think it’s, it’s worth remembering that in the 1980s, as the children of the Soviet elites became aware of how much better they could live in a Westernized Russia than a Soviet Russia, that played a huge part in the fall of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. If you are plugged into the wider Russian elites and listening to what they’re saying in private, and what some of them have even started to say in public, you see that they are becoming really anxious. And they understand better than the rest of the population, even the educated population, just how badly this is going to affect them. If this goes on over a long period, If the Ukrainian quagmire goes on for a long period, then I think discontent against Putin will mount very, very high.

Look, one doesn’t know. But if it mounts high enough, more likely than a revolution on the streets like in Ukraine 2014 or Georgia would be a coup from within the Putin regime, to get rid of him and some other top officials. It could be a relatively polite coup. A delegation goes to him and says, very politely, you know, we respect your record. We guarantee your property and your personal security and that of your family, but it’s time to go.

But as I’ve said, I don’t think that any Russian government that succeeds Putin will simply surrender unconditionally in Ukraine, in the sense of giving up Crimea and the Donbas and acceding to Ukrainian NATO membership and giving up any guarantees for the Russian minority in Ukraine. I find it very difficult to believe that that unless Russia collapses as a state that any Russian government will agree to that.

Now I’m very afraid that a good many people in the American security establishment do want to use this to destroy Russia as a state. That condemns us to endless warfare against Russia, with everything that would mean for the world economy. It condemns Ukraine to endless war with horrible suffering for the Ukrainian people. But also, a program of sanctions, which is openly aimed at what many Russians would see at as not just getting rid of Putin but destroying the Russian state could have the completely opposite result.

As far as the support of Russians for the regime, we just don’t know. What we do know is that similar sanctions aimed at regime change in Cuba, in Iraq, in Venezuela, in Iran, in North Korea have all failed. All of them, without exception. And so all one can say is, look, it could be different in the case of Russia, but there are no historical grounds to believe this

Putin’s power base

Who is Putin’s power base, who surrounds him? Does he have a constituency in the elite, or is it pretty much a little clique of cronies?

Putin has assembled a wider establishment, which is beholden to him in many ways, and he has tamed what remains of the old financial and economic oligarchy and gained their public support. But these people are extremely cynical and self-interested and ruthless. They will not stick with Putin if they think their own vital interests are in danger or that sticking with Putin is going to mean that their own fortunes and positions will be destroyed. The inner circle, the people who are completely beholden to Putin—or perhaps not exactly beholden to Putin but completely identify with Putin—have the same background and ideology, are a very small group of mainly ex-KGB people or linked to the KGB in various ways. And they occupy all the top positions in government, at least on the security side.

Also, they’ve been put in control of a large part of Russia’s energy economy and various other places. So there’s quite a sharp difference between this, this small inner group—they’re called the siloviki in Russian, the men of force, or as I say, the hard men—and the wider establishment. One question is whether any of this inner circle will turn against Putin. If enough of them do then it’s, it’s over for him. But on the other hand, they’re so closely associated with him, they’re so closely associated with the war, it’d be very difficult for them to do so.

Then there is the question of the Russian army. The Russian army like Soviet army before it, has never been involved in politics. And they don’t want to lose in Ukraine. But if you get an endless quagmire then at the very least they, they may start really, really pressing for a diplomatic compromise to get out of Ukraine, if, of course the Ukrainians and the West are prepared to offer a compromise.

There’s one issue that people haven’t looked at yet, but the Ukrainians are trying to call up basically all their men of military age. How many they’ll get depends on how much territory Russia conquers. It depends on how many Ukrainians flee to the west. But even so, if Ukraine calls up everybody it possibly can, it will hugely outnumber the existing Russian army in Ukraine.

Now, if the Russians in response have to call up their reservists, we’re talking about ex-conscripts who served and then went left the army and now have jobs and have families. If you start telling 28-year old Russians to leave their well-paid jobs and their children and return to fight in Ukraine, a war that they were never consulted about and where they’d been watching very demoralizing pictures of Russian Ukrainians, Russian-speaking women and children being killed—that is the moment when the Putin regime will be in really serious trouble. If it has to call up a large part of the Russian population to fight, at that point, Putin would’ve signed his political death warrant.

American delusions

Finally, we’re seeing China now stepping in possibly into a peacekeeping role.  How much of all this reflects the decline of US power or prestige. And is there anything to this talk of a Russia–China alliance?

Just as the West has not fought for Ukraine, so China has not actually officially sided with Russia on Ukraine. It abstained in the UN Security Council. It has stressed respect for international law and international sovereignty. And we don’t yet know how far China will go in supporting Russia economically. This will be very, very expensive for the Chinese. And they would also drive an extremely hard bargain in terms of redirecting Russian energy exports to China to guarantee China’s energy security. So, it seems to me that China is not actually so far trying to exploit this crisis as much as it might have.

If China would step in and broker a reasonable compromise, this will be an excellent thing, because I don’t trust the United States to do so, to be honest, given the strength of the anti-Russian agendas here and the desire of some people actually to turn this into a permanent war to destroy Russia. So, I think it would be an excellent thing if the Chinese stepped in, but I also know that the that America would do everything in its power to block a Chinese-brokered agreement.

As to the decline of American power, it is striking just how distorted the view of the world of many establishment Americans has become over the past thirty years. Even after the failure in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rise of China and the failure to pacify the Middle East and the disaster that followed the intervention in Libya, there still is this idea around that one heard so often in the 1990s and well into the 2000s that basically America can do anything anywhere.

Doug, we’re both old enough to remember before the end of the Cold War. If you think back twenty-five years, sorry, thirty-five years, if you had said to anybody and I mean anybody in a Western position of authority or any serious intellectual that the West should support a war Ukraine—not take part in it but support it—for the sake of Ukraine joining NATO theoretically and turning Ukraine into a full military ally of the west against Russia, even the hardest line Western anticommunist hawks would have laughed their heads off. They’d’ve said, “you must be mad. We don’t have the resources to do that. That will lead to actual war with Moscow. Don’t forget they have thousands of nuclear missiles. And in any case, how could this possibly be in our interest if we can take such an appalling risk and make such a commitment if, if can manage to get not just the Poles and the Czechs and the Hungarians, but to rescue the Balts from the Soviet Union and free them and turn them into Western allies. Well, this would be a magnificent, a historic, a wonderful Western victory…”

It’s rollback, right?


Surely people would’ve said, “you can’t be suggesting we should go further than that.” Well, now of course, we’ve spent years thinking that we could go further than that. And the result has been disaster.

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

March 3, 2022 Anatol Lieven on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine • Alyssa Giachino and Derek Seidman, among the authors of this report, on private equity and fossil fuels

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

February 24, 2022 Christopher Leonard, author of The Lords of Easy Moneyon the damage done by over a decade of hyper-easy monetary policy from the Fed • Lea Ypi, a political philsopher and author of Freeon growing up in the last days of Communist Albania and the early days of its neoliberal successor

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

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

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

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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Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

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

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

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….

Fresh audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

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.

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