Economic Update: Renewing Labor's Movement


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[S9 E10]

This week on Economic Update, Professor Wolff gives a shout out to the striking Oakland school teachers and delivers updates on the dangers of declining pensions, a bank fined for helping wealthy clients evade taxes, the U.S. and the EU in a tariff war over black olives and stagnant real wages in U.S. signify and explain consistent rising inequality. 

In the second half of the show, Prof. Wolff interviews Larry Williams, Jr., a labor union activist and the co-founder of UnionBase.org.

Larry Williams Jr. President Emeritus and founder of Progressive Workers Union. PWU is a powerful D.C. based union for non-profit employees that recently signed a transformative landmark five year contract with the Sierra Club, America's largest environmental organization. Former President Williams started in the labor movement at one of America's most powerful unions and is now Co-Founder of UnionBase.org, the first secure social networking and education platform for unions and union workers. UnionBase is regarded as the leading platform for a new generation of union workers and leaders.


Transcript has been edited for clarity. 


Welcome friends to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives.  I’m your host, Richard Wolff.

The theme for today’s program is why working people are upset in the United States, and there are a number of ways to get at that.  I want to start by reminding people that upset takes time—it builds, it often builds slowly, and the longer it builds and often the slower it takes to build up, the bigger the crisis when it hits.  Teachers—public school teachers have been really badly treated in the United States, for decades, in many parts of the country.  Poor wages, virtually no wage increase, deteriorating support, deteriorating conditions, larger class sizes, more students to take care of, and finally they’ve had it.  They got angry enough, determined enough, and starting last year in West Virginia, public school teachers began to fight back, and it has only grown since then.  My purpose in mentioning it is to welcome the public school teachers of Oakland, who are doing an enormous service by bringing into a large city that badly needs it, a movement to do something for the future generation—the children going to school in public school today.  Our hats are off to the public school teachers striking, Oakland, and making a difference.

I want to turn next to a hidden hurt being suffered by working people, and that has to do with the pension crisis.  In the United States, working people in general have two kinds of pensions:  One, Social Security provided by the government; the other one—private employer pension systems—those are systems where money is taken out of your salary or your wage every week, if you’re lucky enough to have such a program.  Sometimes, it’s matched more or less by your employer, and put aside so that you have something for your older age.  Let’s remember, it’s not just honoring people who have given a lifetime of work to our society that a pension serves, it’s also the children of those people, because if there isn’t a pension for the older ones, they really have nowhere else to turn but to their children, so it becomes then an economic concern for the entire family, not just the older folks, everybody who’s connected to them.  Here’s the raw fact that we have to analyze, and here I’m helped by Professor Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor at The New School University in New York City, where I also teach. She’s done wonderful work on the pension crisis of the United States, and I’m relying on her work.  In 2000, at the beginning of this century, over 50 percent of American workers had some kind of coverage—it’s called—pension coverage; that is, they had some sort of private employer pension that they could rely on when they retired.  As of 2016, the latest data that Professor Ghilarducci had access to, it was down to slightly over 35 percent; that is an enormous drop—a drop, roughly, of a third of the people covered lost their coverage.  Let me give you some of the statistics she’s developed that dramatizes all of this.  People who near retirement are facing the following statistic:  poverty rates for people in America double when they get to retirement, because of this falling retirement pension crisis in America.  You don’t hear it, you don’t see it, but it is going on underneath, and I’m going to come back to that in a minute.

Here’s another statistic:  in New York City, it is very hard to save money, it’s very expensive.  Half of coupled older households [that’s households of older people, with at least one nearing retirement] have less than $60,000 in total assets they can rely on when they retire.  You can’t possibly live in New York City in retirement on $60,000, spread over how every many years you’re going to live.  Here’s an even more amazing statistic:  half of single older workers [and single older workers is a growing category] have less than $5,000 saved.  In other words, pensions are the difference between poverty and a decent life for millions of our fellow citizens.  Here’s what I want to stress, we have an example of something similar.  In our crazy political system, politicians are afraid to tax corporations and the rich, because then they won’t donate money to their candidacies and their campaigns, and give money instead to their enemies, pushing them out of office.  So, they dare not tax corporations and the rich, and they’ve been shifting the burden of taxes onto the mass of people, as a result, and it’s become so bad that the mass of people, now, will not tolerate more taxes.  So, they have to come up with a way of handling this situation.  Here’s what they do in cities and states across the country:  they “defer maintenance.”  Here’s what that means—they don’t keep up the sewer systems, they don’t keep up the bridge systems, and they don’t keep up the road systems.  They avoid spending money, so they don’t have to tax either the rich, who they’re afraid of, or the mass of people, who they’re afraid of in a different way.  The rich won’t give them money, and the mass of people won't give them votes, and the combination means what?  We’re not taking care of our “infrastructure,” so we’re having our roads, and bridges, and harbors falling apart, and our sewers, and our water mains, and all the rest of it, as you know.  Well, you’re doing that now to old people.  You’re doing that by taking away pensions, which is going to come back and blow up in your face, just like our falling infrastructure is hobbling our economy and hobbling life for so many.  It is an irrational way for a capitalist system to cope with its problems, and we’re living in it.

My next update has to do with a bank in France.  It’s the UBS bank, a very large bank in the world that was forced by the French government to pay a fine of over $5 billion dollars, and here’s what the fine was levied for:  helping wealthy French people evade their taxes.  Let me say that again.  You punished a bank for systematically soliciting wealthy customers, corporations, and individuals, to facilitate hiding or otherwise manipulating their assets to evade taxes.  This is done in every capitalist country; it is certainly done in the United States.  The French know about it; they’ve been doing it for a long time, but they at least occasionally go and punish some of the folks facilitating it.  It would be interesting if the United States and other countries suffering from the same problem did even a portion of what the French have done.  

The next update is about black olives.  What do I mean?  The Trump administration has ordered a tariff—25.5 percent on black olives from Spain, because they were “dumping them” at a low price on the market, and another 27 percent on top of that because the Spanish government provided certain subsidies to olive growers.  Footnote:  The United States subsidizes all kinds of agricultural activities in this country:  sugar, corn, wheat, soy—you name it.  So, doing this subsidy is in no way an unusual act, but it was a good excuse.  It was wonderful for the black olive companies in California; they’re the ones who complained that they couldn’t compete with those Spanish black olives, so Mr. Trump, to help them and who knows, maybe got some political support in a state where he doesn’t have much; he went to work.  It’s devastating for the Spanish black olive producers and for the businesses that depend on them.  The Europeans are outraged; they claim this is purely helping your own businesses at the expense of the world; that’s what the World Trade Organization [the WTO] was organized to prevent.  Now, sure everybody does a little bit of rigging the market, but the whole purpose of the World Trade Organization was not to eliminate it—nobody believes you can do that—but to keep it within bounds.  The idea being, if we don’t do that we’re all going to be competing to help our own, at the expense of everybody else, and when the dust settles everybody’s hurt.  It’s like that old saying, “An eye for an eye makes everybody blind;” it’s not a real good system.  What’s going to happen?  The World Trade Organization’s going to have to make a decision, but that’s hard to do, because the judges over the World Trade Organization require nominations from the United States, which Mr. Trump isn’t doing.  This is looking to the rest of the world [not, of course, to Americans who don’t get much word about this] this is looking like a ploy.  This is looking like the United States throwing away all of the World Trade arrangements that we’ve had for decades, to avoid all going blind economically.  Why would the United States, under Mr. Trump, be doing it?  Because working according to the rules of the system that was developed to cope with this craziness, is not helping the United States enough.  The United States is going to go it alone.  The United States is in trouble; otherwise, it wouldn’t do this.  That’s the lesson here:  it’s not about Spain, it’s not about black olives.  It’s really about the United States desperate in its economic difficulties, trying to re-rig the world system to its own advantage.  It’s too little, and it’s too late, and the rest of the world is not sitting by and waiting for this to happen.  Relations between the United States and Europe are at a very low ebb and going down.

My last update that we’ll have time for has to do with a wonderful annual product, called the State of Working America Wages; this is for 2018, produced by the EPI in Washington, D.C., the Economic Policy Institute.  They study wages and what’s happening to them, and one of their conclusions was so startling to me, that I wanted to share it with you.  Over the last 18 years [that is, the 18 years of this century that we’re now living in—the 21st], wages for people who have had some college, didn’t finish college but had a little, went up absolutely not at all.  That is, if you adjust the wages that people with some college got, for the prices they had to pay, their “real wage”—that’s what we call that—went nowhere.  They’re not earning one bit more in 2018 in terms of what they can afford than they earned in the year 2000.  The best off were those who had graduate, that is, they not only got a BA degree, but got some graduate training, and their wages only went up 0.6 percent, barely over half of a percent per year; that’s very little.  When you count in statistical errors, when you count in the changing lives we lead, that is stagnant wages.  Everybody else, [people with no high school education, people with high school but no college] fell somewhere in between 0 and 0.6; that is an awful record of the last 20 years [roughly] of wages in America, they’re stagnant.  Over the same period, the productivity of all of those workers went up; let’s be real clear what that means.  The productivity measures how much the worker provides to his or her employer, and the wage represents how much the employer gives you for working.  If what the employer gives you is stagnant—hasn’t gone anywhere in 18 years, which is what we just said—but the productivity has gone up 1, 2, or 3 percent, depending on where you work, what you’re doing is giving more and more to the employer and getting nothing extra for yourself.  All of the increased productivity, the hard work you do, the education you bring, the technical skill you’ve learned; all of that makes him—the employer—wealthier, and does for you, squat.  Nothing.  That’s a system that isn’t working for the mass of working people, and that’s what we document on this program.

We’ve come to the end of the first half of Economic Update.  I want to remind you, please, of the importance of subscribing to our YouTube channel:  YouTube/Economic Update.  It’s a big service to us, it takes an instant of your time, and no money at all.  We also want you to make use of our websites:  rdwolff.com and democracyatwork.info.  You can reach us through those websites, you can follow us there by a click of your mouse on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  Of course, toward the end of each of these, I want to thank our Patreon community for their support and their encouragement.  You’re very important to us, thank you.  We will be right back.

Welcome back, friends to the second half of Economic Update.  Well, I couldn’t be more happy today to have someone who’s going to talk with us about the labor movement here in the United States, and even more to talk about reviving it, renewing it, and making it be, perhaps again, what it once was and what so many look to have it be again.  My guest is Larry Williams, Jr.  He is the President Emeritus and a founder of the Progressive Worker's Union (PWU).  It is a Washington D.C.-based union for non-profit employees that recently signed a landmark contract with the Sierra Club, as you know, America’s largest environmental organization.  Larry Williams’ experiences in the organized labor movement led him to be a co-founder of unionbase.org, a new and secure social networking and educational platform, for a new generation of union workers and union leaders.

RW: Larry, thank you very much for joining us.

LW: Great to meet you.  Thank you.

RW: Let me start off by asking a kind of personal question.  Why are you active in the labor movement, what made you make that kind of choice, how did it lead you to starting this new organization, and tell us a little bit about it.

LW: Sure.  I think I had really, really great mentors from various backgrounds, who saw that I had a real serious interest in equity and justice.  Like a lot of African-Americans, I saw it mainly through the lens of civil rights.  I took that voice to D.C. in the steps of a lot of great leaders, who did it back in the day, but when I got here I realized that politics wasn’t exactly the way to do what I wanted to do.  Like most Americans, I was working multiple jobs.  I had three jobs while I was in college, and I was barely able to keep up with the expectations of having multiple jobs and trying to get an education.  I, by chance, got the opportunity to work at a major union in Washington, D.C, the Teamsters Union, and I started as just basically a part-time employee in their organizing department.  Working every day to kind of collect the stories, the qualitative and quantitative data or organizing, talking to actual people every day; it just kind of caught fire for me, seeing that people from all different backgrounds had the opportunity to change their lives, and that would seep over from one person, to a family, to a community.  I saw people change their entire lives by joining a union.  I decided that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

RW: Tell us a little bit about Union Base, so we know what you’re doing right now as your focus.

LW: So, one of the things that would happen—not just at the Teamsters, but a lot of different unions—I would notice people would call from all over the world and say, “Hey, I want to join a union.”  Now, because of U.S. law, it’s quite archaic, the process of joining a union.  There’s several steps, there’s limitations on both the employer and the union on what they can do, and the average worker doesn’t necessarily know what a union is; we take that for granted somewhat.  So, I decided to try to create an educational platform/search engine where you could search for union members, union leaders, and workers who want to join a union or who are already in a union can securely communicate.  One of the biggest barriers to joining a union is employer intimidation; that’s one of the major reasons for decline, along with other issues.  So, I just figured by using a tool that’s often used against the labor movement—technology—I could try to make waves that way.

RW: Tell me, as a professor, which I’ve been doing most of my life, I know really well how little American young people know about unions, yet there seems—particularly in the last few years—to be the beginnings of a movement, of younger people particularly, toward unions, as if the many years of union bashing either doesn’t work anymore or has faded or just doesn’t cut it for young people.  Tell me, is that your feeling too?  Is it your experience, and if people are moving, particularly younger ones, why?

LW: Absolutely.  We’ve seen it around the country in different sectors.  In 2017 it was about 262,000 new members in the labor movement; of that number [I believe it was], something like 3 out of 4 of those people were under the age of 34.  So, that’s pretty tremendous for the labor movement.  In 2018, there was a decline in the overall membership of the labor movement, but we did see an increase in the professional sector—about 28,000 professional employees—that’s actors and graduate students—joined the labor movement.  We don’t even necessarily hear a lot in the news, but you have BuzzFeed and a lot of the Vox-owned companies’ journalists, a lot of different industries that we don’t typically see organization are starting to be organized.  Even the union I used to run—the Progressive Worker’s Union—we now have a card check agreement, to allow chapter employees to join the union.  Though, if you could imagine that as a start to the entire non-profit, and therefore environmental movement, being organized . . . if the left wants to really be a movement that wins the hearts and minds of American people, it needs to get into the workplace.  The labor movement organizing in those places is the way to do it.

RW: What’s the biggest obstacle?

LW: The biggest obstacle?  You know, I think you can Google the word “union,” and hear all kinds of things:  unions are too weak, unions are too strong.  The truth is that we can be our own worst enemy.  Anything that doesn’t evolve is destined to die.  I’d say the other thing that we have to watch out for as labor leaders, is making the assumption that everyone knows what a union is.  My grandfather was a coal miner in West Virginia.  I literally did not know that until I became a union leader.  My grandmother, who is 92—Mary Hamlett, I want to say hello to her—she told me that my grandfather was a coal miner, and in fact, he died of black lung.  So, if you can image, that’s a part of my legacy and part of my history . . . and it probably explains why I’m so into unions, right?  It’s something I didn’t even know I had the connection to.  The average person my age—millennials as they like to call them—they may know that the union got them the weekend, the five-day work week, and sick and vacation [time], or they may not, but the trick is trying to get them to understand that there’s only one way to balance with corporate power and to bring democracy to the workplace, and that’s joining a union.

RW: Do you think that there’s an evolution, there’s a change; is it evolving so it doesn’t die?  Is your sense of this happening now what keeps you going in it?

LW: Yeah, every time I go to a different corner of the country, someone comes up to me and they say, “Hey, I actually used your site to look for something,” or “I met somebody on your site;” that’s really what keeps me going.  I think that in the labor movement you have wins and you have losses, right?  There’s been some really tough losses for the labor movement over the last 50 years.  But, I also see a real fighting spirit from local labor leaders, all the way up to the central labor councils, the state feds, even up to the AFLCIO.  There is a history that goes over 100 years of unions battling.  So, whenever people predict the end of the labor movement, it’s actually wishful thinking.  I would say, labor is in the hearts and minds of regular people, and the labor movement started before there were formal unions.  You know, for slaves to be trying to escape and trying to create a new life for themselves in migrating from the south to the north; that was the labor movement.  Chinese workers at the railroads . . . there’s all different types and parts of the labor movement that we don’t necessarily respect and understand as the labor movement, but it’s all relevant.

RW: Let me ask you kind of a different question:  What would be the best way for a person, for example, listening to this program on the radio or watching it on television, a person who’s interested and is drawn to it the way you are, how do they get involved and what is the best way?  What does your particular union base, maybe, offer to them?

LW: Well, currently you have the opportunity to join the network and you can start communicating with other workers, who are in unions right now or non-union workers.  We want to inspire the conversation that it’s happening but it’s not happening in a central place.  There are over 30,000 local and international unions in the United States.  So, if you are a union member right now you can join and start talking.  You can actually look for me, Larry Williams, Jr., and I’ll answer whatever questions you have, for free, to try to join the labor movement.  Also, the idea that folks who want to be in a union think it’s too difficult.  Well, we’re actually going to be launching a jobs board for unions.  You can either log onto our site and find a job at a union fighting for worker’s rights, or you can find a job that is represented by a union, let’s say at UPS, you want to drive a truck.  The idea is to close the information gap so folks know where to look for union jobs, and also are aware where the strikes are happening so they can support them; where the union hotels [are].  All of that should be in one place.  There’s a lot that has already been done that I’m just building off of, so I want to really work closely with the labor movement to do that.

RW: There’s an old tension in the labor movement, and I would like your reaction to it.  The tension goes something like this:  On the one hand, our job as unions is to get better working conditions, better wages, a better deal for the worker who goes in every day to the factory, the office, the store, and puts in his or her eight hours, etc., but always struggling with an employer.  So, even when you have a union and you have a contract—which is still a goal for most workers, because we don’t have enough strength of the unions yet—then you’re always fighting with the employer, who doesn’t abide by the contract, who goes around the contract, who lets it lapse or whatever . . . and so that developed over the years the notion [that] another way would be to change the system; in other words, to have workers run the enterprise themselves, rather than always being adversaries of somebody who’s trying to make an extra buck by taking something away from them.  It’s called [sometimes] a worker co-op movement, it has various names.  Where do you see that playing out—if you do—and how does that get factored into what’s going on with the renewal of the labor movement?

LW: I think, I have seen worker co-ops, in various forms around the United States and I’ve seen it in Cuba as well, but you know that’s obviously a different economic and political system.  I just think we’re talking about an issue of scale.  The labor movement, even though it is at historic lows, it is still quite powerful in particular industries, and in different places that means different things.  I think the traditional union is still the number one way to ensure that your pay, health insurance, benefits, job security, and all the main concerns of an average worker—all your needs are met.  I do think that alternative methods should be considered, and I guess I would just quote a little-known activist that said, “By any means necessary.”

RW: Okay, let’s turn a little bit in a slightly different direction.  Do you think the people who run the society; the political leaders, the economic corporate leaders, are they done with their push against the labor movement?  They’ve been successful for 50 years now, making it smaller and smaller.  I often say, you know, one-third of the working class in this country was in a union after World War II, and now it’s more like 10 percent; that’s tremendous.  Do you think that they’re no longer pushing, or have they reached as far as they can go, so it’s kind of your turn to build it back up?  How do you position yourself and what do you imagine?

LW: Right.  I think I’m part of a battle that’s always going on.  Many people will be familiar with the Powell Memo, which was the corporate sector’s call to action to try to destroy the labor movement in education.  You’re a professor, you know.  You go to many colleges and you go into the Economics book, and there’s like one line about unions, “They destroy the free market,” right?  So, a lot of times I’m having conversations with folks from -.05, right?  First, we need to get to the point of what a union actually is; it is not a job destroyer, right?  I would say that ever since that Powell Memo, capitalism has really concentrated its resources at destroying the labor movement.  You find it in media, popular culture; they talk about The Mob and they bring in things that are really irrelevant to the present state in the worker’s struggle.  I would say that if you think about the TSA agents, for example, when the government shutdown happened or the struggle of the air traffic controllers; literally, 10 air traffic controllers decided to stay home, and all of a sudden that government shutdown was over, right?  For Trump to do that that was an attack on working people.  So, the attacks come in different ways and they come in waves.  At this point, the battle is not going to stop.  The question is, “Are we going to evolve our tactics and are we going to meet the challenge?”

RW: Right.  I think it’s very, very important.  I think the shutdown was a wonderful opportunity for the labor movement to have come and said, “You can struggle and you can fight, and you can try to change things, but you don’t do it on the backs of working people, the way you just did.”  It was a moment when most of Americans, I think, would have supported it.  Thank you very much.  I wish you every success.  Please come back and tell us how this is developing.  The labor movement is an important part of what’s going to change this country.

LW: Will do, thank you.

Thank you all for joining us.  I hope you found Larry Williams, Jr.’s comments on the labor movement a breath of fresh air, as we did, and wanted him to be part of the conversation here, about what needs to be done and what can be done to make the changes that are so long overdue.  Thank you for watching, and I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Ann Ford
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