March 14, 2011- The battle in Wisconsin over the rights of public-sector workers holds the potential to reawaken workers across the country to demand their fair share of the economic pie. This could be an important turning point. However, if workers are to make real progress, they must move to alter the rules of the game. These rules have been deliberately rigged against them over the last three decades.
The most obvious of these rules are those governing the rights to unionize, such as those that Gov. Scott Walker directly attacked in Wisconsin. However, this is just part of the story. Unionization has become almost impossible in the private sector, since companies routinely fire workers engaged in an organizing drive.
It is illegal to fire workers for trying to organize, but the penalties are trivial, even if a fired worker presses a case before the National Labor Relations Board long enough to win. Companies will gladly pay a few dollars to the organizers they fire in order to avoid having a union.
It would be a very different world if there were real penalties for violating labor law. A woman in Minnesota got fined more than $200,000 for allowing people to download copyrighted music from her computer. Suppose companies paid the same penalty for illegally firing workers trying to organize a union as this woman had to pay for violating copyright laws. That might encourage some respect for the law.
But this is just the beginning. Over the last three decades, the government has signed trade agreements like NAFTA, the major purpose of which is to put US manufacturing workers in direct competition with low-paid workers in countries like Mexico and China. According to economics and common sense, workers in the United States will lose jobs or see their pay cut when they have to compete with workers in other countries earning one-tenth as much.
This situation is made even worse when the dollar is overvalued. If the dollar is overvalued by 20 percent, we are effectively giving a subsidy of 20 percent to foreign producers competing with our workers. It is not easy to overcome a 20 percent subsidy.
Therefore, a lower valued, or more competitive, dollar should be at the top of progressives' lists of demands.