This article was produced as part of Commonweal Institute’s Progressive Op-Ed Program
Progressives believe in a “we’re all in this together” philosophy while conservatives follow a “you are on your own” philosophy. The differences between these approaches can be clearly seen in the battle over how we share the benefits of our economy.
Conservatives encourage people to take “personal responsibility” rather than to rely on each other for support and guidance. When it comes to things like negotiating for pay and benefits this approach limits each of us to the power and resources that we have alone as individuals.
But big companies are not “on their own.” They are legally allowed to concentrate resources and power that dwarf anything an individual could muster. Companies might have thousands, even tens of thousands of employees who have to do what they are told. They have top legal teams at the table across from you. They can place advertisements and hire PR firms to spin false stories that turn the public against you.
A “you are on your own” approach puts each of us alone at the table with powerful the big companies. When we ask for higher pay, time off, benefits or better working conditions they can set us against each other by saying, “we’ll just find someone else to do your job.” Big companies seeking to lower or eliminate worker costs (you) and pocket the savings on one side of the table with regular individuals on the other side of the table is a one-sided negotiation. The result is an increasingly one-sided economy, with the benefits of the economy going overwhelmingly to those who control these powerful companies.
The negotiating table is out of balance and the result is this terrible economic downturn.
There is another approach. We can create win-win solutions that work for companies and for each of us as individuals. This will happen when there is balance between those at the table negotiating shares in the benefits of our economy. To achieve this we need to strengthen the unions. We know this because there was a period in our history when we had a few strong unions which brought a better balance of power at the negotiating table. This balance didn’t just help union members, it created the middle class.
Unions are the very essence of “we’re all in this together”. People banded together and refused to work unless conditions improved. This unity gave them the power to ask for better wages, benefits, time off, sick pay, health care, pensions and other benefits that we all came to expect and enjoy. The resulting balance of power forced both sides to look for balanced, win-win approaches. It created an economy with a stable workforce that could afford to purchase consumer goods, so companies prospered as well.
But in recent decades the unions have been weakened. The companies have created a stacked deck, forcing unions away from the bargaining table. With only the big companies at the table, of course the outcome reflects their short-term interests. Job security is non-existent. Raises are rare. Benefits are cut. Pensions and health insurance are ever harder to find.
The fact is, when unions are weakened the interests of all workers, unionized or not, are not represented.
The current state of the economy demonstrates how the conservative “you’re on your own” approach has failed us. Our economy is terribly out of balance because the negotiating table has been out of balance for so long.
So it is time to restore balance. A progressive “we are in this together” approach can restore our economy. The Employee Free Choice Act, now before the Congress, is an example of the kind of progressive policy that would let workers join unions and again sit at the table without fear of being fired by their employers.
When working people are once again represented at the bargaining table, the big companies will be forced to accept win-win solutions. The economy will be restored and can once again benefit all of us.