Where to begin about the decline of organized labor in this country and, along with it, the decline of the middle class? In the mid-20th century, a third of American workers belonged to a union. Today, that figure has dropped to less than one in eight.
Meanwhile, the share of national income claimed by the middle class has fallen to less than half; incredibly, the share paid to the top 1 percent has more than doubled—to 24 percent of the nation's income.
The rich get richer, the middle class is squeezed and union membership is plummeting. The question arises whether a healthy economy is possible when unions are so weak.
It's a complicated issue, so let me pose a simpler one: Should North Carolina, dead last in the nation with 2.9 percent of our workers represented by unions, welcome a debate about the role of organized labor in a 21st-century economy?
That's a trick question, because Republican leaders in the General Assembly seem determined to grind labor under their wingtips by offering a trio of anti-union amendments to the state constitution. Voters would decide on those amendments in November 2014.
House Bill 6, introduced by Speaker Thom Tillis, would ask voters to embed the state's so-called "right to work" law into the constitution, as well as the law barring collective bargaining by public employees. House Bill 53, also a Tillis measure, would seek to require that union elections be conducted by secret ballot, with no option for organizing via signed petitions.
The point of these measures isn't to change anything in our state's long and vehemently anti-union law book. Rather, Tillis said, they're designed "to send the very clear message ... that North Carolina will continue to be the least unionized state in the United States."
To put it another way, they're like the anti-gay amendment the Republicans championed in 2012. Their purpose is to show who's in charge and who isn't.
The Republicans think that by putting these anti-union amendments to referendum, they'll align themselves with popular sentiment and force Democratic candidates to take an unpopular stand.
Perhaps the GOP should be careful what it asks for. Crushing unions may sound like an easy path to victory, but what if the campaign becomes a referendum on what the rich and big business—and their Republican allies—are doing to working-class North Carolinians? That is, kicking them when they're down.
When progressives gathered last week at a meeting sponsored by N.C. Policy Watch, state AFL-CIO officials made it clear that while they didn't ask for this fight, they'll make the most of it.
"This is an opportunity for us, folks," Secretary-Treasurer MaryBe McMillan said. "It's an opportunity for us to educate people about unions and why they are so important for all of us. It's an opportunity to build and grow this movement [in] North Carolina with labor, civil rights and people of faith.
"Stand with us," McMillan urged.
The progressive side would start such a campaign saddled with the ugly caricature that organized labor has become. Elizabeth Shuler, national secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, was the guest speaker in Raleigh. She acknowledged that when most Americans think of unions, they think corruption or irrelevance.
The Republicans would also begin with a handicap, however, due to what Shuler accurately described as their "egregious assaults on workers rights, democracy and the economy that we cannot ignore."
A short list would include slashing unemployment benefits paid by business, denying Medicaid to an estimated 500,000 of the working poor and—if they follow through with campaign promises—eliminating estate taxes on the very rich while increasing taxes on low-income families by killing the state's Earned Income Tax Credit.
Republican leaders have also proposed cutting or eliminating personal and corporate income taxes and replacing them with higher sales taxes—moves patently intended to shift taxes from the rich to those of lesser means.
As for democracy, the Republicans plan to enact a photo ID law interfering with the voting rights of people who don't have driver's licenses or government-issued identification.
Given that record, Republican efforts to squash unions that don't exist might strike fair-minded voters as a devious attempt to divert attention from the rest of their war on working people.
On the other hand, progressives would face the challenge of defending a union movement very different from the one that prevailed in this country after the Great Depression but which never took hold in the South.
That movement represented workers in factories at a time when corporations and banks were local. Now, they're global, and unions trying to organize a workplace confront the threat that the employer will relocate overseas rather than bargain with labor.
Today, labor is attempting to organize service workers whose jobs can't be moved but which are also low-paid and traditionally held by immigrants, African-Americans and women, not the cigar-smoking factory men of lore.
At the same time, through auxiliary organizations like Working America, the AFL-CIO is trying to enlist people who aren't union members but who think the working class needs a political organization on their side to battle the rich in state capitals and in Washington—which, of course, it does.
A pro-labor campaign with that message about the future of unions would be educational. And even if the amendments succeed, the blowback from passing them might cost some Republicans their seats.
So I say, bring 'em on.
This article appeared in print with the headline "It's time to induce labor."