An interview with Mark Erlich, Executive Secretary-Treasurer, New England Council of Carpenters
“To understand what’s ahead for the American worker, you have to look back on what’s been happening in this country for the last three decades. From my years in the labor movement and certainly in my lifetime, I’ve watched us become a different kind of society with a different set of values. Over the last 30 years, there has been an unprecedented growth in income inequality. Eighty percent of Americans have seen their wages diminish or stagnate. Now it takes two wage earners in a family to make the equivalent of what one used to earn. Not only is this alarming on its own but it represents a dramatic turn in a society that was on a trajectory to greater parity after World War II.”
“The evidence is both economic and cultural. If you look back in time, the ethos in corporate America has changed considerably. Loyalty to employees was once considered a strength. Now if a CEO stands up at a board meeting and said, “I have never laid anyone off,” they’d look at him as if he were a complete incompetent. Anything that boosts the short-term stock price is priority; decisions are framed in terms of an obligation to the shareholder. Now we celebrate a very different kind of corporate leader – one who thinks exclusively in terms of short-term profits. Globalization, and the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy have all contributed to this tectonic change.
Now that we have the greatest recession in many of our lifetimes, you have a particular crisis on top of long-term erosion of the middle class lifestyle. As far as the union is concerned, the winter of 2009 saw close to 30% unemployment in the winter of 2009. We have people who have committed years to a craft or trade left with no place to apply their skills. The biggest problem, in my view, is that very quickly the economic becomes the personal. The foreclosure crisis, and people’s inability to pay rent, lead to unstable families. There’s such a loss of self esteem when there’s a loss of income. I’ve always believed the best social program is a job.”
What is the role of the labor movement in countering these disparities?
“Historically, the trades have been paths to the middle class without requiring a college education. Not everyone can afford – or is suited fpr college. In a trade you can develop a career you can be proud of. The trades will continue to offer that option. It is still a good strategy.
But, overall, the labor movement has been slow to react to these economic shifts. Unions tend not to be nimble organizations. There needs to be a much higher level of sophistication if the labor movement is to grow. We need to represent workers in growing not dying industries. The unions that have the greatest potential are those in the growing sectors of the economy; the service industries and construction.At the same time, we need to reach back to our roots and advocate for all working people; that means new workers – not just those on the low-wage side. This is challenging in that knowledge-based work environments accentuate the individual rather than the group. As a tactic to cut costs, everyone has become an independent contractor; the sell is that everyone is an entrepreneur.
For our society as a whole, I think it is important to retain a sense of group consciousness but this is a big political question. Is this a society where everyone is on their own? Or do we have a common purpose in a society where everyone has a stake? Obviously, I’m of the latter opinion.”