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STATE AFFAIRS: Pritzker a classic capital-labor fight

Jim Nowlan
Jim Nowlan
The November election contest between Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic challenger J. B. Pritzker is shaping up to be largely a classic conflict between capital and labor.

Mushy moderate that I am, I wonder if there is any constructive middle ground on this topic for Illinois in the foreseeable future.

Rauner made his money as a private equity investor. His company borrows money to buy companies, pumps them up and sells them for a big profit. Doing so requires a hard-nose approach to employees.

Rauner’s disdain for labor unions is well known. He initiated efforts that have resulted in a present case before the U.S. Supreme Court case that will likely strip public employee unions of the capacity to require non-union employees to pay union dues.

Pritzker had the backing of all major organized labor in his primary campaign, and unions will keep the billionaire’s feet to the fire on their issues.

Some background.

The fundamental conflict throughout recorded history is that between capital and labor: Kings and slaves; feudal lords and peasants; “robber barons” of industry and their violent clashes with fledgling labor unions in the late 1800s.

Labor gained ground during the Depression, when much of society lost faith in business leadership. After World War II, with the rest of the world’s developed economies prostrate, companies in my area like Caterpillar could basically say to UAW 974, “What do you need (to keep labor peace)?” They would provide such and set the prices of their crawler tractors accordingly.

No longer. From the 1990s forward, business has outsourced jobs to low-wage countries with abandon. The sin of business in all this is that they treated their former American employees with cold, uncaring disdain.

As the thoughtful, conservative Peggy Noonan (a Reagan speechwriter) put it in a March 10 Wall Street Journal column:

“The wealthiest and most powerful Americans, those who had benefited most from its system, peeled off from the less fortunate and made clear they were not especially concerned about their problems. Stupidly, and they are stupid, they didn’t even fake a prudent interest.”

The result, says Peggy: Trump.

Supply and demand is, of course, central to all this, along with the whatever perceived leverage “supply” (the labor force) thinks it has.

In the 1300s, the Black Death (the Plague) decimated Europe. Villages lost one-third, one-half, sometimes all their people. The result: Labor became valuable because of its short supply, and wages went up, up.

England’s Parliament enacted a law that set a maximum on wages. Landowners who paid more would be dealt with harshly. Yet owners had to break that law and pay more if they were to plant and harvest crops.

Inequality of wealth obviously went down, at least a bit.

Today, most wealth is funneling up to the top. According to a Dec. 6, 2017 article in the Washington Post, the top one percent of Americans have twice as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

I want those who create, discover and work hard to produce to be rewarded with wealth; such incentive will generate more discovery. Yet, the obvious concern is that if the top handful of people hold all the wealth, who else will have the money to buy their products and benefit from their discoveries?

At some point, those in the bottom half will demand a greater slice of wealth, just as labor unions have done in our nation’s history.

But how will they impose their demands?

Collective bargaining between unions and individual companies rarely works anymore. Temporary replacement employees become permanent, the strike fails, and long-time union employees are out in the cold.

The alternatives for labor nationwide appear limited: Maybe more mass protests against low pay in the vast services industries, or old-fashioned political action in D.C. and state legislatures.

In Illinois, the options are even narrower. Our business climate is perceived to be bad, among the worst in the nation, though Illinois has incredible economic strengths.

So, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Pritzker has to balance labor’s interests in a greater slice of the wealth pie with the further harm labor concessions might be perceived to do to our business climate.

Rauner will continue to push his anti-union agenda, which may benefit him politically, as only six or seven percent of jobs in the Illinois private sector are unionized.

The coming gubernatorial campaign between Rauner and Pritzker is expected to be the most expensive in American history.

My fear is that all this money will be spitted away for attack ads on the personal character of the opponents (obviously repugnant, repulsive, loathsome, vile), rather than on Big Picture thinking and policy ideas for us to consider.

But the Labor Movement, weak as it may be at the moment, is not going away.
 
• JIM NOWLAN is a former Illinois legislator, agency director and aide to three governors. He also was lead author of "Illinois Politics: A Citizen's Guide" (University of Illinois Press, 2010). Nowlan can be reached at jnowlan3@gmail.com.
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