(Reposted from the Guardian)
President Barack Obama is exceeding the modest expectations that some of us had for him. His appointment of Hilda Solis as secretary of labour marks the end of three decades of unbridled union-bashing, which saw the degree of unionisation in the American labour force plummet. She is an explicit supporter of unions – a far cry from Ronald Reagan’s having the PATCO organisers led away in shackles.

While being ‘pro-business’ has never been a bar to political advancement in Washington, being accused of being pro-labour has all too often been the political equivalent of paedophilia. Though Republicans have been natural, one might add phobic, union-bashers, even Bill Clinton took union money and votes and then denounced them as ‘special-interest groups’ (unlike, say, the bankers, whose money he took and whose interests he cultivated). Emulating Clinton, Tony Blair did the same in Britain – refusing to roll back much of Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union legislation and demanding exemptions from EU regulations that gave workers more protections (despite Blair’s alleged Europhilia).

The National Labour Relations Board, set up by Franklin Roosevelt to help workers unionise, claims that it is enforcing the statute that ‘guarantees the right of employees to organise and to bargain collectively with their employers, and to engage in other protected concerted activity with or without a union, or to refrain from all such activity’. But for years that last phrase has covered most of their practice. Certainly employers have spent untold millions in the gums of NLRB enforcement actions.

The right in the US are the ideologues, while most union members are pragmatic, lacking the long-term political objectives that used to be common to unions elsewhere in the world. Yet American conservatives and employers display a pathological fear of the unions, Big Labour, that Europeans find difficult to understand.

Unions may not be on par with ‘terrorists’ or ‘communists’, but they are close. ‘Staying union free is a full-time commitment’, asserts the Wal-Mart training manual – and the company has been prepared to close plants rather than recognise or negotiate with a union. In common with other employers Wal-Mart deploys a phalanx of expensive, union-busting lawyers and consultants, prepared to litigate exhaustively against any adverse NLRB decision and to pre-empt any attempt to unionise.

They have benefited from the common American folkway in which millions of ragged-trousered philanthropists benignly approved of pro-wealthy legislation – because they saw themselves as millionaires-in-waiting, rather than employees. It is likely that as they ruefully contemplate the ruins of their home equity, 401(k)s, savings and credit lines, they will be less charitable and think about their own welfare. Who knows: the next time legislators seek to ban political contributions from union dues, they might counter with a demand for a shareholder vote on donations to politicians.

This Anglo-American model has demanded unfettered freedom for bankers and senior management – from government, shareholders and employees alike – while keeping as many restrictions as possible on unions. There is a clear connection between that model and the declining living standards of most working families as the rich got greedier and richer.

As executives surrounded themselves with billions of dollars of incentives, and equal amounts in golden parachutes and retirement pay-offs, their spokespeople from the Chicago school preached that workers needed the whip to work effectively, and that for the economy to work they should be hired for a pittance and fired at the drop of a hat.

While there is growing realisation that the enrichment of the few helped bring about the current crisis, it is time to stress that the other part, the immiseration of the many, is also a major cause. Low salaries meant high credit, which meant high risk.

In fact, the Chicago school always wilfully overlooked the wise words of their alleged prophet Adam Smith, who, like Henry Ford in his early days, equated high wages with high productivity.

So it is refreshing to see the economists who warned about the coming crisis stepping up and stating the obvious: that American adherence to union rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Labour Organisation conventions is not just a moral issue, but an economic issue as well.

Obama should put his full weight behind the Employee Free Choice Act as an essential part of his stimulus package. In fact, he should add to the various bailout plans a prohibition against the recipients’ funds being spent on anti-union organising.