Commentary Magazine


To the Editor:

It is not surprising to find in the pages of COMMENTARY a vicious anti-labor article by Amity Shlaes bemoaning “Labor’s Return” [October 1996]. Miss Shlaes would prefer us to go back some 35 years in American political life when labor was concentrated primarily in blue-collar industries. She cites labor’s support of John F. Kennedy: “[T]he private-sector unions of earlier days shared JFK’s vision of a rising tide lifting all boats.” Unfortunately, she conveniently forgets that these same boats, now controlled by multinational corporations, have been used to export most of our industrial power, and the jobs that go with it, in seeking out the cheapest labor costs available on a global scale.

The attack on the increasing clout of public-sector unions is just another way of attacking government itself. It is time that neoconservative elitists understood that “free trade” can never be free if it is not fair to all involved. But since it is not so easy to export the public sector of our economy in search of cheap labor, they have now chosen to attack reinvigorated public-sector unions in the belief that hampering the political energies of these unions will lead to reducing the cost, i.e., taxes, of government.

It is also true that all of us realize that to maintain and improve civilized society takes public money. It is too dangerous to leave the political arena to the vicissitudes of the “Forbes 400” and their wannabes.

Who is really fueling the fire of class warfare?

Harold Ostroff
Bronx, New York



To the Editor:

. . . As a former director of the Jewish Labor Committee in Canada who has spent more than 30 years working with unions, and as a Member of Parliament for many years who has seen at first hand the hard lives of the workers and the poor whom I represented, I must respond to Amity Shlaes’s article, which is riddled with misstatements, omissions, and distortions of the truth.

The article criticizes the $35 million spent by labor unions in the last election, mainly in support of Democratic candidates, but does not say that in almost every case the decision to support these candidates was made openly after debate by the unions concerned, or that most unions made it possible for members who disagreed with such support to get a refund of that part of their dues allocated for this purpose.

Why did not Miss Shlaes compare the way unions arrived at their decision to support candidates sympathetic to their objectives with the quiet, surreptitious way in which corporations and wealthy Americans support their favorite candidates? They do not even report the money they spend to their shareholders. . . .

Miss Shlaes says that thousands of union employees were working full time to lobby against Republican candidates and their policies. I hope that is true, but she does not write about the tens of thousands of business executives who worked for the Republicans. Why the silence?

Miss Shlaes seems to object to “labor’s latest battle cry, ‘America Needs a Raise.’ ” Why? Does she not know that the U. S. has the highest percentage of people living in poverty of any industrialized country in the Western world? . . . I presume she lives in New York City: has she walked through parts of Harlem and seen how people there live?. . .

Miss Shlaes is hostile to the increasing growth of unions among public-service workers. Why? Aren’t they entitled to get together to form unions which will work to protect and, it is hoped, improve their conditions? Governments—federal, state, and municipal—faced with growing deficits are downsizing their workforces, and workers . . . are losing the jobs they had for many years which permitted them to live with some comfort and dignity. . . . Is it surprising that they are beginning to fight back?

Miss Shlaes claims that because unions believe in more active government, they are opposed to a growing, expanding private sector in the American economy. That is an ideological point of view which is not based on any universally accepted economic theory. . . .

Yes, unions opposed NAFTA. They support fair trade. . . . But when, for example, auto workers in Canada and the U.S., employed by companies earning billions of dollars for their shareholders and paying bloated salaries in the millions to their CEO’s, find their $20-to-$30-an-hour jobs disappearing because they are being taken by workers in Mexico or South Korea earning $3 an hour, is it any wonder that they opposed NAFTA?

Some months ago, while I was in Washington, D.C., I went into a GAP store situated right across the street from the Mayflower Hotel. There were clothes for sale produced in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Northern Mariana Islands, Thailand, Singapore, Honduras, Sri Lanka, and the United Arab Emirates. Miss Shlaes must have some idea of the starvation wages workers in those countries receive. She must know that thousands of children work long hours every day. Doesn’t she care?

Garment and textile-workers’ unions in Canada, the U.S., and Western Europe have begun a campaign to help change these deplorable, disgusting, degrading situations. It is because they know the downside of “free trade” that unions opposed NAFTA. Yes, in part it was to protect themselves, but in part it was to help those exploited in third-world countries.

David Orlikow
Winnipeg, Manitoba,



Amity Shlaes writes:

Of course I share the letter writers’ concern for the working American. But Harold Ostroff and David Orlikow treat organized labor as if it were one with the American worker. The point of my article was that big labor and the American worker are increasingly parting ways. Laws originally written to regulate unions and companies in the private sector are now being exploited to facilitate a political-interest group’s desperate search for a constituency. When the AFL-CIO and other unions cannot attract enough members of their own, they try to get government to coerce workers into providing them with funding. New evidence of such efforts showed up just lately, when the AFL-CIO announced it would lobby for an executive order from the President requiring federal employees to pay the equivalent of union dues even when they have chosen to stay out of unions.

Mr. Ostroff argues that attacking public-sector unions means attacking government itself. He is correct. A big public sector ought to be attacked because it slows down economic growth and kills jobs. Europe, a heavily unionized continent, provides the best example of this. There, a burgeoning and unionized public sector has rendered the economy close to sterile. So few net new private-sector jobs have been created there in the last generation that youth unemployment in some of these countries ranges up to 30 percent. In France, youth unemployment fosters the ugly hostility between the French and Algerian immigrants. For all their talk of inclusion and of helping minorities, unions in Western nations have too often supported the status quo, excluding the young, foreigners, and the underemployed.

Mr. Orlikow asks why my article did not address the campaign contributions of business in the 1996 election. The first answer is that the piece was not about campaign finance but about organized labor. The second is that there is a gulf of difference between, on the one hand, business contributions, or, for that matter, those of groups such as the Christian Coalition and, on the other hand, spending by labor. Whatever one says of corporations or the Christian Coalition, they are spending funds that have been given to them voluntarily. The unions, on the other hand, spend millions in money from unwilling and sometimes even unwitting workers. Lately, my own newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, reported one such example: the Washington Education Association illegally concocted what its own lobbyist admitted was an “internal ploy” to collect funds from members for PAC spending. The union broke the law by imposing a compulsory “community-outreach” donation on its members.

Mr. Orlikow argues that foreign children suffer in sweatshops when we export our textile jobs. The question is, compared to what? Conditions in Thai and Sri Lankan factories may indeed be worse than those in businesses that employ Canadians or Americans. But third-world children report to Western correspondents that their earnings in these sweatshops are better than their parents’ and better than the average per-capita wage in their own villages. For us to force these children and their families to forgo real improvement in their lives merely in order to maintain our own pretense that the whole world must live at North American standards is self-righteous, even narcissistic. That more American firms do not acknowledge this is a measure of their cowardice.


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