In 2016, our cover story was titled “Wages, Riches and Pitchforks.” The story got a lot of attention by the media. In fact, Amazon (without my consent) still sells the piece I wrote as a cheap PDF. (You can read it for free. Just go to https://sb-d.com/magazine/article/wages-riches-pitchforks.)
Here is an excerpt from that article: Not all right-leaning capitalists are against raising the federal minimum wage. Entrepreneur Nick Hanauer, a self-proclaimed plutocrat and founder or financier of over 30 companies, sees a future of angry mobs with pitchforks in this country if something isn’t done about income inequality. Hanauer explains in one of his TED Talks, “While people like us plutocrats are living beyond the dreams of avarice, the other 99 percent of our fellow citizens are falling farther behind.”
Hanauer continued by saying, “You see, the problem isn’t that we have some inequality. Some inequality is necessary for a high-functioning capitalist democracy. The problem is that inequality is at historic highs today and it’s getting worse every day. And if wealth, power and income continue to concentrate at the very tippy top, our society will change from a capitalist democracy to a neo-feudalist rentier society like 18th century France. That was France before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.”
Hanauer claims there is no evidence to support the theory that if low wage workers earn a little more, unemployment will escalate and the economy will collapse. In his TED Talk, he also claims that Seattle
(his hometown), which voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour in 2017 for some companies, has not seen negative effects from having one of the highest minimum wages in the country. “If trickle-down thinkers were right, then Washington State should have massive unemployment. Seattle should be sliding into the ocean. And yet, Seattle is the fastest-growing big city in the country,” Hanauer maintains.
“So I have a message for my fellow plutocrats and zillionaires and for anyone who lives in a gated bubble world: Wake up. Wake up. It cannot last. Because if we do not do something to fix the glaring economic inequities in our society, the pitchforks will come for us, for no free and open society can long sustain this kind of rising economic inequality. It has never happened.”
“There are no examples. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state or an uprising. The pitchforks will come for us if we do not address this. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when. And it will be terrible when they come for everyone, but particularly for people like us plutocrats.”
Given the economic challenges and income inequality, why haven’t unions secured a better foothold in the South?
So, for four decades wage growth has been anemic, we have a stagnant population — an indication that those in their 20s and 30s do not believe they can afford children —
and income inequality where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That being the case, why does organized labor continue to struggle in the 15 Southern states?
Organized union membership is roughly half that in the South compared to the rest of the country, which is around 5 percent of the labor force. There are some states in the South with union rates of 10 percent or more, but that’s rare.
Twenty-seven states adhere to right-to-work laws; however, every state Southern Business & Development covers is a right-to-work state other than Missouri. A right-to-work law gives workers the freedom to choose whether or not to join a labor union in the workplace. This law also makes it optional for employees in unionized workplaces to pay for union dues or other membership fees required for union representation, whether they are in the union or not.
The law is highly political, with Republicans mostly backing right-to-work legislation in support of big business, and Democrats backing union membership in support of labor and the power of collective bargaining.
While this is not an opinion on right-to-work, there is no question that the South’s efforts to become the engine of the largest economy in the world dilute the influence of labor unions in the region. As entrepreneur Nick Hanauer said earlier in this story, the decline in union membership in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with the decreasing shares of income amongst the 90 percent and increasing income in the top 10 percent. Again, you can make that political all you want, but the numbers indicate that as unions lost their clout, the rich got richer and the poor and middle class lost any leverage they had.
Now, that does not mean right-to-work is not beneficial to the South’s economy. It is. The South’s GDP now makes it the third largest economy in the world, behind only the U.S. and China. As you know, the South was dirt poor 100 years ago. Without right-to-work laws, there is no way the South could have become the fastest growing U.S. region in the largest economy in the world.
Much of that increase in GDP can be attributed to foreign direct investment. Where does Toyota operate most of its assembly plants and its headquarters in North America? Where does Mercedes-Benz have its only U.S. plant and North American headquarters? Where does BMW have its largest North American plant? By the way, none of those facilities are unionized. The answer is all of those facilities operate in the American South.
But that does not mean unions will not try to organize even foreign plants in the South. They have tried with high-profile union drives at Nissan in Mississippi, Boeing in South Carolina and Volkswagen in Tennessee, just to name a few. Workers, especially at large foreign manufacturing facilities, are extremely lucky to have a job at one of those plants. These facilities already pay way more in wages than the average wage in the South.
Regardless, there is about to be a reckoning when it comes to the South and union activity. In the fall 2021 quarter, Ford, a union company since 1941, announced it is investing $11.4 billion to further its electric vehicle production at a site in Stanton, Tenn., (near Memphis) and Glendale, Ky. Ford will invest $5.6 billion to build batteries and assemble the company’s electric F-Series vehicles in Tennessee. The Kentucky site is a $5.8 billion investment and will include twin battery factories. The two sites will house about 11,000 new jobs.
It will be interesting to see what will happen at those Ford plants when they are up and running. If they unionize, it could change everything in the region. If they don’t, then Ford made an awesome bet.