It’s the Unions, Jack

Why America’s working class would fare better in a social democracy

| January-February 2011

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    Photo from Facing Change: Documenting America, a non-profit collective of dedicated photojournalists and writers coming together to explore America and to build a forum to chart its future.
    Carlos Javier Ortiz /

  • its-the-unions-jack

Americans may believe that the United States is set up for the middle class, and Europe is set up for the bourgeois. Or let’s put it this way: America is a great place to buy kitty litter at Walmart and relatively cheap gas. But it is not designed for me, a professional without a lot of money. That’s who Europe is for: people like me.

OK, I’m a union-side lawyer, so Europe’s really set up for people like my clients, or those who used to be my clients before the unions in America collapsed. Let’s put my own self-interest aside: Where would my clients, who are not poor, who make $30,000 to $50,000 a year and yet keep coming up short, maybe by $100, $200 a month, really be better off?

That’s easy: Europe. I can answer that as their lawyer, the way a doctor could answer about their health. The bottom two-thirds of America would be better off in Europe. I mean the people who have not had a raise (an hourly raise in real dollars) in maybe 40 years, and who do not even have a 401(k), nothing but Social Security, and either have no health insurance or pay deductibles of $2,000 or more. Sure, they’d be better off in Europe. When they’re unemployed, they’d certainly be better off in Europe. Over there, even single men can get on welfare. And in much of Europe, contrary to what we hear, overall unemployment is no higher than it is here.

One of the ways Europe is set up for the bourgeois—including, perhaps, many readers of this magazine—is the very fact that it is also set up for people who make $50,000 or less. Since it’s set up for these people, too, the bourgeois—me, maybe you—get the political cover to have it set up for them. What the people-in-the-unions get, people-from-the-good-schools also get. (And indeed, in Europe people-in-the-unions are often people-from-the-good-schools.) They get the six weeks of vacation each year and the pension like a golden parachute. And the higher up we are in terms of income, the more valuable these things are. In America, they don’t tell us: Social democracy, or socialism, or whatever Europe has, pays off biggest for people in the upper middle class, those just below the top.


Take Zurich and Chicago. One looks good and the other, broken down. If America has such a famously high GDP per capita and Chicago is one of America’s crown jewels, maybe there is something wrong with using GDP per capita as an index of social well-being. It’s not that the numbers “lie” in any crude way, but past a certain point, maybe these numbers mislead us as to where we’re better off. For to look at the numbers, who would guess that Zurich looks gloriously like Zurich all over, and that Chicago looks glorious in Lincoln Park, dumpy west of Pulaski Avenue, and gulag-like by 26th and California? But forget the look of the place. It’s also the way of life.

2/16/2011 4:42:11 PM

So true, but for people who have not lived in other countries it's difficult to see and understand this as well as other variables that add up to a life of more increased well being. Luckily, there is more research coming out in this area. I've lived most of my life in America but daily I am conscious of the things I have given up that are more humane and make life more pleasant and fulfilling - not just for me, but mainly for people who make less than 50K, as the article states. Great article!!

1/17/2011 3:37:57 PM

As a 17 yr old I sat on the streets with hundreds of others and stopped commerce if only briefly, to protest Thatcher's dismantling of worker protection. There is and can be no pride in privatization.

El poeta
1/14/2011 12:35:47 PM

Well written and informative piece, it brings me back to my mantra, to heed Maitreya's teachings as the only way forward, for America and the planet; "Men must release themselves from the poison of competition, must realize it for the glamour which it is, and, seeing the Oneness of all men, embrace co-operation for the General Good. Only co-operation and justice will save men from a disaster of their own making; co-operation and justice alone will guarantee their future. Considering that this is so, man has little option but to accept co-operation as the key to his salvation. When men co-operate rather than compete, they will find a magic potion entering their lives. The ease with which long-lasting problems will be solved will astonish, the impossible will yield to the lightest touch, and, through co-operation alone, men will learn the true art of living".

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