Mizzou football team reminds us nobody is blocking and tackling for 90% of Americans

Labor unions used to call the plays for the middle class, but no more

The University of Missouri football team deserves summa cum laude honors in political science.

They have learned the fundamental lessons of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” well. In the realm of politics, rhetoric, fervor, and allies are nice, but it is the power to extort that actually works. Campus activists lacked power; the team had plenty in the form of money and a spotlight.

I have no settled views on the arguments that rattled the University of Missouri. But this is clear: months of activism could not accomplish what the football team did in a weekend – make a clear demand, announce the consequences of denying the demand and then win.

I suspect university and NCAA administrators everywhere are holding their billion dollar television contracts in sweaty clenches, fretting the Mizzou Coup could spread. I wish it would.

Can you imagine if ACC basketball teams held a boycott demanding better programs to address sexual assault? Or more financial aid? Or a share of the dough their schools make off their unpaid labor? I can’t.

The Mizzou Coup led me down a different road of wishful thinking, admittedly embellished by some revisionist history.

For a good chunk of the 20th century, the economically powerless in America did have the equivalent of the Mizzou football team blocking and tackling for them. They were called labor unions. You can read about them in history books printed on paper.

For a time, labor unions had the capacity to sporadically exercise Machiavellian power through classic, honest extortion. Hike wages and benefits or we go on strike. Less frequently, the labor unions could unite their might to bull rush broader, ambitious legislation. They reliably mustered troops and cash to protect favored pols – in Congress, state houses, mayors’ offices and city councils.

Union membership peaked in the 1940s at about 35% of the employed workforce. It declined steadily and then rapidly after 1980. Union membership now hovers around 11% of people with wage and salary jobs, about half of that from public jobs. The economic fortunes of the American working and middle classes have deteriorated since the 1980s. The most authoritative documentation of this came from Federal Reserve studies unveiled by Chairwoman Janet Yellen last fall.

“It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority,” she said.

Income and wealth have stagnated or declined for all Americans families except the top 10%. Democrats and Republicans don’t bother disputing these facts anymore. They argue about the causes and solutions. Endlessly. Ineffectively.

With the possible exception of 2004 when 9/11 still loomed, every election since 1984 as been a competition between the parties to buddy up to the little guy, Joe Six Pack, Soccer Mom—the folks who play by the rules and pull the wagons.

The Republicans present variations of a theme: cut taxes, shrink and shackle government, trust the markets, vanquish a culture of mooching and all shall prosper. The Democrats tinker with a basic recipe: build a better safety net, educate and train everyone, trust the government to regulate commerce so businesses play nice and all shall prosper.

The undisputed results are in and there are no summa cum laude honors for economic performance, except for the 1% percent, whose share of the nation’s wealth now eclipses anything in American history.

Republicans argue economic decline would have been worse if the labor movement hadn’t died its natural death. Unions hampered productivity, fought innovation, slowed overall economic growth and they were corrupt on top of it all. Democrats are conflicted.

Maybe they miss the romantic “cause,” the field organizations, the money and the “union stamp” legitimizing them as the workers’ party. But they don’t miss the bullying, the aroma of corruption and the conflicts that emerged with fast growing constituencies such as minorities, environmentalists, women’s groups, the gay community and social issue liberals.

Americans in the middle of the economic food chain never had uniform interests and views, obviously. But for a spell, workers in many sectors and regions at least had help from organized teams of heavy hitters with cash, troops, savvy and some of that Machiavellian power to extort. The goal line was clear: better wages, better benefits and better working conditions.

Now the 90% has no collective power and no sustained fondness for either party. They are relentlessly courted (via advertising) by politicians bankrolled almost entirely by the 1% who tell them, “Trust me, I’m on your side.”

The Missouri Tigers record so far this year is 1-5 in the SEC. But when the Tigers took their game outside the stadium for a cause they believed in, the other team forfeited in a wink. Big labor’s winning percentage probably wasn’t much better than Mizzou, even in their heyday.

They tried, but now unions are barely on the field.

After some 25 seasons of pocketbook defeats, the 90% has no doubt that the rules are rigged, the refs are on the take and they have no hope of having their own team anyway. There’s not even a game plan to build a Team 90% for the 21st century.

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