Unions — Who Needs 'Em?

In this week's Barbershop, the guys weigh in on U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice withdrawing her name from consideration for secretary of state. They also discuss Michigan's right-to-work law and whether unions are still relevant today.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up in Washington, D.C. this week are writer and culture critic Jimmy Israel, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, and Lester Spence, he's a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. Joining us from Austin, Texas, is Mario Loyola. He's a columnist for the National Review magazine and the director of the Center for 10th Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation; that's a conservative think tank.

Taken away, Jimmy.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellows, welcome to the shop. How are we doing?

MARTIN: Hey, hey.

Hey.

Good, (unintelligible).

IZRAEL: Hey. All right, man. Well, let's just jump right in here. You know, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, she dropped out of the running to be the next secretary of state yesterday, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, you know, it has to be said, she was never nominated. But it's been widely assumed that with the current secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, saying the she wanted to move on, that Rice was a top contender for the post. Republicans have been accusing her of making misleading statements about that September attack in Benghazi, Libya that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

Here's a clip of Ambassador Rice explaining her decision to NBC's Brian Williams yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF NBC BROADCAST)

SUSAN RICE U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: I didn't want to see a confirmation process that was a very prolonged, very politicized, very distracting, and very disruptive, because there are so many things we need to get done as a country.

IZRAEL: Wow, I really admire that. Thanks, Michel.

You know, Ambassador Rice, she's not known for backing down. And so people are kind of mixed about her decision. Some people say, you know, she should've stuck it out. And I'm not one of them. I'm of two minds about it.

MARTIN: What do you say?

IZRAEL: You know, I...

MARTIN: What do you say?

IZRAEL: I mean, well, I look at it like, yeah, she shouldn't have backed down for the good of the country. Sometimes you got to take the hit, you know, and you just got to step aside and move your ego out the way. But by the same token, I don't know. I've had conversations, some people are crying racism. But I don't know if it's racism. I don't know if it's racism, but certainly her gender and her race didn't help her at all. You know, but others are just kind of glad she bowed out gracefully.

Super Mario, Mr. Loyola, if I recall, you did some foreign policy work for the president that always got it right - Mr. - or President George W. Bush.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: What do you make of all of this, man?

MARIO LOYOLA: That's very funny, Jimmy.

(LAUGHTER)

LOYOLA: No, I think it's funny. You know, Susan Rice has, you know, what ought to be a saving grace from U.N. skeptics and hawks' point of view among conservatives, which is that for a diplomat she's very undiplomatic. I mean last week she called the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations ridiculous in the middle of a Security Council debate over the North Korea missile launch. And people have even compared her to John Bolton, which I'm sure doesn't make her feel very good, but it ought to ingratiate her to conservatives.

But you know, she's - there's a lot for conservatives not to like about Susan Rice. She had the bad habit of insulting the Israeli government, for example, in order to ingratiate us to the Arabs. And of course that doesn't ingratiate us to the Arabs - it only leaves Israelis feeling insulted, isolated...

IZRAEL: Hmm.

LOYOLA: ...and in no mood to make concessions. But on the other hand, you know, the alternative is Senator Kerry, dear friend of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, who could prove to be a lot worse.

And I just don't understand why, in all the discussion of possible nominees for the State Department and the Pentagon, they haven't mentioned the deputies of both of those departments. William Burns, the deputy secretary of State, and Ashton Carter, deputy secretary of Defense, are phenomenal candidates that would sail through confirmation. So this is, you know, we're just sort of on the sidelines watching, but it's pretty interesting.

IZRAEL: You know, super Mario - and this is just my ear - you know, I frankly I want somebody with a little chutzpah in that spot. It sounds like you're tugging on some really ugly tropes about the angry black woman. But that could just be my ears.

LOYOLA: Oh, that didn't even occur to me. I just...

IZRAEL: And why would it?

A-train, Arsalan.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.

IZRAEL: Jump in here, man. You know, you're the Obama supporter in the shop. Rice said she didn't want the president to spend so much time fighting for her nomination. Is that a good call, bro?

IFTIKHAR: It was her call. I think that, you know, she did take one for the team. I think she fell on the sword for the administration knowing that it was going to probably be a protracted confirmation process. I think that ultimately - and I said this on the Barbershop, you know, from the beginning - I always thought that Senator John Kerry would have made a great secretary of State, even before Hillary Clinton was nominated.

And I still think that he would make a great secretary of State right now, you know, having served as Foreign Relations Committee chair in the Senate. I think that, you know, his Senate colleagues - on both sides of the aisle - have already said that his confirmation process would probably be a much easier one.

What's troublesome to me, in terms of this whole Susan Rice fiasco - especially for Republicans, you know, talking about the whole Benghazi incident, is the fact that these are some of the same Republicans who parroted the George W. Bush line on Iraq having weapons of mass destruction...

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

IFTIKHAR: ...including John McCain, who went on the floor of the Senate and basically parroted, you know, the disingenuous misleading, you know, arguments that were made, you know, for the Iraq war, saying that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. So to me, you know, in this case it's the Republican Senate, it's kind of like the pot calling the kettle black in terms of, you know, you know, using information that they got. And I think that that's something that a lot of Republican politicians should be called out on.

IZRAEL: Lester Spence.

LESTER SPENCE: Yeah, I think that it's a, I don't think she was, she got the pushback she got because she was black, right?

IZRAEL: It didn't help, though.

SPENCE: Yeah, but it didn't help. It's not simply because she was black, you know, given Condoleezza Rice before her. But I do think that the interaction between her race and then the president's race in the recent election made it a lot easier for her to receive the specific type of pushback she did. I understand the politics.

IZRAEL: And her apparent disposition. Her apparent demeanor.

SPENCE: Yeah. Yeah. I mean it all interacts together, and then it becomes easy for supporters of the president to look at Shirley Sherrod, to look at Van Jones and to look at this as part of a long history of blacks who end up just kind of being left out or being not protected by the administration. I wish, I wish, it's hard to do, but I wish just one person would say, you know what? No. We're going to fight this.

MARTIN: Well, one argument, just before we move on, you know, Kelly Goth has an interesting piece in theroot.com, who is a political analyst for theroot, which is an online publication that takes on issues from an African-American perspective, she says that this generation's Lani Guinier, who is a professor at Harvard Law School, who's another African-American woman who was, withdrew her nomination for an assistant secretary at the Justice Department for civil rights, because her views were distorted. And she's making the argument that why is it when it come soon African American woman you can basically lie about them, which is the same thing that happened with Shirley Sherrod, and then they pay a political price for it? But clearly, the Republicans wanted to make her, they wanted to make an issue of her...

SPENCE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...and I think the argument is it's not really about her, and that this is an issue that transcends this particular administration. On the other hand, you know what? I bet you there are plenty of people in the - every administration who take the sword, you know, unfairly, right?

SPENCE: Yeah but...

MARTIN: She's not the only one.

SPENCE: The one thing I would say quickly is I agree. I would just cite that the politics are very different. So Lani Guinier's politics, Shirley Sherrod's politics are much more progressive than Susan Rice's.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. Our guests are writer Jimi Izrael, political science professor Lester Spence, columnist Mario Loyola and civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Well, Michel, what's next on the menu?

MARTIN: Well, Michigan became the 24th right-to-work state this week. Essentially, this means that unions cannot now require people to pay dues in order to work union jobs. So, you know, a lot of people were surprised to see this happen in Michigan because this is home to one of the largest and most influential unions - the United Auto Workers. And also previously, the Republican Governor Rick Snyder had said he wasn't interested in putting right-to-work on the top of his agenda but he changed his mind. So, you know, Lester Spence, we're obviously very interested in your take on this, particularly being from Michigan. You're a Detroit native.

SPENCE: Yeah, going back home next week. I think that the politics of this is very interesting. So one argument is that elections have consequences. The Republicans run both Houses in the Michigan state Senate. They run both the state Senate and the state House, and they have the governor's position. But given that nobody ran on this, this literally happened in the - almost in the dark of night, no real debate on it. Some people argue that the Koch brothers are involved. It's really, really, it's and it's, as you can see, I'm pretty emotional about it. But...

MARTIN: Why? Why are you emotional about it?

SPENCE: The union is actually the reason I'm here, right? My dad's a UAW guy. My brother is in the union. My grandparents are in - I mean I've got union genes going back, right? And then I look, when I go back home and I see where my friends are, right, people I went to high school with, and I see how hard they're hit economically, and I know - this is the social scientist in me kicking in - and I know that right-to-work laws do not benefit states economically. They don't benefit the pockets of working class citizens, wages are depressed three percent in right-to-work states, people who work in right-to-work states are far less likely to receive benefits. So it's like it hurts me personally because I'm a union guy. But then it also hurts me politically because I know it's bad and it hurts me as an intellectual because I know that the politics around here, around this issue are really, really complicated and messed up.

MARTIN: But Mario, you know, the proponents of this are arguing that this is what's necessary to kind of free up creativity and kind of productive economic energy. And I don't know how you - how do you feel about that? I'm assuming that you agree with that person.

LOYOLA: Well, I think, I mean, yeah. I mean I think that the correlation of, you know, the fact that right-to-work states tend to be slightly lower income than union states, that's a correlation that doesn't tell you anything about the causes for the income disparity, it may or it may not. I mean I think that, you know, one thing that's very important for people to understand about union laws - and it's the same is true for the agricultural cartels created by the New Deal - both union cartels and agricultural cartels were created by the New Deal, is that these laws are meant to protect the little guy, but they all come at the expense of the really little guys, right? And so in union states, I mean all states have labor unions, but in union states the law turns labor unions into basically a cartel with the power to discriminate against competitive non-union labor, right, and extort what basically amounts to extorting artificially high wages from their employers. And I'm not throwing that out as a, you know, as a dynamite term or anything. I mean, you know, these artificially high wages result in higher unemployment and higher inflation, both of which hurt poor people most of all and so there are social costs.

MARTIN: Why not make your case, so why not make your case publicly? Why not make your case as part of the election? Or why don't you make your case publicly instead of rushing this through in a matter of two weeks?

LOYOLA: Oh, I'm right there with you. I mean I think that one of the challenges I had for the conservative movement is to say, you know, and I sympathize with, you know, the history that unions have in securing benefits and stuff for the workers but I think that the time has come to discredit these cartels created by the New Deal. Because they do hold the productive allocation of resources back and they do hold economic growth back and in ways that are very insidious and that you can't really see. They do hurt the little guy.

MARTIN: Then why not make your case publicly?

LOYOLA: I agree.

MARTIN: Why not make your case to the public as opposed to...

LOYOLA: You got me there.

MARTIN: You know...

LOYOLA: I agree with you there.

MARTIN: OK. Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, I think people need to understand that American unions already are facing, you know, a fraction of the influence that they did a few decades ago. According to federal data, only about 12 percent of workers are workers, which is down 20 percent - it's from 20 percent since 1983. In the private sector, union membership has dropped from 17 percent in 1983 to seven percent today. What I find interesting is that you see a lot of these rust belt states that are governed, that are, you know, for the most part of Michigan is a blue state but you have a Republican governor who essentially says, you know, I don't want to make this, you know, top of my priority list but then well, essentially says I'll sign it the instant that it hits my desk. I think obviously they're trying to, the Republican parties in these states are trying to marginalize labor unions in terms of the funding that they get ultimately, that will go to finance pro-union Democratic candidates in the future. And so, you know, I think there's a political gambit in play as well.

MARTIN: Well, if it's such a paper tiger though, why is this necessary? You know what I mean? You can't have it both ways. You can't say on the one hand it's a paper tiger but the other hand they are so fearsome that they have to be taken out, which is it?

IFTIKHAR: Well, it depends on what side of the aisle you're looking at it from.

MARTIN: OK.

IFTIKHAR: You know, Rick Snyder said that this is, you know, a pro-worker, this is a pro-worker law. This is nothing more than a pro-CEO law.

MARTIN: You have an opinion about this, Jimi?

IZRAEL: You know, if I'm a worker - and all my people are union too. My grandfather, the auto industry, he was in the union. Listen, you talk about a cartel, sometimes I want a cartel that is rolling for me. You know, sometimes you need a gang...

SPENCE: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK.

SPENCE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: ...when you're the little guy, you need a gang.

MARTIN: All right. Before we go, we got to talk about music. The Rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING THE NOISE")

PUBLIC ENEMY: (Rapping) Now they got me in a cell 'cause my records, they sell. 'Cause a brother like me said, well, Farrakhan's a prophet and I think you ought to listen to what he can say to you, what you ought to do is follow for now, power of the people, say, make a miracle, D, pump the lyrical.

IZRAEL: Michel...

MARTIN: You know that this - I'm sorry. I meant to say the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I didn't mean The Rock the actor. I meant the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I was so excited I just, I just got mesmerized by myself. That is, of course, Public Enemy with "Bring the Noise." Now reactions been some mixed and there's been some Twitter haters out there. I don't know.

IZRAEL: Michel, I'm just glad you picked the least controversial clip you could've possibly picked from Public Enemy.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: See, I'm trying to come back next week, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Professor Spence, you know, you're the expert. You wrote a book called "Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics." So what's your take on this, man?

SPENCE: I think it's well, well, well reserved. I mean well deserved. Public Enemy is really, really innovative. They were the first, I mean and so there are a number of different layers going on. First, it's Chuck D's voice.

IZRAEL: Bass.

SPENCE: I mean how low can you go? I mean it's really as soon as you hear it it cuts through. The second, is the sonic assault. PE was one of the first groups to really use kind of a sheets of sound technique and create a...

IZRAEL: And sample technology.

SPENCE: Yeah. I mean it was just really, it really sounds like the city. Then obviously you've got the political dynamics. He brings in - he helps usher in a new wave of modern black nationalism.

IZRAEL: Yeah. He...

MARTIN: Doesn't belong there or doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame, that's what the Twitter haters are saying, oh no.

SPENCE: Oh, easily. Oh, easily.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Absolutely. I mean Public Enemy is one of my favorite groups of all time. When I did an In Your Ear for NPR, PE was on my list. You know, I've seen some - first of all, you're going to find haters on Twitter for anything. But...

IZRAEL: For ice cream.

(LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, I know, right? What was interesting was a lot of people are saying oh, I can't believe Flavor Flav is going to be in the Hall of Fame. And, you know, I'd push back and I'd say no, Public Enemy, Chuck D is going to be in the Hall of Fame.

SPENCE: Right. Right. Right.

IFTIKHAR: He's going to ride his coattails as his hype man...

SPENCE: Mm-hmm.

IFTIKHAR: And I'm not, I don't like Flavor Flav either but, you know, it's PE all as one.

MARTIN: Mario, I know Mario's relieved that Donna Summer made it too.

SPENCE: Oh wow. That's dope.

LOYOLA: Yeah. I mean look, I - I'm the guy in the Barbershop who I could air drum all of Rush's "Tom Sawyer" without a single mistake by the time I was in 10th grade.

IZRAEL: Me too.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Really?

LOYOLA: I mean without a single - yeah, and I mean I'm just...

MARTIN: So you're excited about Rush. Yeah? Mm-hmm.

LOYOLA: I'm just glad - yeah, I'm just glad that Rush is in. I'm glad that Albert King is in and that's a, I mean I sort of when the whole hip-hop thing hit I was just starting actually to get into Indian classical music and Ravi Shankar and stuff and...

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. Exactly.

IZRAEL: You know I and, you know, to your point, Dr. Spence, you know, I'm happy to see Public Enemy get in, you know, because they were kind of black nationalism for the Huxtable generation.

SPENCE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: You know, it was kind of Leroy Jones for dummies, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: ...like that. I mean...

SPENCE: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK.

SPENCE: So who put Assata Shakur in a lyric?

IZRAEL: Right. Exactly. Yeah. Exactly.

MARTIN: Well, nobody's going to represent for disco diva Donna Summer?

IZRAEL: Oh, I mean that goes without saying.

MARTIN: Are you leaving it for me? You're leaving it to me?

IZRAEL: I mean it goes without saying that Donna Summer is the bomb. Beautiful voice, had great writers, a voice for the ages and yeah, I miss her, actually. But I'm glad she's getting in the Hall of Fame.

MARTIN: OK. There it is.

Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He's also an adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. Lester Spence is a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and founder of themuslimguy.com. They were here with me in our Washington D.C. studio. With us from Austin, Texas, Mario Loyola, who is director of the Center for Tenth Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a think tank focused on the impact of federal policy on states. He's also a columnist for the conservative outlet, the National Review. Thank you all so much.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

SPENCE: See ya.

LOYOLA: Chow, chow.

IZRAEL: Yup, yup. Baby.

MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our new Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NUTHIN' BUT A G THANG, BABY")

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