Rachel Maddow spent the better part of the first few months of this year pointing out that the resurrection of the American Left came not as a result of the leadership of our erstwhile secret-muslim communist president (sarcasm), but rather due to the impressive leadership of what remains of unionized employees and their supporters. This country’s work force has been frequently targeted by the robber-baron class over the last few decades, but the actions of Governor Scott Walker provoked an overreach that hopefully alerted average Americans to recognize the importance of having a voice in the workplace. We are certainly not there yet, but perhaps when the current state of tea-hadism wanes, the dwindling working and middle classes of this country will finally realize that “trickle down” is really just a fancy way that the rich are justifying pissing on us and claiming that it is raining.
I have written on this before, but it still must be stated that he point of a union is to provide democratic agency within the workplace to every employee. The workplace is where (for some reason) we as a society have accepted that century old common law property rights somehow trump every democratic reform that has developed since enlightenment. Speak your mind; you are fired. Ask for a fair share of profits; you’re fired. Try to assemble co-workers in order to voice a collective grievance; you are all fired. Threaten a lawsuit when the company you are working for mismanages its capital, forcing it to layoff you and other hardworking employees; wake up early because the unemployment lines are long these days.
Why have we accepted this? Some libertarians, like Rand Paul, value “ownership” as a matter of individual liberty that must be preserved above decency, fairness, justice, or (ironically) the individual liberties for those who help support business as paid employees. These libertarians are not (perhaps) completely delusional in believing that employees will never have a legitimate grievance with those from whom they receive a paycheck, but their solution to these problems is asinine in its simplicity. Ask a libertarian how a person is supposed to combat against the unfair actions of its employers, and they will respond that “the market” will fix the problem. Apparently the market, a karmic force similar to the powers that Jedi’s have, will punish Wal-Mart, Massey Energy, and Exxon Mobil for treating their workers like an expendable commodity. (It is ironic that Libertarians, who supposedly disregard religion as an “illogical” way to explain how the world works, also seem to put their full faith in the invisible hand of the market, but that is another topic for another day).
This agency argument is the most powerful argument that Unions and their supposed allies in the Democratic Party can make. The economic argument (union membership= financial security and better benefits) has been made often enough that management has turned it around to anger the scabs. However this idea that “a union means that you can tell your boss he is an asshole” is for some reason was completely ignored until the push to disenfranchise the whole concept of collective bargaining this past winter. Giving average people a voice in their workplace should be particularly attractive especially given that massive layoffs from the recession prove that management does not know what the fuck they are doing. Workers may also be convinced that between “Emergency Financial Managers” literally taking powers away from democratically elected government officials, false claims of “voter fraud” being used to deny voter registration, and Citizens United, it is obvious that the right wing does not care to allow democratic freedoms for individuals to legitimately shape the powers of the government.
It was telling that it was Walker’s actions against specifically public sector unions that finally provoked mass resistance against a movement by the right wing that has been going strong since Reagan’s air traffic controller disaster in the early 1980’s (a decision which is still a disaster by the way). Public service unions remain the the last vestige of union power, not just because of the degradation of industrial manufacturing in this country after NAFTA, but perhaps due to the higher average levels education amongst its members, and the forced transparency that comes with working literally within the government. One much deserved complaint about unions comes when addressing the problems that many Unions have had with cooperating with organized crime. One modern reform that Union leadership will have to enact is complete transparency of their groups in order to remain in compliance with the criminal code. Is it unfair one group to be denied privacy when Wall Street operates with impunity in the dark? Yes, but there is a larger mission at stake right now.
Democrats used to be the defenders of the unionized employee. It was FDR after all, who allowed for national collective bargaining via the Wagner Act. But it was also President Clinton who undercut Union power by signing NAFTA, which led directly to the outsourcing mess as employers can now use globalized slave labor to produce manufactured goods. President Obama patronized unions to get their support in the primaries, but has since abandoned any efforts at “Card Check” legislation. He has also failed to support increased legal immigration, and refused to sign a a larger and more job-focused stimulus. Obama was also notably absent from the battles for union support in the upper midwest. All of this has led some union leaders to publicly declare that their blanket support for the Democratic party is over. This is something that the DNC should be VERY worried about.
But the lack of Union support mainly comes from us, the average citizen. We have been fooled into thinking that the evil teacher’s unions are purposefully not teaching our kids in order to pay for their BMW’s (and not that racial and economic segregation is arguably worse now than before Brown v. Board) , or that GM employees bankrupted their company through imaginary $70 per hour salaries (instead of their CEO’s continued insistence that SUV’s were the way of the future). Jobs for even highly skilled employees simply do not exist in this country, yet corporate profits and CEO salaries are at their highest ever recorded levels. Given these facts, do public service workers (who work for the benefit of the American people) deserve to be represented a Union? YES. It is a basic right, and their complaints are as valid as any other group in this country. The fact that the strikes of public service employees are perhaps more effective than those from an industrial union should serve as an example of the effectiveness and necessity of a Union as a universal idea, rather than a reason to start cutting out groups for whom we need to restrict representation.
It was Upton Sinclair that once remarked that Americans do not see themselves as an oppressed proletariat but rather as millionaires who are temporarily down on their luck. This is an attitude that needs to die a quick and painful death. The ownership society has used technology to make human capital unnecessary, and has out-priced education to the point where advancement is impossible. Without democratic reforms, a Union is the last way that average people can fight this degradation of our way of life and our right to exist in the middle class.
For a much more articulate and fact-based set of reasons why you need to organize; check out the AFL-CIO’s website