Friday, March 21, 2014

The Dignity of Honest Labor




This is one of the most important op-ed pieces of the year so far:

Americans are mostly disconnected from the labor movement — only 6.7 percent of private sector workers are part of a union — and that means we’ve become disconnected from the idea of solidarity. Instead, we have an ill-defined feeling that we should do something for those worse off than ourselves, something that often turns into a pity-charity complex. Rebuilding the social safety net is a good start, but something more powerful would be a real understanding that we’re all in this together.


I heard that understanding in the voice of Alex Shalom, another low-wage worker who stood up for himself and his co-workers against his boss — this time, his boss at Bank of America. “I think people need to know that tellers are just cashiers with ties on,” Shalom told me, placing himself squarely in the same movement as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart workers. The perceived class difference between a bank worker in a suit and a fast-food worker in a logo baseball cap evaporates when the rent comes due, and many of us know what it’s like to do the math of monthly bills and find you’re coming up short.


We need a movement that makes us feel strong — all of us, whether we work at Burger King or Bank of America or an automobile plant or in journalism. That means not just focusing on the poverty but also the power in the voices of a group of workers on the street outside the Wendy’s where one of their colleagues was just fired for organizing. It means giving those workers and their strikes the credit for the wins when they do come. Too often, people derive something that feels like strength from remembering that someone else has it worse. But that’s temporary, and real strength comes from all of us being strong together.

Any movement which empowers working Americans to attack the bullshit used to marginalize their lives is going to have to overcome the need to remain isolated in communities designed to prevent people from gathering to talk about their issues. I would love to see a movement that used America's churches, but nobody goes to church anymore, except for maybe older Americans who have left the workforce. Could a chat room on a video game platform serve as the meeting hall of this century? How do you get people from a broad range of backgrounds in one place together so that they can see, with their own eyes, that the bank employee and the brick layer and the shelf stocker have a lot more in common than they realize?

Well, you need a world war to do that, as awful as that sounds. You need a draft, a conscription, and you need millions in uniform, held in place by necessity and warehoused like cattle so that they can rub up against, literally and figuratively, their own kind from all over. The thing that helped build this country was a pair of world wars that brought disparate members of American society together in one place for an extended period of time. They had to learn to get along. The kid from Ohio had to learn to get along with the kid from Montana and the kid from Florida. They had to live under one roof and figure out what it was that they had in common.

Works Progress Administration projects were attacked, endlessly, along with all of the other New Deal initiatives. They weren't all individually successful but they did bring dignity to labor. From that effort to destroy the New Deal was born Reaganism and a hatred for government which survives as practically the only idea the Republican Party has had, other than war, for twenty years.To these people, the only sacrifice necessary should come from the poor. It used to be, sacrifice was shared across the American political spectrum, especially during the Progressive Era and in the aftermath of the trust-smashing years. Once the robber barons were done, Americans shared in the misery of the Depression.

Their collective shared sacrifice helped the labor movement immensely. As an example, by the time he was 25 years old, my grandfather had worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps, which sent him up and down the State of Minnesota to work in different camps. He had been in the Army, and sent from basic training to Hawaii, and then to the South Pacific for months of war. When he was sent home, he enlisted in the army a second time and went to Europe. He had, with virtually no education, developed a worldliness that is difficult for us to imagine, all of it in the service of the country. No wonder he became dedicated to organized labor and the protection of Social Security benefits while never hating anyone who had more or less than he did. And, while always poor financially, he was connected to the idea that he had common cause with people who worked for a living.

When the wealthy in this country managed to destroy those connections in the 1980s, he was rolled over like everybody else who had organized unions in this country. He was cheated, by an early death, out of the benefits he had fought for. If he had lived, those benefits would have been drained away by now.

The issues faced by the poor are inherently American ones, and they deserve to be heard. That could be you, working hard like the folks you've spent your whole live looking down upon, and the way things are going, you'll know it before everyone else does. You'll know when you are one of them but you won't know what to do because they have conditioned everyone that any agitation against the wealthy class in this country is worse than anything imaginable. That's what is radically different today from the forty year period after the end of World War II. You dare not criticize the rich, and you better stay home and disorganized.

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