Unions Serve the Tea: the Rage Against the Employed and the Unionized


The Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1948 and the single most destructive piece of legislation to the union movement, was a product of anti-communist hysteria. When it was passed, about half of all American workers belonged to labor unions. That figure has now dropped to twelve percent.
--Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class, 2010

We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.
--Scott Walker, newly elected governor of Wisconsin, quoted in NYTimes January 4, 2011

Clever that. I mean making adversaries of unionized “public employees” and “taxpayers,” making union workers the “Haves” and taxpayers the “Have-Nots.” I wonder on what stage such a performance is creditable?

It was a vast change in the cultural surround which engineered The Taft-Hartley (1948)revision, or more precisely, undermining, of the Wagner Act, aka, the National Labor Relations Act. Think of “cultural surround” firstly in a traditional way: as a present economic state of affairs affected by historical economic conditions that have led to a certain social ordering as well as a politics that functions within the boundaries of possibility these socio-economic conditions have created. Now introduce the notion that these “existing conditions” have only a mediated or phenomenal reality, that is, how they are valued and what they mean to us depends upon a battle of representation, a war of image and spectacle, of chat and spin.

So the phrase “cultural surround” includes all of this, Marx’s “material and historical conditions” subject to – or, sieved through – the battle of the blogs, the “No-Spin” zones of Fox TV, the “updates” of Facebook friends, the “viral” videos of Youtube, the “truths” of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, the political guidance of Sarah Palin. Reality for humans, in short, is always performed.

In 1935 the Wagner Act was passed as part of FDR’s New Deal, a very important part because salaried workers who had suffered in the Wall Street collapse of 1929, needed some support from government in responding to unfair labor practices of employers. This “labor bill of rights” was part of FDR’s thrust toward an “economic bill of rights,” rights involving a living wage, housing, medical care, education and social security. The cultural clime then in regard to unions, government, and employers differed immeasurably from the cultural clime of the present even though both eras were blighted by similar acts of monumental financial chicanery, over-speculation and Wall Street carte blanche.
FDR connected economic insecurity of the many to the reckless profiteering and greed of the few. What he learned from the Great Depression was that the political enfranchisement guaranteed by the existing Bill of Rights could be rendered meaningless if the working class was reduced to a servitude that had plagued every society since the beginning of time. Who had looted the country and brought it to its knees remained clear throughout FDR’s days in office. And the overwhelming numbers of Americans who were deep in unemployment, homelessness, hunger, sickness and all those psychological repercussions that we mark now but had little representation then – these multitudes did not indict their fellow workers nor themselves.

It was quite clear who were the Haves and who the Have Nots. The Wall Street “player” so brazenly lauded by Gordon Gekko in both film versions of Wall Street as a heroic exemplar of greed was no such hero in the New Deal days. The wealthy kept a low profile, as did the Wall Street “player.”

The “lives of the rich and famous” make their appearance in screwball comedies – Margaret Dumont’s societal “blueblood” suffering the barbs of an antic Groucho Marx – while the tough anti-heroes of the film noir are resilient and inspiring in the face of bad luck and ruthless power. The “working class heroes,” the John Does and Tom Joads, reveal on the screen not product placements and marketing implanted desires but what the audience recognizes in their own daily struggle. Struggle, anger, revenge, laconic toughness, and the darkness of these “mean streets” clash in high Hollywood style with Busby Berkeley extravagance and insouciant farce. A reckless capitalism had no estimable image while the Pecora Commission investigated and indicted Wall Street malfeasants. A real Leftist presence that threatens the “casino” order of wealth and poverty emerges not because many were being “brainwashed” but because many were defending themselves from a system that had indeed “savaged” them.

The cultural surround changes when a variety of images change, when for instance “working class heroes” and their unions become tied to the Communist Soviet Union and its socialist solidarity replacing private ownership and “free” enterprise. The “working class hero” suddenly looked like one of those Soviet working class heroes depicted in Stalinist sponsored art. That new context enabled employers to counter the Wagner Act with Taft-Hartley, legislation which passed all manner of restrictions on the right to strike, passed “right-to-work-laws” which made unions unlawful, and darkened the image of unions as corrupted either by the Mafia or the Communists. Taft-Hartley set the whole movement up for Ronald Reagan’s coup de grace in 1981 when he threatened with termination all union members who did not return to work.

That Cold War Communist tag on American unions lingers but the connection is historical and history is not a ground the new Tea Party endorsed legislators want to visit. It’s sufficient that the “Union/Communist” link echoes in the background, just as the mention of “class” echoes in the same chamber. History displays much that could explain the dire straits of workers and those who look for work in vain but “history” in the Age of Twittering in which “New” and “Now” have truly sent all our yesterdays on the dust pile is “old, over and adios.” You could say cybertech has replaced history, the repeated and rapid monitoring of Smart phones and the minute by minute updating of one’s personal history. Multi-tasking never tasks backward.

The Millennials don’t need to punch a clock or keep track of overtime and such because the new digital umbilical cords tie them 24/7 to work. Interning and apprenticing without pay and no contract for future employment are “realities” of the private sector. Retirement savings and health insurance are private responsibilities. You’ve got fifteen minutes to clear your desk and get out. This all appeals to the Millennials because what formerly wasn’t “personal” is now “personal.” Every Millennial will step up and accept the challenge of “assuming personal responsibility” for their success or failure. When you are fired, terminated, let go, canned, axed, you are liberated. You are now “free to become entrepreneurial.” In the present climate in which Millennials live – in other words, the spin zone of image and idea – the old cry of “unfair labor practices!” is a cry your sad and lame grandfather would make. It’s museum stuff.

Unions, like Nature, egalitarianism, class warfare, socialism, pensions, health benefits, job security and any representation of solidarity are “old school” and “back in the day.” Everything tied to the word “public” is a vestige of a bygone fascination with “solidarity.” The only union in the Age of Facebook is between you and your friends. Politics, economics, and history begin and end here. Solidarity is not social but a “personal” matter.

It seems at first inexplicable why the party of “Low Wages Mean More Profits to Shareholders” – the Republicans – would set their sights on unions as a first order of business as they return to power after the 2010 mid-term elections. Consider that thirty-six percent of all American workers were unionized in 1945. That has dwindled to about 12 percent today, although 36 percent of all public workers are unionized compared to about 7 percent in the private sector. An assault now on these public workers is, first of all, part of the Republican assault on the federal government, one that has been heated up by the new Tea Party legislators. It’s another assault on the word “public.”

For all these Republicans who see red when they see the word “public,” this government sector growth is enraging. It’s as enraging as “public” welfare had been in the `90s, as enraging as Medicare and Medicaid continue to be, as enraging as “public” education is today, as enraging as Social Security which is “public” only insofar as it is not “privatized.” The decrease in private sector unionization cannot be attributed to the greater magnanimity of corporate employers or the greater equity in profit distribution to workers. Neither can one argue that workers in the private sector are afforded working conditions that are so accommodating that they preempt the need for unionization. If you want to know why unionization in the private sector has fallen to almost nil you need to study the tactics of Wal-Mart which will close down stores threatening to unionize.

Much that serves workers in a beneficially equitable way also serves the public good simply because those who work for wages outnumber the entrepreneurial employers in the same proportions that worker ants outnumber the queen. Unfortunately, our cultural surround has turned from the “public” to the “private” and “personal.” And the confusion here is lethal. Capitalism seeks axiomatically to privatize all that is now public but the multitudes’ turn to the personal and private is exploited by the powerful thrust of privatization of the public sphere. The turn from society and solidarity and the public toward the personal sets many, including workers, against their own best interests. So-called “social networks” grounded in personal choice and design, can provide no defense or protection against the threat to the social mobility achieved through union efforts that led to the creation the middle class in this country There is no solidarity in a chosen network of friends that has any consequence an employer seeking to maximize profits at the expense of workers need attend to.

Globalization, in truth, will and has done much to worsen the lives of American workers whose occupations can be exported. Those occupations which cannot be exported can be unionized and thus the well-being of some part of the working force can remained fully employed at a livable wage. The UPS employees were able to successfully strike against Big Brown in 1997 because route drivers need to be here and not in Bangladesh. The same is true of all service workers as opposed to those in manufacturing and, most recently, those in telephone call services. Teachers as well as all government workers cannot be “outsourced” although cybertech may soon create viable online “teaching” that will make classroom teaching obsolete.

We have also seen how private contractors have played a large part in our Iraqi and Afghanistan wars. U.S. soldiers are workers who have seen their duties “outsourced”: “It seems that even in a war zone, soldiers are at risk of losing their jobs to outsourcing. And you’re a reservist, the situation is even more unfortunate. You are torn from your life to serve a yearlong tour of duty away from your civilian job, your friends, and family, only to end up in Afghanistan with nothing to do because your military duty was passed on to a civilian contractor.” (quoted in Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class).

The continued high level of unemployment after 2008  (and after the Dow Jones has climbed above 11,000 and Wall Street financial operatives are once again being treated to huge bonuses) is a situation that will improve only when wages reach levels competitive with third world countries, unions are no longer present to fight for wages, pension, health benefits and conditions of employment, and any sense of job security is replaced by a “flying squad” of temporary/part-time workers who can be moved, sized and let go like chess pawns.

This may seem an extreme hypothesis but I see it as a best case scenario simply because unemployment is so attractive to our present globalized technocapitalism. A labor force that is comprised of those looking for a job regardless of salary and working conditions, those already employed who cannot hope for increased salary or improved working conditions because a horde of unemployed wait in the wings, and those who have been tempered and tamed to accept the uncertainties and insecurities of on and off again employment is a labor force best attuned to the priorities of “the bottom line.” Thus, quite simply, a high rate of unemployment that perseveres so that a labor force is brought to heel is an axiomatic preference of capitalism.

This goal, or ultimate outcome of the axiomatic drive of corporate power to reduce wages to as close to zero or slavery as possible, cannot be expressed. Real solutions – among other obvious ones -- involve tackling a huge class divide and gross inequities in wealth, unionizing workers into powerful co-operative collectives, and rescinding Taft-Hartley and thus bringing the Wagner Act back to its former strength. In place of this, the new Tea Party Republicans will focus on totaling dismantling unions as well as any vestige of FDR’s “Bill of Economic Rights” extant.

Doubtlessly it is important in life to be able to distinguish the poison from the antidote but in this case what we are being pushed toward is the obliteration of what antidotes are yet left to us and an invitation to all to swallow a poison that works on the many while nourishing the very few.

In many ways the Great Recession of 2008 can be seen as a crisis too good to waste. The stage was already set for increased unemployment in the U.S. as well as for a belated recognition of the middle class that they were financially “underwater” and the only difference between them and a non-voting, discounted, already on its knees underclass was location, location, location. Foreclosure has removed that distinction. The many now believe that their reduced circumstances are attributable to that 2008 “New York City Wall Street thing,” hard now to describe, especially since President Obama has chosen not to bring the bad guys to justice or justice to the bad guys. And yet, misery and angst, hardship and panic are there.

When you have no solution that serves you, you prefer to keep the matter itself hidden. Most Americans are practicing this tactic in regard to Afghanistan, a bit of truth supported by the absence of that war as a discussable issue in the 2010 mid-term elections. One must also consider that vast numbers of unemployed people won’t just go away, though the idea is that if they are not represented, they don’t exist. Once again the bottom 40 percent of the population comes to mind. They don’t vote and no one is urging them into “Reality TV” or “Let’s Dance with a Loser.” The new contingent of Republicans anxious to attack the word “public” wherever and whenever yet feel that something must be said, if not done. Wildcat strikes can break out, street riots have happened, people who define themselves ontologically as “consumers” may go berserk if empty wallets and maxed credit cards can’t get them a fix.  Given the horrendous state of the present cultural surround, wrath must be shown, fists raised, culprits identified, Tea Party enthusiasts called to arms. “Don’t retreat – Instead Reload!”

Somebody has to tighten his belt; someone has to give up the perks and the bonuses and the high life. Austerity is called for. I mean the Republican answer here is for the looted, downsized and outsourced, health insurance and pension free, the foreclosed and unemployed, the last unionist standing to learn more about what doing without is like. It sounds like the strategy of the ancien regime.

It sounds insane, surely irrational, and indigestible without a good dose of an ironic sense, but those who are unemployed and probably never employable again at their “glory days” levels, those already in austere circumstances, are being asked to find their way back to the “America That Was” by sucking up more austerity. And while doing that making sure they don’t join a union.

Photo by AFL-CIO, cc by 2.0

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  • Your notion of a "cultural surround" is an interesting one and captures, I think, a key aspect of late capitalism. That's the increasing role that advertising -- as commodity, as service, as propaganda technique -- plays in today's society. This is central to the idea that what reality "mean to us depends upon a battle of representation, a war of image and spectacle, of chat and spin."

    Above all, the capitalist effort is, and must be, ever-changing. Yesterday we were all "liberals;" today we've become the "Ueber-Left" according to Fox News propagandist Glen Beck; tomorrow we'll be back to being "liberals." The Republican right is against "activist judges" unless they're overturning Obama's new health care. When the Soviets were fighting Islamo-fascism in Afghanistan Reagan denounced anti-fascists as "hating freedom" claiming the fascists were "freedom fights" and the equivalent of the U.S. Founding Fathers; today those of us who did not support Bush's criminal policies in Afghanistan "love Islam" according to Ann Coulter. A group of white students claimed they were threatened by Black students wearing Malcolm X t-shirts and the school banned them; today the same political forces claim that freedom of speech is eliminated when the can't wear the t-shirt of their choice.

    Yet through all the twists and turns one thing remains: the effort to beat down workers and eliminate their past gains.

    Posted by Michael O. Keitel, 02/06/2011 5:53am (13 years ago)

  • Here's an idea. Perhaps the union leadership should catch a plane and go over to Asia and help unionize workers overseas?

    Of course that won't happen though. Union leaders are happy cashing our checks and working hard to convince us that somehow business and conservative politicians are our real competition. (Hey, it's easier than actually attacking the real problem - exploitation of workers overseas - at its source.)

    Republicans swept in the last election and will likely make gains again in 2012. We have to see the handwriting on the wall and realize we aren't going to win if we try work in Washington DC to fight a labor war that is actually occuring in Beijing.

    We can keep hating on the GOP and Wall Street and continue to lose jobs, or we can go overseas and help workers in Asia and help get some jobs back in the process. I know which one is the right answer, but don't have a lot of confidence that our leadership will go the right direction here.

    Posted by johnny, 01/12/2011 1:19pm (13 years ago)

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