Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

A Union Fable


Playing off Barack Obama’s inspiring book title, “The Audacity of Hope,” let’s take a moment to consider something that, for organized labor, which, seemingly, has lain dormant for decades, is not only audacious and hopeful, but wildly tantalizing.

Let’s consider the following scenario:

(1) Obama becomes president;

(2) the Democrats win an additional 20-30 seats in the House of Representatives;

(3) they secure a minimum of 60 seats in the Senate; and

(4) they have the moral courage to do something institutionally audacious to help working Americans.

For openers, Obama winning the presidency and the Democrats taking 20-30 additional seats in the House is not only reasonable, it’s quite plausible.  In fact, by October, with all that Obama vs. Hillary hostility having long ago melted into the political landscape, such an outcome might even be likely, given how difficult it will be for John McCain to overcome the toxic legacy of the Bush administration.

Getting those 60 senate seats is another story.  It will be a longshot, at best.  The reason “60” is a magic number is because it’s the minimum number of senate votes required for cloture (the ability to break a filibuster), thereby giving the party in power an enormous advantage.

And even with 60 seats secured, there are those who would argue that getting the Democrats to go out on a limb for labor, despite all that congressional muscle and arithmetic to back them up, will be a miracle, that faced with a genuine opportunity to rejuvenate organized labor, the Democrats will ultimately chicken out.

But let’s remain optimistic, and speculate.  Let’s say the Democrats win the White House, increase their majority in the House, get those 60 seats in the Senate, and then (stay with me) go off on a holy crusade to restore organized labor’s once substantial role in the American economy by repealing the Taft-Hartley Act and passing a law prohibiting the permanent replacement of striking workers.  What would happen?

With Taft-Hartley repealed, the impediments removed, and a new “worker’s consciousness” in the air, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to expect organized labor’s national membership to rise from its current 12% to something closer to 30%, which would be fairly close to its all-time high of 35%.

Where would these new union members come from?  With all the obstacles and bad vibes gone away, they could be expected to be drawn largely from retail clerks, culinary, and clerical workers, many of whom had never considered organized labor a viable option; from coal miners (shockingly, only 27% of which are unionized) and truck drivers (only 19% are union); and from the 13.7 million American factory workers who are not currently signed up.

Besides representing a sea change in our national consciousness, what would the result be?  How would having 30% of the American workforce suddenly belonging to labor unions affect the economy?

For one thing, given organized labor’s exemplary record of providing safe working environments (check out union coal mines vs. non-union), industrial accidents would drop significantly.  For another, productivity could be expected to improve.  When Henry Ford famously raised his workers’ pay to $5 per day, he expected production to rise more than proportionately . . . which it did.

A fact that’s often overlooked in all this globalization rhetoric is that Americans are extremely productive workers—some say the best in the world.  Moreover, it’s been demonstrated that businesses offering superior wages and benefits (i.e., union shops) tend to attract a higher caliber worker than those offering inferior ones.  Think about it.  Which job will attract better people—the shabby hole-in-the wall, or the classy enterprise?

For another, with businesses now forced to negotiate benefits packages that include employee medical insurance, there will likely be pressure placed on the government to adopt some sort of national health care reform, which would be a monumental step in the right direction.

Of course, the counter-argument will be that a vastly increased union membership (and the 10-15% increase in wages and bennies that go with it) will force business owners to seek drastic remedies.  It will be argued that they’ll be forced to move to a cheaper state or even a foreign country, or have to shut down their businesses altogether and go on welfare.

But with the barriers removed, these hysterical scare tactics will be exposed for what they are.  The obscenely high salaries of company executives may be dinged a bit, and the stock market might take some time to readjust, but paying workers a livable wage won’t result in a cataclysm or full-scale migration.

First of all, businesses don’t move to foreign countries to avoid paying a union wage; they move to avoid paying an American wage.  You don’t pull up stakes and move to Guatemala because your forklift drivers go from a non-union $14.50 an hour to a union $16; you move there because you can hire drivers for $2 per hour.

In more innocent and wholesome times, an American businessman who was selfish and unpatriotic enough to move his operation to an impoverished foreign country run by an unenlightened government (thus leaving his workers and their families in the lurch) would have been called a “traitor.”  In today’s corporate-dominated climate that same businessman is considered “shrewd.”

Secondly, as for moving to an anti-union region of the U.S., with Taft-Hartley repealed, the Deep South will be in danger of losing his longstanding amateur status.  Many of those time-honored intimidation and propaganda techniques that were used to keep employees at bay simply won’t work anymore.

The realization will be dramatic.  It will be like perestroika in the former Soviet Union, or dogs let out of the yard for the first time.  With the skids now greased, employees will be able to decide freely and openly whether or not they wish to join a worker’s collective.  It could happen.

Alas, a reality check.  As promising as this scenario sounds, let’s be honest.  It could turn out to be little more than an ambitious dream, a fantasy.  Indeed, there are many people who believe that American politicians, despite their noble promises and egalitarian oratory, favor keeping the American worker in a permanent state of “neediness.”

There are people who believe that not only the Republicans, but the Democrats as well, fear giving the working class anything close to the strength-in-numbers hegemony it had during the 1940s and 1950s, because increased numbers bring increased influence, and increased influence can be dangerous.

In any event, two things are certain:  Americans are extremely good workers, and the working man or woman’s only realistic hope for a better life is by applying pressure to those who control the payroll.   And, for now, the only way to apply that pressure is by organizing.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at


David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 28, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Inside the Invisible Government: War, Propaganda, Clinton & Trump
Andrew Levine
The Hillary Era is Coming: Worry!
Gary Leupp
Seven World-Historical Achievements of the Iraq Invasion of 2003
Paul Street
Standing Rock Water-Protectors Waterboarded While the Cleveland Indians Romped
Stanley L. Cohen
Israel: 1984 Everlasting
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Comfortably Dumb
Michael Brenner
American Foreign Policy in the Post-Trump Era
Luciana Bohne
Crossing the Acheron: Back to Vietnam
Robert Hunziker
The Political Era of Climate Refugees
Stephen Cooper
Alabama’s Last Execution was an Atrocity
Michael Munk
Getting Away With Terrorism in Oregon
T.J. Coles
Confronting China: an Interview with John Pilger
Pete Dolack
Work Harder So Speculators Can Get More
Joyce Nelson
Canadians Launch Constitutional Challenge Against CETA
John Laforge
US Uranium Weapons Have Been Used in Syria
Paul Edwards
The Vision Thing ’16
Arshad Khan
Hillary, Trump and Sartre: How Existentialism Disrobes the Major Presidential Candidates
Peter Lee
It’s ON! Between Duterte and America
Chris Zinda
The Bundy Acquittal: Tazing of #oregonstandoff
Norman Pollack
America at the Crossroads: Abrogation of Democracy
Bill Quigley
Six Gulf Protectors Arrested Challenging Gulf Oil Drilling
Joseph Grosso
Starchitects in the City: Vanity Fair and Gentrification
Patrick Carr
Economic Racial Disparity in North Carolina
David Swanson
Public vs. Media on War
Chris Gilbert
Demo Derby in Venezuela: The Left’s New Freewheeling Politics
Ira Helfand
Nukes and the UN: a Historic Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons
Brian Cloughley
The US, NATO and the Pope
Binoy Kampmark
Nobel Confusion: Ramos-Horta, Trump and World Disorder
Sam Albert
Kids on Their Own in Calais: the Tip of an Iceberg-Cold World
Russell Mokhiber
Lucifer’s Banker: Bradley Birkenfeld on Corporate Crime in America
Ron Jacobs
Death to the Fascist Insect! The SLA and the Cops
Cesar Chelala
Embargo on Cuba is an Embarrassment for the United States
Jack Smith
And the Winner Is….
Ken Knabb
Beyond Voting: the Limits of Electoral Politics
Matt Peppe
An Alternate Narrative on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
Uri Avnery
The Israeli Trumpess
James Rothenberg
Water Under the Bridge
Louis Yako
Remembering Rasul Gamzatov: The Poet of the People
Dave Reilly
Complete the Sentence: an Exploration of Orin Langelle’s “If Voting Changed Things…”
Jonathan Woodrow Martin
When Nobody Returns: Palestinians Show They are People, Too
Louis Proyect
The Outsider-Insider: Isaac Babel’s Big Mistake
Simon Jones
The Human Lacunae in Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake”
Martin Billheimer
Now and Then, Ancient Sorceries
Charles R. Larson
Review: Brit Bennett’s “The Mothers”
David Yearsley
Bach on the Election