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There were a couple of moments which, had they gone the other way, could have made a big difference for organized labor. One was Ronald Reagan firing those 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, in August, 1981. Reagan is president for ten minutes and he pulls off the greatest anti-union coup since Taft-Hartley.
We’ll never know what would’ve happened had the controllers not walked out, had Reagan not been handed the opportunity to publicly humiliate labor, and had Corporate America not been “energized” and given the impetus to mobilize against unions. But one thing can’t be disputed: organized labor hasn’t been the same since.
The other moment (maybe connected to the first) came in the mid-1980s, when corporations began eviscerating employee health and pension benefits. While some companies clearly needed the relief, the majority of the others jumped on the bandwagon simply because these cuts were now in play. The prospect of deflecting medical premiums and “harvesting” those rich pension funds was too tempting to resist.
As for the affected employees, rather than protesting the cuts, most of them expressed their disappointment by grousing to fellow workers or cursing the inequity of the “system.” These workers behaved like sheep being led to slaughter; they did everything but apologize for having the benefits in the first place.
Although people joke about France’s laid back, c’est la vie attitude, let’s give French workers credit for knowing how to respond to an outrage. When corporations try to tell French workers they’re going to slash their health care benefits or mess with their pensions, the workers behave the way people should behave when the wealthy and powerful try to snow them. They go totally ape-shit.
Unlike us Americans, who don’t run into the streets unless our houses are on fire or a professional sports team has won a championship, when the French face economic catastrophe, they have, historically, taken to the barricades like fiends; they block traffic, burn cars, and generally raise hell. Win or lose, they show the authorities how seriously they value their standard of living.
Which brings us to the stunning part of the American equation. Because labor unions, by virtue of their bargaining power, were the last group to have these benefits chipped away, people actually criticized organized labor for not “sacrificing like the rest of us.” Now how bizarre is that?
How bizarre is it that instead of rejoicing in the fact that a workers’ collective had successfully stood up to the greedy bastards, you had people resenting unions for hanging on to what they themselves had been forced to give up. Instead of cheering for the victors, they were urging them to join the vanquished.
A woman once asked me, in all seriousness, why unions “put themselves above other workers.” She wasn’t outraged by corporate deceit and manipulation, by downsizing, outsourcing, and off-shore tax shelters; she wasn’t upset at lavish executive compensation. What bothered her was that you still had working people out there who were clinging to middle-class benefits.
When I suggested that, without resistance—without being willing to fight back—workers don’t stand a chance against Big Business, she accused me of sounding like a “thug.” And this woman was no well-paid professional; she was an hourly worker earning $12 per hour ($24,000 a year), with practically no benefits. Obviously, Corporate America had bitten her on the neck and turned her into a zombie.
It’s no coincidence that the country’s greatest period of prosperity—the postwar period, from the early 1950s until, roughly, the late 1960s—happened to be the same period when union membership was at its peak, with close to 35% of the workforce organized (versus the 12% it is today).
Workers need to overcome the view that a middle-class can be built on what’s left over after all the profits, perks, rake-offs and write-offs have been divvied up. A livable wage and decent benefits need to be the core around which we build, not the fringe. It needs be the starting point, not the “if there’s any left, you’ll get yours” point.
Consider what the result might have been in the mid-eighties had thousands of workers poured into the streets and created hellacious mini-riots in order to retain their wages and benefits. Corporations might have been forced to pay attention to business instead of becoming the “financial engineering” whores that drove us into the recent fiscal crisis.
Look what happened at tiny Republic Windows in Chicago, in December of 2008, with the members of UE Local 1110. Demanding that management give them the severance and vacation pay they were entitled to, the union occupied the building and refused to leave. The company agreed to discuss the matter, but only on the condition that the workers vacated the premises.
The workers refused to budge. The media covered the event, and, happily, the public seemed to take the side of the union. With Republic finally agreeing to pay everything it owed, it was a rare but conspicuous victory for working people, one achieved by rank-and-file determination and sympathetic media coverage.
While there are no simple answers, one thing is clear. We’re making it way too easy for these people. Without resistance, nothing’s going to change. Without resistance, corporations, politicians and, yes, union leadership will continue to pacify us with promises and excuses.
You don’t stop a bully by giving him your lunch money; you stop him by punching him in the nose. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes you wind up getting the crap beat out of you. But continuing to give up your lunch money isn’t an option.
American workers need to get serious. They need to get rude. They need to get ugly. They need to get French.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com