Solidarity in the New Gilded Age
Assuming that the polls and surveys are correct, and Barack Obama earns himself a second term as president, what are the odds that he will evolve into the kind of pro-union Democrat organized labor always hoped he would be?
Given what we’ve seen so far, the odds are slim. After all, Obama and his attack dog Rahm Emanuel didn’t exactly go to the mat for the EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act), arguably one of the most important pieces of labor legislation since Taft-Hartley (1947). After promising the AFL-CIO during the campaign that EFCA would be a priority item, the White House more or less ignored it. So much for campaign rhetoric.
Still, as timid and naïve and untrustworthy as Obama may be, he isn’t stupid. He has to know—both intellectually and emotionally—that without a system of checks and balances, this country is flirting with a version of corporate hegemony as lopsided as anything seen since the Gilded Age. And with the exception of strong, militant labor unions acting as buffers, there is no force on earth capable of resisting corporate muscle, not on the global scale we’re now seeing.
Unless working people have some entity to represent their interests, they will be subject to any draconian measures Corporate America wishes to enact. Without the perceived capability to fight back—without the means to offer genuine resistance—America’s workers are not only vulnerable, they’re virtually defenseless.
Anyone who thinks public opinion or natural selection or federal labor laws or the U.S. Supreme Court will stop the onslaught hasn’t been paying attention. This is a war of economic aggression. And if you want to see who’s winning that war, just take a look around. The correlation between union membership and a thriving middle-class is clear: the more people earning union wages and benefits, the stronger the American consumer class.
As bleak as it appears, there’s always hope. Things are capable of changing radically and suddenly. Consider Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. Neither phenomenon was predicted by anyone. One could make the case that, if the middle-class continues to shrink at the rate it’s shrinking, we’ll be faced with three alternatives: continuing our downward spiral, engaging in spontaneous “street revolutions” that will lead nowhere, or embracing a pro-worker institution already in place and ready to roll—labor unions.
Something sobering to contemplate. Barack Obama could wake up the morning of January 21, 2013, with the brain of Walter Reuther, the heart of Harry Bridges, and the guts of Jimmy Hoffa, and still not be able to do a damned thing for working people. Why not? Because unless the Democrats gain control of the House, and a minimum of 60 seats in the Senate, he is powerless to get any labor legislation passed.
But wresting control of the House and Senate is a tall order. And even if the Democrats were able, nominally, to gain control of both bodies (it’s been done before), there’s no guarantee these Democrats would behave like the proper, pro-labor Democrats we’d like them to be. Indeed, we’ve had enough finks and phonies in Congress to last us a lifetime.
This all points to solidarity. American workers need to take care of themselves rather than rely on politicians or public opinion to do it for them. And taking care of themselves means banding together collectively. Until they band together and appear threatening, no one is going to take them seriously.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org