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We're Sunk

Approaching the Twilight of the Labor Movement

by DAVID MACARAY

Private sector union membership in the U.S. stands at about 7-percent, meaning that 93-percent of all private sector jobs in this country are non-union, which makes those accusations of unions of being “too powerful” even more ridiculous and hysterical than they already were.  (Not to resort to one of those tiresome Nazi analogies, but didn’t Hitler use the Big Lie to great effect?)

Yet, even with these depressingly low membership numbers, if America’s non-union workers rooted for unions to succeed, and aspired to join a union themselves, it would mean, at least in theory, that the labor movement was alive and well and had a decent chance of succeeding.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Alas, many (too many) non-union workers not only don’t admire or respect labor unions, they hate them.   They envy them.  They fear them.  They resent them.  It’s as if America’s corporate masters had gathered together all the underpaid, under-benefited non-union workers and done some hideous Manchurian Candidate brain-washing number on them, convincing them they could trust the profit-motive more than they could trust a workers alliance.

As a college student, I worked part-time as a breakfast cook.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that, back in those days, it was the dream of every cook to get a job in a union manufacturing plant.  That was their life goal.  These guys didn’t dream of being millionaires or lottery winners or entrepreneurs; they dreamed of working in an industrial setting where the wages, benefits, and working conditions were first-rate.

Which is why it’s such a stunning disappointment to see so much antipathy directed toward unions today.  One of the main complaints you hear is that workers shouldn’t be forced to join a union or forced to pay dues.  That objection has always puzzled me.  You hire into a union shop because the wages and benefits are roughly 15-percent better than non-union facilities, and yet you balk at having to embrace the very organization that made those wages and benefits possible?

In an odd way, the resentment at being “forced” to join a union (despite the obvious advantages) reminds me of the South’s resistance to desegregation.  Southerners wouldn’t accept the fact that the federal government could tell a restaurant in Alabama that it no longer had the right to choose whom it could and couldn’t serve.  Even though this was private property, your “Whites Only” signs had to come down.  It was a concept people couldn’t absorb.  Perhaps that same mind-set applies to union membership.

This classic labor vs. management adversarial relationship has been in place in the U.S. ever since the mid-19th century, and has existed in Europe far longer.  Because everything and everyone—the Congress, the media, the police, the banks, the city fathers—were arrayed against the unions, it was a constant struggle, and any progress labor made came at a steep price.

But the one enduring resource unions could always count on—the one built-in advantage they had—was the support of working men and women.  Because workers felt they were all pretty much in the same boat, this was truly an all-encompassing “labor movement.”  Moreover, it was this grassroots, across-the-board solidarity that management feared the most because they had no way of combating it, other than by giving workers a larger slice of the pie.

Which is what makes the current anti-unionism so disturbing.  Despite statistics clearly showing that the middle-class is losing more ground every year, the average worker, for whatever reason, continues to place more faith in the generosity and infallibility of the so-called “free market” than he does in the only lobbying organization working people have ever had.

If the support of decent, hard-working men and women continues to evaporate, it means we’re sunk.  It means we’re more or less finished.  It means Corporationism has won and the Working Majority has lost.  And who knows?  Maybe this is a done deal.  Maybe we’ve already crossed that dreadful threshold.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition), was a former union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net