FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Has Everyone Improved Except Working People?

by DAVID MACARAY

Not to wax nostalgically, but when we look back at the social progress made over the last half-century or so, we have much to be proud of. Granted, in many instances it was unfortunate we had to wait so long before these progressive measures took root, but late to the party or not, the fact that they were eventually adopted and became part of America’s social landscape is, by far, the bigger story.

Over the course of the last half-century, we’ve seen real progress in civil rights, abortion rights, and gay rights; we’ve seen the birth of an anti-war movement, the rise of Second Wave feminism, the embrace of automobile safety and environmental consciousness (establishment of the EPA), acknowledgement of the rights of disabled citizens (passage of the ADA), liberalization of marijuana laws, laws against the harassment of pets, and passage of the 26th amendment, allowing 18-year olds to vote.

But alarmingly, over this same period, working people have been more or less victimized. The labor movement has not only failed to progress commensurately, it seems to have done a crisp about-face and begun marching in the opposite direction. Not to wallow in self-pity here, but while other groups (minorities, women, the disabled, stoners, teens, pets, et al) have all been given a well-deserved boost, the working-class appears to have had a “Kick me” sign attached to its backside.

Labor unions watched in disbelief as the gains made prior to and just following World War II were watered down beyond recognition or, in many instances, were summarily wiped off the slate entirely. One of the results of this systematic assault on working people is the battered state of today’s rapidly shrinking middle-class. In that ongoing rat-race we euphemistically refer to as the “global economy,” the rats are clearly winning.

The contrast between labor’s role, then and now, is staggering. Consider one example: In 1950, a milestone agreement was forged between labor and management. The media christened it the “Treaty of Detroit.” You don’t hear much about it today, even in labor circles, but without question it stands as a landmark in the social and economic history of the United States. Indeed, if any single event can be said to have “invented” the American middle-class, it was the Treaty of Detroit.

The U.S. labor situation following WWII was a mess. Disgruntled workers and lengthy shrikes were the order of the day. Workers who’d been asked to sacrifice during the war, but who’d seen U.S. industrialists reap enormous war-time profits, now insisted on getting their fair share, and were willing to hit the bricks for months at a time if that’s what it took to get it. But in 1950, Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers made a deal with the Big Three automakers (GM was first, Chrysler and Ford soon followed) that changed everything.

Reuther promised the Big Three that if they gave workers health care and pensions, unemployment benefits, increased vacations, and COLAs (cost of living allowance), the UAW, in return, would not go on strike for five years. That’s five years of guaranteed labor peace—five years of no crippling strikes, five years of no idle factories; five years of every single car coming off Detroit’s assembly line being sold to a commodity-starved postwar public—in return for benefits the companies could easily afford. (Granted, this was back when companies paid more attention to their employees than their shareholders)

This arrangement—particularly company-provided health care and pensions—not only instantly became the gold standard of organized labor, but it’s been the template for union-management negotiations ever since. With European-style national health care off the table (it was anathema to U.S. politicians), it fell to businesses to provide it. Health care and pensions were no longer regarded as “luxuries”; they were now as integral to the job as general wages.

But that’s all changed. Things have regressed so dramatically, we now feel trapped in a hideous, atavistic nightmare, unable to wake. Health care is once again regarded as a luxury. A defined pension is a luxury. A full-time job is a luxury. Union membership is a luxury. A middle-class income is a luxury. In fact, everything north of genteel poverty is a luxury. In some ways, it feels like the storied American Labor Movement never happened.

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

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

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 22, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Good as Goldman: Hillary and Wall Street
Joseph E. Lowndes
From Silent Majority to White-Hot Rage: Observations from Cleveland
Paul Street
Political Correctness: Handle with Care
Richard Moser
Actions Express Priorities: 40 Years of Failed Lesser Evil Voting
Eric Draitser
Hillary and Tim Kaine: a Match Made on Wall Street
Conn Hallinan
The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO
Ron Jacobs
Exacerbate the Split in the Ruling Class
Jill Stein
After US Airstrikes Kill 73 in Syria, It’s Time to End Military Assaults that Breed Terrorism
Jack Rasmus
Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent
John Feffer
Could a Military Coup Happen Here?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Late Night, Wine-Soaked Thoughts on Trump’s Jeremiad
Andrew Levine
Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?
Michael Lukas
Law, Order, and the Disciplining of Black Bodies at the Republican National Convention
Victor Grossman
Horror News, This Time From Munich
Margaret Kimberley
Gavin Long’s Last Words
Mark Weisbrot
Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil
Brian Cloughley
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon
Lawrence Reichard
A Global Crossroad
Kevin Schwartz
Beyond 28 Pages: Saudi Arabia and the West
Charles Pierson
The Courage of Kalyn Chapman James
Michael Brenner
Terrorism Redux
Bruce Lerro
Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: Liberals and the Social Contract Theory of Violence
Mark Dunbar
The Politics of Jeremy Corbyn
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children
Binoy Kampmark
Laura Ingraham and Trumpism
Uri Avnery
The Great Rift
Nicholas Buccola
What’s the Matter with What Ted Said?
Aidan O'Brien
Thank Allah for Western Democracy, Despondency and Defeat
Joseph Natoli
The Politics of Crazy and Stupid
Sher Ali Khan
Empirocracy
Nauman Sadiq
A House Divided: Turkey’s Failed Coup Plot
Franklin Lamb
A Roadmap for Lebanon to Grant Civil Rights for Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon
Colin Todhunter
Power and the Bomb: Conducting International Relations with the Threat of Mass Murder
Michael Barker
UK Labour’s Rightwing Select Corporate Lobbyist to Oppose Jeremy Corbyn
Graham Peebles
Brexit, Trump and Lots of Anger
Anhvinh Doanvo
Civilian Deaths, Iraq, Syria, ISIS and Drones
Christopher Brauchli
Kansas and the Phantom Voters
Peter Lee
Gavin Long’s Manifesto and the Politics of “Terrorism”
Missy Comley Beattie
An Alarmingly Ignorant Fuck
Robert Koehler
Volatile America
Adam Vogal
Why Black Lives Matter To Me
Raouf Halaby
It Is Not Plagiarism, Y’all
Rev. Jeff Hood
Deliver Us From Babel
Frances Madeson
Juvenile Life Without Parole, Captured in ‘Natural Life’
Charles R. Larson
Review: Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail