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 firstname.lastname@example.org