Given our reputation, it’s puzzling and demoralizing why more Americans don’t root for the underdog. On second thought, maybe it isn’t puzzling. Maybe that reputation was little more than self-serving, textbook propaganda taught to school children. Still, it’s hard to reconcile. After all, rooting for the underdog—having empathy for the “little guy”—has always been presented as a component of our national character.
But that empathy seems to be lacking today. And nowhere is it more apparent than in the public’s understanding and appreciation of labor unions. Instead of cheering for the “little guy”—the working man and woman trying to make a decent living—the public is now unabashedly cheering for the gargantuan corporations who pull the strings.
Instead of being alarmed by the fact that private sector union membership has dwindled to less than 7-percent, and that this statistic correlates directly and undeniably with the decline of the middle class, people don’t seem to get it. And this goes beyond apathy or ignorance. Incredibly, you now find people who rejoice when they hear of a labor union getting its butt kicked.
It’s true. When word of a huge, multinational corporation like Boeing beating down its union workers reaches the man on the street—a man making a modest wage and hanging on to diminishing benefits—he nods in approval, pleased that these union guys have gotten their comeuppance. Is it envy? Is it schadenfreude? Is it “misery loves company”? Whatever it is, it’s as illogical as the peasants rooting for the aristocrats.
One of the most absurd complaints you hear about unions is that they are “too powerful.” Really? With nearly 90-percent of our jobs being non-union, with company profits at an all-time high, with union contracts being dismantled, with membership dropping, with the Democrats having said, “Adios, muchachos,” how in God’s name can anyone believe unions are too powerful?? That has to be the greatest propaganda victory in history.
Here’s a true story. In 1995, the LA Dodgers brought up Mike Busch to fill in at third base for the injured Tim Wallach. But when Busch arrived, the players, led by their union rep Brett Butler, treated him rudely. They snubbed him. They sneered at him. They muttered things under their breath when he passed.
Mind you, no one pushed him up against the wall and kneed him in the groin, no one beat the living crap out of him, no one trashed his home, all of which could’ve happened had this been a coal mine or steel mill in the 1930s instead of a major league clubhouse in the 1990s. They simply snubbed him.
So why the snub? Because Mike Busch crossed the line. He was a scab. During the 1994 baseball strike, Busch made his own bed by defiantly crossing the union picket line and offering himself as a replacement player. The only thing preventing us from calling this guy a slimy, shit-eating snake is our respect for reptiles.
But here’s the topper. The LA Times ran a sympathetic story about Busch’s unpleasant reception (presumably, a Dodger executive or Busch himself had gone whining to the media), and received a huge amount of mail in response. In fact, the Times announced that the sports page had received the most letters it had ever received on any single topic.
According to the Times, they received 255 letters, which broke down thusly: 246 letters favoring Busch and critical of the union, 4 letters critical of Busch and favoring the union, and 1 letter blaming general manager Fred Claire for not anticipating the hostility.
So the public not only missed the whole point about solidarity, loyalty and strength-in-numbers, they sided with the Establishment, with baseball ownership, with the fat cats. They sided with the billionaires against the millionaires.
If the Bible were written today, that fight in the Valley of Elah would have a different slant. It would be the heavily favored, corporate-sponsored Philistine giant, Goliath, against David, a union member and prohibitive underdog. As the men battled, the audience would be cheering for the guy with the biggest muscles and the most resources. “Kill that union bastard!”
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org