If we look back at, say, the last 100 years or so, we might be tempted to declare that all the really important “social” issues before us have demonstrably improved. While that’s an ambitious and wildly optimistic statement, it’s more or less true. From a purely social and progressive vantage, the liberalization of the world is on the ascendancy. We would ask even the most bitter, lemon-sucking cynic to consider the counter-argument. Who among us would dare deny that, tracking us along a purely “social” axis, we are improving?
The number of world democracies has grown from a mere handful to, perhaps, 75 or 80 (depending on what we categorize as a “democracy”); civil rights, while far from equitable, are now taken for granted in most Western democracies, women’s rights have noticeably improved across-the-board, even in Middle-Eastern countries; gay rights have gone from nothing (from less than nothing!) to something, and interracial marriages, which used to be such a big deal, aren’t such a big deal, except in places like Alabama.
Religious freedom has gained a solid foothold which it will never relinquish; child labor, though still practiced, is generally frowned upon; torture, though still practiced (even by the CIA), is universally condemned (and it didn’t use to be); and the United Nations, while an egregiously flawed and politically manipulated organization, is evidence of a world cognizant of the fact that our only long-term hope is to work in mutual cooperation.
Granted, we’re still using drones, still bombing the shit out of people, still spying, still prevaricating, still engaging in the occasional genocide, still kowtowing to multinational corporations, and still trying to thwart populist reform movements anywhere in the world that threaten to undermine the Establishment. Those are negative things, things that will haunt us until we eradicate them, but we’re talking “social” progress here, not the evils of economic or military hegemony, or man’s fundamental inhumanity to man.
And there is one very conspicuous social phenomenon that is not only not improving, but it is regressing at the speed of a freight train. That social phenomenon is the labor union. While everybody seems to be basking in their newly acquired liberalization and “empowerment,” the workers of the world, beginning right here in the United States, are fighting not for pie-in-the-sky improvements, but for basic benefits and working conditions that, at one time, used to be fairly common.
Even America’s academics, who used to be one of organized labor’s best friends, have turned their attention elsewhere, apparently bored or fed up with what they see passing for the current “labor movement.” Those hardcore, left-wing college professors who used to march right along side United Auto Worker picketers, are now preoccupied with government snooping and melting glaciers. You couldn’t get a professor today to march with the UAW, unless you guaranteed them a TV appearance and paid them in bitcoins.
So as everything seems to be getting better for gays and women and minorities, the status of working people, both in the U.S. and the rest of the world, continues to deteriorate, and is doing so as a result of two factors: the inevitable pressure of market forces and the shameful apathy of those capable of improving it.
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