It’s a broad generalization, and reeks of cynicism, but it’s true: Many (most?) good things get done not as the result of being conspicuously seen as the “right” thing to do, but as the result of pressure being applied to get them done. Conversely, in the absence of pressure being applied, the “right” thing often doesn’t get done. In other words, it’s more about “muscle” than “morals.”
Take the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, one of the harshest anti-immigration measures in U.S. history. After a significant number of Chinese workers had emigrated to the U.S., lured here by the California Gold Rush (1848-1854), and later, by jobs on large works programs, such as the Transcontinental Railroad, America decided it didn’t want any more of them. We had enough Chinamen.
While the reasons for passing the Exclusion Act were a mixed bag of xenophobia, racism, and economic worries, what is most revealing is how simple it was to get this remarkable legislation passed. It was easy. Basically, some people got together and decided no more Chinese should enter the country, and then went out and passed a law to make it so. And the reason it was so easy was because there was no meaningful resistance.
The 1882 Exclusion Act was supposed to stay in effect for ten years. But in 1892, it was extended for ten additional years, and in 1902, it was made permanent. Incredibly, that law stayed on the books until 1943, when it was repealed by the Magnuson Act. And what precipitated its repeal in 1943? Following Pearl Harbor, the Chinese had become the good Asians, and the “Japs” had become the bad Asians.
It would be silly to ask how much muscle the “Chinese lobby” had in 1882, because there was no Chinese lobby. It was non-existent. And without any meaningful resistance, the Chinese were at the mercy of the powers that be. Resistance is everything. The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed because the country finally realized it was the “moral” thing to do, but rather because the African-American lobby now had the muscle to apply pressure.
Which brings us to the American worker, those tens of millions of men or women out there who happen to have “jobs” instead of “careers.” Given the enormous influence wielded by U.S. corporations and foreign oligarchies—the money, the connections, the access to the corridors of power—these American workers are in danger of having it all slip away.
Forget the idealistic notion of a “level playing field,” because that conceit was never in the cards to begin with, but unless you’re one of the lucky 11-percent to belong to a labor union (and even many of those workers are fighting to hang on to what they have), it’s become a matter of sustaining one’s long-term economic survival. When does continuous decline give way to free-fall?
Consider the political landscape. It’s no exaggeration to say that America’s non-union workers been rendered virtually “friendless.” Besides not having anything resembling a lobby, they don’t even have a reliable “support group,” which is why those one-sided trade agreements (coveted by U.S. corporations and foreign governments) continue to get passed. With so little resistance, who’s to stop them?
Granted, the occasional crumb gets thrown the workers’ way in the form of raising the minimum wage, or overhauling overtime rules, but those are more palliatives and “smokescreens” than honest indications that things are improving, because, simultaneously, attempts are being made to curb unionization, shrink food stamps and limit unemployment benefits. Every measure intended to benefit the working class is neutralized by half a dozen other measures designed to further weaken it.
The importance of resistance was made clear by the early Chinese experience in America. The undeniable truth is that without some form of genuine rebelliousness, the American working class is in danger of being transformed into glorified “coolies.” And how ironic would that be?
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), is a former union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com