It’s been noted that the two U.S. industries (not counting defense) most dependent on government handouts are agriculture and ranching. Without federal subsidies and exemptions, these two bedrock industries would be all but unrecognizable, crippled, unable to function.
Yet, despite America’s farmers and ranchers having their snouts buried so deep in the government trough they have to come up gasping for air, they’ve managed to maintain an image of the self-made “rugged individualist.” Instead of comporting themselves as the corporate welfare recipients they are, they walk around like the Marlboro Man.
Cut it any way you like, but hypocrisy is hard to stomach. Whether it’s the vehemently anti-gay Republican congressman caught in bed with another man, or the televangelist who weeps real tears when talking about the glory of Jesus Christ, and is found to have embezzled millions of dollars from his ministry, people are disgusted by self-righteous deceit.
In Dante’s “Inferno,” where each of the descending nine levels of Hell is inhabited by increasingly vile sinners, Dante relegates the hypocrites and liars to a lower level than those guilty of homicide. Think about that. Almost 700 years ago, and an Italian poet had already figured out that the shameless, self-aggrandizing phony was more deserving of torture than the garden variety murderer.
The so-called Free Market is a breeding ground for hypocrites. Which is why I remind people that if they honestly believe making it on your own is a virtue—that old-fashioned self-reliance, without any handouts from Uncle Sam, is something to be truly admired—then there are only two groups worthy of our respect: labor unions and the Amish.
Not only do the feds not assist or subsidize unions, they go out of their way to impede them. They harass unions; they nag them, molest them, provoke them, shake them down. Whatever gains unions have made over the years have been achieved without assistance from the government. Indeed, the narrative history of organized labor has been one of struggle—the struggle to overcome government sabotage.
And don’t say passage of the historic Wagner Act “launched” the labor movement, because that’s a myth. Yes, the Wagner Act helped legitimize the labor movement, but it certainly didn’t create it. Wagner became law in 1935—more than 100 years after organized labor had already set down roots. Not only were strikes occurring as far back as the early nineteenth century, the first professional athletes union (International Brotherhood of Baseball Players) was already in place by 1886.
If we really want to see what the federal government has done to “help” labor, let’s look at the Taft-Hartley Act (1947). Taft-Hartley eviscerated the Wagner Act; it devoured it. It took out all the good parts. With one stroke of the pen, the Taft-Hartley Act rendered labor’s most dependable, bread-and-butter tactics illegal.
The truth is, the government fears and distrusts organized labor. Why? Because a powerful workers’ collective threatens the status quo. The federal government (and the corporations who run it) fear labor unions the way our country’s founders feared the common man, which was why they invented a device (the Electoral College) allowing them to circumvent the popular vote when necessary.
The government abhors unions. Consider the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters). Fifty years ago, the Teamsters got mixed up with some very nasty, highly motivated mob figures. And even though that’s ancient history—the IBT is now a straight-up, respected, democratic union—the feds have never let them forget it. They like to pretend the Teamsters (in fact, all of organized labor) still have something to answer for.
Japan has been forgiven for Pearl Harbor; China’s been forgiven for its Communist revolution; major league baseball has inter-league play; the surfers have made peace with the ho-dads. Everybody’s been allowed a fresh start. Everybody except labor. Even today, if a Teamster shop steward in a New Jersey local so much as sneezes, some Junior G-man in Washington D.C. perks up his ears.
But the irony is so thick you can cut it with a knife. With the middle-class now under siege, organized labor isn’t the problem, it’s the cure. And it’s more than simple economics. It’s ethics. If Wall Street had been as law-abiding as our labor unions, there’s no banking collapse. If Wall Street had been as “honest” as the average American worker, there’s no crisis, no bail-out, no liquidation of financial institutions.
And if the Department of Justice had hounded investment bankers the way it hounds unions, the American taxpayer would have an extra trillion dollars to play with. Which would be enough to underwrite national health care. Now how crazy is that?
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org