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Inviting Labor to the Tea Party

Last week, the National Mediation Board (NMB) announced that it was changing the way union recognition elections were conducted under the governing language of the Railway Labor Act (RLA).  In addition to America’s railways, the RLA has jurisdiction over the nation’s airlines.

Under the new system, employees who fail to vote on the question, “Should we or should we not join a union?,” will no longer automatically be tabulated as “No” votes.  As hard as it is to believe that an abstention could be counted as a “No,” this bizarre, anti-democratic procedure has been in place for decades.  To its credit, the NMB finally fixed it.

Predictably, Delta Airlines, one of the least unionized carriers in a heavily unionized industry, has filed a lawsuit to prevent the change.  If Delta were smart and practical, it would follow the lead of Southwest Airlines, one of the most profitable and most unionized carriers in the world, and embrace the union as a genuine partner and move on.  Instead, the Atlanta-based company has chosen to fight it.

But there’s a potential silver lining here.  Delta’s public opposition to “fair play” is an opportunity for organized labor to score some points.

Arguably, for labor to have a realistic shot at reasserting itself as a dominant social-economic force, it needs to come up with a different strategy for attracting supporters, one that, strange as it sounds, relies less on rationality and more on emotion.  It needs to aim for the heart and not the head.

What labor must do is appeal to the same set of outrages and communal fears that fuel the Tea Party movement.  No more charts, graphs and statistics showing the advantages of union membership; no more calm, fact-based arguments refuting the lies of the anti-union lobby.  Unfortunately, as reasonable as those tactics are, no one is listening.

Because pride in country and nationalism still matter, even, alas, in their most simplistic terms, labor needs to play the patriotism card….and play it in a manner that will appeal specifically to the Tea Party crowd.  You use whatever tools you have in the shed.  And if enthusiastic flag-waving works, then so be it, flag-waving it is.

By most accounts, what unites these TP’ers is contempt for Big Government and a vague dread of the future—that and a well-developed sense of nostalgia.  “Give me back my country” is one of their slogans.  As muddled and misguided as much of their agenda is, no one can deny that these people are angry, engaged and stoked with passion.

Labor needs to harness that passion and redirect it.  Take that simmering hatred and resentment of Big Government and refocus it on Big Business; make Big Business the villain.  This can be accomplished by appealing to what the TP’ers see as our American Way of Life.  Moreover, it can be done without exaggeration or misrepresenting the facts, because the arguments are self-evident, just waiting to be made.

Take the obvious.  Compare people who work for a living with institutions that earn their income by manipulating money.  Unlike the men and women who comprise our labor unions—who earn every nickel of their money in this country and spend every nickel of it here—Wall Street and Corporate America are no more than economic mercenaries, rootless bargain-hunters, capitalist nomads.

Because they go wherever the money leads them, and do whatever it takes to exploit cheap labor markets, corporations and investment banks are more like “stateless” entities than national businesses.  They have no flag….only a balance sheet.

Because the Tea Party yearns for a “better America,” they need to be made aware of just how un-American, unpatriotic and destructive these institutions are.  If unconditional loyalty to country counts for anything, these folks will be receptive.  Clearly, their outrage is genuine; and just as clearly, labor’s economic arguments haven’t moved them in the past.  That’s why it’s time to get emotional.

If the TP’ers want their country back, they need to be convinced that the first step in that retrieval is closing the staggering gap between the rich and the poor and restoring the viability of the working class.  Organized labor should dedicate itself to reminding these old-fashioned patriots of a central but forgotten truth: Nothing is more “American” than American unions.

Somehow, over the years, unions have allowed themselves to be both domesticated and marginalized—domesticated by their willingness to please their masters, marginalized by political independents and quasi-libertarian centrists.  One would naturally expect hostility from reactionaries and hardcore Republicans, but not from the “informed center.”  It’s puzzling, really.

The point needs to be hammered home that for the last 140 years (going back to the Knights of Labor) there has been no greater friend to America’s working men and women than organized labor—even with all its faults.  Let anyone who denies this name a better friend.

In truth, organized labor has growled and barked, and cowered and fetched, long enough.  It’s time that it stood on its hind legs and began singing.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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