Some years ago the American writer Jack Hitt made a clever, off-beat observation. He suggested that if African Americans seriously wished to defuse or neutralize the remaining influence of the confederate flag (which not only is still found in the Deep South, but is proudly displayed on the grounds of South Carolina’s capitol building), black rappers should co-opt it. They should make it their own.
Hitt advised rap musicians to emblazon the confederate flag on their jewelry, their clothing, their posters, their record album covers—on everything they can think of. Turn the image of the confederate flag into a universally recognized symbol of black pride and black defiance…..do that, and watch how fast that Southern gravy bib is removed from the statehouse’s flag pole.
It was a brilliant idea. One wonders if there’s any way this same sort of “reverse” approach could be adopted by labor unions. As it stands now, many union leaders and members (along with the Democratic politicians who give them lip service) are so beaten down and demoralized, they seem intent on maintaining a low profile, as if they’re ashamed or embarrassed by their union affiliation. They behave as if there was, in fact, some truth to the smear campaigns being waged by the Republican right.
But instead of offering mealy-mouthed, apologetic defenses of their unions, what if these people took the offensive? What if they portrayed organized labor not only as a viable institution—one with glorious antecedents, a rich and storied history, a record of positive social change, blah, blah, blah—but as America’s last and only hope if the middle-class is to survive?
What if, as a start, they resorted to some dramatic examples, such as pointing out that Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who heroically landed that jet plane on the Hudson River, was himself the chairman of his union’s safety committee, and pointing out that those 343 heroic firefighters who died on 9-11 were all union members—every last one of them.
More substantially, unions need to drive home the point that without economic leverage America’s working class will be at the mercy of the corporations (not that they already aren’t). With federal labor laws continuing to be watered down and chipped away, and organized labor continuing to be assaulted, what’s left? The only thing that’s going to stand between working people and the entrance to hell is the federal minimum wage, which, at $7.25 per hour, translates to $15,080 per year—that is if you’re lucky enough to work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.
Unions are letting the game get away from them. We’re taking too many collective insults, taking it on the chin. On February 8th, the PBS NewsHour did a report on Germany’s astonishing economic success. Even in this disturbing, uncertain and increasingly volatile global economy, Germany has managed to pull off a minor miracle. Although Germany has about 1 per cent of the world’s population, it produces 10 per cent of the world’s exports. Truly, an amazing success story.
But while PBS praised German management, German workers, German education, German society, and even the German government, they didn’t so much as mention the words “labor union.” And given how many Americans mindlessly accept the notion that unions have somehow “hurt” U.S. productivity, that omission was damaging. Was it done intentionally or inadvertently? Considering the NewsHour’s reliance on corporate funding, along with the incessant drumbeat of flak PBS receives from the mobilized Right, we can assume the former.
There’s no denying that Germany’s economic bonanza was largely achieved by union workers. With approximately 25 per cent of its workforce unionized, Germany has about twice as many union workers as the U.S. More significantly, most of those unionized workers are employed in the country’s high-tech, high-profit manufacturing sector—the sector that is most responsible for Germany’s recent success.
And unlike the U.S., German politicians don’t make a career of bashing labor unions, and German talk show hosts don’t make a name for themselves by demonizing national health care, equating it with “evil socialism.” Indeed, Germany has had a rudimentary form of national health care since 1848. As of 2004, Germany’s multi-layer health care program was 77 per cent government funded, and 23 per cent privately funded. Their system works, and they’re way ahead of us.
So instead of giving those same old, tired, faux-patriotic stump speeches that glorify American virtues and accentuate American exceptionalism, our politicians need to adopt a broader, more internationalist view. Hopefully, we’re not too stubborn to learn from other people. Our leaders must take the initiative. They must convince us to embrace Europe. They must convince us to look to Germany as a model.
DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org