A case can be made that the most direct path to prosperity for working families as a whole is one that has a collective basis creating benchmark standards for wages, conditions, and benefits; where energy otherwise spent on infighting and backstabbing among workers over compensation is harnessed into a common effort. The concept of creating a floor beneath which no one can go is at the heart of union organizing. The energy released from successful agreement to cooperate can go beyond worker compensation and build emotional solidarity among workers. It can be used to get a voice on corporate boards, to trade better productivity and peace on the production lines for a voice in the quality of the product and the level of responsibility towards the planet. Unions working together across industries, and across national borders can be a powerful, parallel, political force if they act inclusively and maintain a goal of “prosperity of all, at the expense of none” (including, now we see, the Eco system).
Union movements around the world have had varying success at harnessing this solidarity. European efforts have used their power to bring universal public health care, education, family leave, and the 35 hour week to all of their fellow citizens, union members or not. In these cases, the organized minority had the collective will to steer society towards a more egalitarian division of resources and use of government than would otherwise have developed.
These modern European successes came after periods of disastrous self-destruction, when the working folks across a continent traded their solidarity for nationalism. In those times, the workers were conned into following despotic rulers who used them as cannon fodder in the guise of patriotism. The workers who had previously used their power to force the right to offer universal healthcare were transformed, in large by propaganda, into armies whose mission was to destroy the peace and prosperity of their working class neighbors.
The American experience has been quite different. Modern right wing political propaganda has been built around the individual, the Marlboro man, the rider of the range who needs a freedom from interference by forces larger than him. Freedom from hunger and want is not considered important as long as there are empty lands to exploit, or weaker tribes to push away. Community plays no role, as each man fights for his own survival.
The modern myth of the Wild West has lasted 5 times longer than the actual period it reflects. The major pre-1900 conflicts that created the myth of American Exceptionalism were all about stealing a weaker tribe’s land or defending one’s status as a cut above others. White Supremacy, the surviving vine of antebellum chattel slavery, is based on the idea that no matter how bad I’ve got it, someone else has it worse; because, if nothing else he is black. The foot soldiers of the South were phenomenal soldiers. Their leaders were driven by selfish aristocratic needs to protect their oppressive economic institutions, their personal wealth, and their contrived social status. These were the guys riding horses at the back of the army. The workers, sharing little of the wealth and status of their leaders, walking barefoot at the front, were cannon fodder. Their major motivation to fight was simple: they were not niggas. Equality was a threat greater than death.
So much of the modern rush to fascism is a repetition of the most base human actions; to climb up while pushing down. Much has been written about blue collar folks being fed up with the corporate democrats and their middle finger vote for Trump. Like the rebel soldiers of the 1800’s or the European socialist workers turned stormtroopers, American workers are being led down a primrose path. The folks pulling the strings keep the pots boiling.
There can be no denying that the corporate democrats have abandoned the workers in their business and political activities. Globalization is all about breaking unions and the race to the bottom. Finding cheaper wage rates and increasing production.
As the outgoing wave of factories moving to the Far East pulled prosperity from the American worker, a second incoming wave of new investment from abroad has been centered in those areas where unionism is the least strong (with no irony, the South). Major manufacturers of cars and aerospace products have set up plants in right-to-work states, where any benefits developed through a successful union organizing drive are shared with those not paying dues. Wages and benefits are set above the local market, in an already depressed region, so the risks of organizing for benchmark rates and conditions without collective protection are great. A tremendous amount of anti-union propaganda is delivered by the corporation in mandatory meetings.
A recent effort to organize the Nissan plant in Mississippi failed with a 37% yes vote.
For an explanation of that effort see this piece in Labor Notes.
All of which brings us to a time where the worst angels of the American psyche have been animated by a renaming, and refurbishing, of the original sin of America’s founding fathers. American Exceptionalism is an extension of the theft of a continent from its natives on the backs of imported slaves, the resulting Monroe Doctrine Big Stick and its genocidal export to the Philippines, an outgrowth of the Cold War and its proxy battles among the yellow skinned poor folks of SE Asia, and the belief that the resources of the world are ours to take and fight over, especially if the battleground is someone else’s backyard such as the Middle East.
American Exceptionalism only works when the barefoot soldiers (many modern soldiers need food stamps for their families) have someone below them to hate. The fact that over a million Iraqi citizens died by American action between the two Gulf Wars is one of those invisible facts we can ignore because we can debase their culture and their relative poverty.
The recent White Supremacy rallies are the direct result of the willingness of the ruling class to further squeeze the working folks, who have already been divided and conquered by a coordinated effort of big business and their government proxies; exactly as the aristocracy of the South squeezed the poor white farmers to fight their battles. American Exceptionalism, and White Supremacy, and Right to Work, and Manifest Destiny are the Road to Hell. If humans have any other role on this planet beyond narcissism, we need to intentionally develop vehicles such as Unionism, to drive up that road and out of this cesspool we accept as “reality”. We need to view the Marlboro Man as a symbol of cancer, of the lungs and of unrestrained, unsustainable Eco-system destroying growth.
Those vehicles will not be Lilly white.
As workers are increasingly people of color and female, the labor movement must connect better with other social justice movements, such as civil rights and feminist movements, as well as environmental and peace movements. These movements are all fighting the same systemic nexus of power and can only succeed together.
The rise of the world wide resistance to our current political excesses, the actions of other industrial powers to push back against our current leaders, and the independent actions of towns, cities, and states to act towards building a sustainable future offer the first glimmers of hope that we can still build a prosperous world as we throw off this latest national disgrace. Unions have a role to play in becoming a parallel force to individual brands or nationalisms. We need to use best practices and keep a goal of universal peace and prosperity in mind to avoid the trap of falling into our worst behaviors.