Back when I was a contract negotiator for a West Coast industrial union, an executive representing the Fortune 500 company with whom we were bargaining, took me aside during the morning break and asked me an odd question. In a tone dripping with smirky sarcasm, he said, “Do you want to know something? Do you want to know the stupidest thing that the Labor Movement ever did?”
Before I could even process his bullshit question, he supplied his own answer. “You guys blew it,” he said. “Did you know that? You blew your chance. Instead of asking to become management’s partner, you guys got all macho and hard-ass, and decided instead to become its adversaries. With all due respect, man, that was a dumb move.” (Thank you, Obi-Wan Kenobi)
As ignorant and counterfactual as this assertion was, I didn’t need my Taft-Hartley decoder ring to grasp what he was saying. This fellow honestly believed that there was a time in American history when the powers that be—Wall Street, the captains of industry, the Eastern Establishment—acting of their own volition, were willing to divvy up their profits with the Great Unwashed, and share their wealth with the people who actually did the real work.
He was suggesting that Labor’s decline (which began to matter in the late 1960s and early ‘70s) was its own damned fault. That if the “working class” had shown any brains or vision or initiative back at a time when things were just getting started, we could all be reaping the rewards today.
He was suggesting that there was a time in America’s history when Management, the Ruling Class, was ripe for teaming up—that they were more than willing to take on working folks as their partner—and that this optimum arrangement didn’t happen only because organized labor chose to use its muscle rather than agree to cooperated. Shame on us.
While his narrative (expressed over freshly brewed coffee and a tray of delightful pastry), was morbidly fascinating, it was also stunningly inaccurate. Not only inaccurate, but absurd. There had never been such a time in our past history. Even recently, meaningful partnerships (not to be confused with smarmy, seminar-generated “team-building”) are relatively rare.
Working people may be underpaid and underappreciated, but they’re not stupid. As far back as the 19th century, workers had already confirmed the existence of an undeniable symbiosis. They had already figured out that a company—any company—couldn’t make a profit without the workers (those assigned arduous jobs on the factory floor) playing a conspicuous role. In short, they needed us.
With that in mind, the workers approached management and asked to be considered “partners” of sorts, and to be paid accordingly. After all, fair is fair. To say that management rejected the proposal would be an understatement. Management not only expressed contempt for the very concept of “sharing,” they were outraged by Labor’s audacity in daring to ask.
The workers were quickly reminded that far from being anything even remotely resembling a “partner,” they were now (and always would be) regarded as “hired help,” no more, no less. If they found that arrangement to be unacceptable, then they should quit. Simple as that. As John Jacob Astor famously said, “I could hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.”
Which brings us to Missouri’s vote on Tuesday (August 7). In a surprise victory for organized labor, Missouri’s voters voted, by a plurality of two to one, not to become a so-called “right-to-work” state, which would have repealed the requirement to pay union dues when working under the protection (and enjoying the benefits) of a union contract.
This was not only a huge victory for labor, it was proof positive that the American Labor Movement is far from moribund. The worm may have turned. Thank you, Missouri.