What Unions Mean to the American Dream

Jan. 18, 2004

America has become something more of a dream of late. The images that the mass media feed us of America fit more with a fictional portrait of a country than with the nation we actually live in. I can’t recall the last news story I saw on working homeless families. I haven’t yet seen a funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq. When will we be flooded with stories on the immorality of paying for HMO executives’ stock options but not the health care of sick people? Oprah Winfrey did a program on the minimum wage that focused on a woman who was given a huge gift by a millionaire that allowed her to take classes and better her position. It made me feel warm inside.

Who wants to be a millionaire? We are shown television game shows and “reality” shows with that and similar titles. We are never shown news reports with the truth: Your chances of becoming a millionaire are as good as your chances of being hit by lightning.

Tomorrow we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, and we will hear his voice booming out “I have a dream.” We will be told that we are well on the way to achieving that dream, even that the final step we must take is eliminating the collection of data on race. But the stories of King’s life will eliminate the last three years of his life, during which he focused on ending a foreign war and winning rights for working people. There are now over 500 US soldiers dead in Iraq, as many as died in Vietnam by 1965. Let us hope that 2007 will not find us in the position we were in in 1968.

On the other hand, let’s hope it does. King was killed on a trip to march with sanitation workers. Who does that today and brings attention to it? More Americans had a fair and realistic opportunity to achieve a good standard of living through hard work in 1968 than they do in 2004. The federal minimum wage had peaked that year at close to $9 per hour in 2004 dollars. Union membership was higher. Voter turnout was higher. Political activism was soaring compared to what we see today.

We’ve been beaten down. We’ve been strategically outmaneuvered. We’ve won some beautiful trees while forests rotted. Nelson Lichtenstein’s analysis in “The State of the Union,” gives a history of labor unions in the United States by way of arguing for the need to re-strengthen them, and I think the case is very persuasive. Lichtenstein weaves together a number of themes to explain the decline in union membership and power.

One is increased reliance on individual rights and legal protections. Federal laws ban all sorts of discrimination, endangerment, and abuse, but the federal government does not do an effective job of protecting workers from retaliation for asserting their rights and almost nothing to maintain other important elements of the workplace, such as wage levels or the prevention of mass layoffs.

We have learned to think of ourselves as individuals protected by laws, rather than brotherhoods and sisterhoods protected by our strength in numbers. We have a long list of rights, including – most notoriously – the “right to work.” So called Right to Work laws clearly hurt unions but are not too far a-field from modes of thought that labor supporters have engaged in themselves. Unions are now seen as ways to protect individual jobs and proper grievance procedures following individual wrongs, not as cross-company efforts to lift the wages and benefits of entire industries. If the purpose of a union is simply to protect me from specific injustices, surely I ought also to respect my coworker’s right to not be coerced to join, right?

But if the purpose of a union is to change society and improve the lot of all workers, then clearly the “right” of my coworker to be a freeloader and drag us all down is not to be respected. The case Lichtenstein makes is that in the process of making fantastic gains in the Civil Rights, Feminist, and other movements, leftists unwittingly sacrificed a conception of the labor union that is badly needed today. No doubt this analysis will annoy some people, but it ought to be taken as encouraging. The right didn’t defeat us; we beat ourselves. Therefore, a reconstituted labor left can successfully fight back.

And we’d better do so fast, because we are being divided and conquered. President Bush’s new immigration policy proposal would formalize second-class status for immigrants. Under this status, you can be deported if you’re without work for a number of days. How can anyone risk organizing a union under that threat? And if 45 days without work will get you deported, how do you retire? Do you have to consult a doctor and retire 44 days before your death? Anyone who imagines that this will not drag us all down together is dreaming.

We must recognize, and recognize very soon, that 90 percent of Americans are being handed the very short end of a stick. We can work together to develop our democracy, the culture of our democracy, our civic activism, our collective voices in the workplace, in the community, in local, state, and national government. Or we can continue down a path that is dividing our country along lines of wealth and solidifying families’ economic positions.

The most powerful force for good we have in this nation, even now, even at its low point, is the labor movement. When the labor movement gets fully behind the peace movement, when we reject a war-economy, when we reject aggressive military actions abroad, when we force our government to address our needs at home and begin by protecting the right to organize in a democratic workplace, we will launch a cycle that opens up real possibilities for more and more people, not just possibilities for fictional characters who make us feel wistful, insufficient, and sedated.

We are the awakening working class, we are the majority – though we damn well are not going to be a silent one. We are the manufacturing and service and high-tech and manual laborers who create this country’s wealth, pay for this country’s weapons, and receive the brunt of the Bush Administration’s policies. Each of us is virtually powerless. Together we are invincible.