A tear wells in The Poet’s Eye for the labor union movement. The plaintive wail of a lonely Woody Guthrie harmonica echoes the plight of American workers. It’s a sad grainy black and white picture.
It’s sad because workers in today’s world are so programmed and demoralized that they have surrendered their only real tool of power. Besides their sweat and their hours, workers have only one lever of power, their unity. The American Labor Movement and Unionism are largely responsible for the rise of the American Middle Class and for the past several generations both have suffered a similar decline. The final nail in the coffin of any meaningful union power in our country was probably driven in 1981 when Ronald Reagan got the government into the business of union busting by firing all the air-traffic controllers. That pretty well set the mood of the ruling class toward unions for the next generation.
Technology and the nature of the workplace and globalization have allowed management and ownership to pretty much have their way with modern workers. Assembly lines have become cubicles where workers can be effectively isolated. Plus, unionism has fallen out of fashion. We get images of red-knuckled Teamsters and corruption and gangsters.
Yes, Woody Guthrie’s song would be sad and blue and mournful as it tells of strong, able hands, hands that once made things, idly twitching on computer keys or wringing themselves in worry over how they will feed their families.
There is a good reason why Whitman wrote epic poems to the nobility of the American worker and that Copeland wrote symponies to the common man and Woody sang anthems of the suffering and endurance of the working class. It’s because our nation and its prosperity are built by the sinewy arm of the American worker. The American worker showed the rest of the world how to do it faster, smarter, cheaper and the American labor movement set world standards for efficiency, safety and dignity in the workplace. Our concept of what a job means was created from union benchmarks like the minimum wage, the eight hour workday, unemployment insurance and workplace safety standards. The union movement is the difference between twelve-year-olds working in coal mines and a workforce with a Middle Class standard of living. The union movement defined what a job meant even for non-union workers. For the past century you didn’t even need to belong to a union in order to benefit from the advances in equity achieved by the union movement.
This is why the oligarchs are so intent in their purpose of completely annihilating the labor movement. Even though they have largely defeated the unions in private industry, public workers unions persist and these remnants of solidarity are still a threat to the greed machine. They present a bad example of labor empowerment. This is why the oligarchs are spending so much money and effort in Wisconsin and various other states to break the backs of public service unions. State governments find themselves in the capitalist camp.
Somewhere the songs of Joe Hill and Woody and T-Bone Slim still ring. The recent protests and solidarity marches in state capitols throughout the country show it. We find ourselves in a time when the whole concept of what a Job consists of is being redefined. Capital and Labor and Government are all going to be forced to make adjustments. As long as collective bargaining is possible, those adjustments will be possible. If we kill collective bargaining, we kill any chance of peaceful resolution and these matters will inevitably be decided in the streets.
“When the Union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun,
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?
But the Union makes us strong.
Solidarity forever! Solidarity forever!
Solidarity forever! For the Union makes us strong.”