"Organized Labor & The State Fistfight in Heaven" / Context for the Wisconsin Protests

Be weary of any charlatans, snake oil salesmen or general prevaricators who would have you believe that the zeitgeist of the “American Dream” is located in the nineteenth century. Let me be clear: This is not to say that the expansion on the antebellum slave trade, extermination of native peoples, incorporation of land and labor, and, most importantly, the disassembling and reconstruction of the country were not foundational moments for our modern state. The type of historical sleight of hand that I want to caution against will have you believe that the American ethos was forged away from the meddling paws of the state. In a frontier space somewhere between Samuel Clemens’ Mississippi River and Davey Crockett’s last stand at Alamo, the rugged individualist weathers the hardships of the elements, and the hostile brown people and ultimately produces to a particularly American brand of free market capitalism.

In reality, rugged individuals perish with the quickness. In an imagined world, the virtuous yeoman farmer can enter the market and be competitive. In reality, the frontier had been almost entirely incorporated by the turn of the twentieth century as railroads and bonanza farms colluded to keep the small guys out of the marketplace. As far as an “American Dream” with positive material consequences for the greater good exists, it is the vision that speaks to the necessity of collective action.

The Labor movement has historically been the vanguard for this type of struggle. When the Wagner Act of 1935 finally enshrined the right to collectively bargain with management into federal law, workers in the industries that drove the American economy could finally require management to negotiate with labor on working conditions. The 1950 “Treaty of Detroit” reached by United Auto Workers in some ways is seen as the high water mark of the era of collective bargaining. By giving up the right to strike, The Big Three automakers promised UAW workers pensions, healthcare and unemployment benefits, expanded vacation time and annual cost-of-living increases. This package of benefits seems standard fare for most middle-class jobs, but is only a relatively recent byproduct of collective action.

It is also the result of a road not taken. A more radical route -— and a route that certainly was on the table during the 1950s -— would have moved this package of benefits to the state, essentially giving all Americans universal healthcare and unemployment benefits through the state. The state, in collusion with big business, killed this “public option.” Labor did not escape the fifties with its hands clean either. By severing all ties with unions affiliated with the Communist Party (CPUSA) during the Red Scare, black workers in the South who had been organized throughout the thirties by the CPUSA were suddenly cut out of the organized labor movement.

When mass collective action would emerge again, this time in the form of the black freedom struggle of the sixties, labor rights were subordinated in order to gain more pressing goals in racial equality. These two goals were never mutually exclusive and we can see very clearly that certain leaders in the black freedom struggle of the sixties move towards the questions of economic justice.

How far is the distance from Memphis in 1968 and Madison in 2011? Where union membership has dropped precipitously in the skilled trades and industrial sectors since the seventies, Public sector employees remain the most highly unionized portion of our economy. They also present the rugged individualist charlatans with a preferred target to direct faux populist rage. Where “real” labor is masculine, white, and “productive”, public sector workers are more likely to be women, black or brown, and have their work portrayed as a socialist misallocation of your tax dollars. In the same way that the bogeywoman of the “welfare queen” did not have to be true to create seismic shifts in state policy towards poor women of color, the demonization of public sector workers —- especially teachers -— in our national discourse over the last couple years seems to have us hurtling towards another major setback.

Watch for the long con.

{liberatormagazine.com exclusive feature}
by Robert Bland

(Originally posted 2/21/11)

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