In peak oil, we can afford unions more than billionaires

Addicted to Koch sign

Richmond, VA saw one of 65 events nationwide supporting Wisconsin demonstrators. Photo: Virginia Organizing.

On Saturday, my wife and I drove up to Thomas Jefferson’s capitol building in Richmond to join Virginia’s state rally in support of the public workers in Wisconsin.

We know that peak oil is here and that it’s probably the biggest single cause for the Great Recession. We just don’t think that a tough economy, peak oil-driven or not, should be used as an excuse for the greediest rich guys to take over state government, as the billionaire Koch brothers seem to be trying to do through Governor Scott Walker and Tea Party puppets in the state legislature.

We’re all Cheeseheads now

Since the event was sponsored by as part of a nationwide push of Rallies to Save the American Dream, I expected the program to deal with the problem of corporate influence in Washington and how supporting the workers in Madison would be the first step in an Egyptian-style democracy movement for America. And curbing corporate power is what Americans need for any hope of an energy policy to deal with peak oil and climate change.

What we got instead was a more-or-less traditional pro-union rally, with an audience of about 400.

Labor activists and union leaders gave speech after speech about why pensions and benefits are not taxpayer giveaways to public employees or “entitlements” in the language of budget-cutters, but are really just alternate or deferred compensation that’s owed to workers.

They talked about how past labor gains had been won through hard fighting and in some cases, bloodshed. And they tried to make the case that unions are the canary in the coal-mine for all American workers — and that now, if state government is trying to shut down public employees’ unions, it’s a sign that the rich are attacking the whole middle class. Worse is coming.

I’ve never been in a union myself and my contact with traditional labor types, like steelworkers or truck drivers, has been limited. So I can understand that when many white-collar workers think about organized labor at all, at best unions may seem to be a fading leftover from the Gilded Age (Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire anyone?). At worst, like mafia-run shakedown rackets (where IS the body of Jimmy Hoffa?).

Unions won’t let me use my own damn plunger

After we drove home from Richmond we had to clean up and change for the annual fund-raising gala at our daughters’ school. There, I ran into a man, let’s call him Chuck, whom I’ve known in the local business community for a few years. He’s a Democrat and has taught at the women’s college in town and helped run the local theatre company. Basically, a pretty liberal guy.

So when I told Chuck about the rally, I was surprised by his response.

“I don’t know what to think about unions. When I worked at a college in Missouri, I helped manage student dorms. And the union guys were hard to work with. Whenever we had a toilet problem, we had to wait for them to show up. It could be hours or even days. I had a plunger in my office. But because of the union, we weren’t allowed to even plunge our own toilets.”

It must’ve sounded kind of lame when I replied that no organization is perfect and of course, things can go too far. But whatever problems union workers might sometimes cause, they just don’t compare to the mischief that comes out of bad bosses. And in Madison, they’re not only dealing with Governor Walker and the Tea Party state legislature. They also have to fight the Koch brothers.

Chuck wasn’t buying it. He just had so many bad memories about working with union guys that he thought all unions were basically bullies who deserved what they got from management or Tea Party politicians.

As to billionaires? Forget it. Chuck wasn’t interested in them at all.

I’ve never even met a billionaire

Naturally, people like to talk about what they know. Most people who work in management at one time or another will come in contact with union workers. And anyone who’s ever worked in an office, or at least seen the TV show The Office, knows that there’s sure to be little workplace conflicts of one kind or another all the time.

But how many of us have personal experience with billionaires? I’ve never even met one, and I doubt that Chuck has either.

Do we know what a-holes some rich guys can really be when it comes to protecting their scratch? Or do we just want to be like them so badly that we’re willing to overlook their many well-publicized flaws?

Sure, we make fun of Donald Trump. We call him The Donald, we laugh at his hair, his love life, his business failures, his spat with Rosie O’Donnell. But still, there’s the luster of being a rich guy. That he’s vulgar and stupid just makes him more, well, cuddly.

The problem is inside our heads. Americans are brainwashed to love the rich because we think the rich are us, only better. Horatio Alger, few alive today have read your no-doubt crappy books, but how well we’ve learned from you.

Looking for that union label

So with peak oil hitting the economy hard and about to hit us harder in the future, maybe we all need a bit of mental de-programming?

Seems to me we need to stop identifying with The Donald and start identifying with other working stiffs who aren’t too cynical or too lazy or too scared to stand up for themselves. And that would be people who join unions.

So, maybe peak oil is the best reason of all for us white-collar types to re-consider any qualms we have about organized labor.

First, unions have done a lot for all Americans. They’ve given us social security, the 40-hour week and overtime pay. And while they still have a way to go, today’s unions have cleaned up a lot of their crime problems. Unlike billionaires, whose flimflam schemes brought us the world financial meltdown and mortgage crisis of 2008.

Second, we need to recognize that unions are the only really strong group looking out for the economic interests of working people, including white-collar workers.

By contrast, billionaires like the Koch brothers or mere millionaires like The Donald have plenty of well-paid people looking out for them, from astroturf lobby groups like Americans for Prosperity, to Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, to federal agencies from the Departments of Commerce and Energy to see-no-evil Wall Street regulators. Not to mention state governments in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey and across the country.

Finally, as peak oil starts to impact the economy and cost more and more American jobs, it seems that the working and middle classes are now at a crossroads.

Perhaps we might see a resurgence of activism and a new push for middle-class rights, as in the Depression? Or, it could be the other way around — with even fewer jobs and even more workers in the future, employees could lose most of their leverage and workers might have to just settle for whatever crappy jobs they can get. Part-time, low pay, no job security, no vacation, no perks, no respect.

“My experience is that the greatest aid to efficiency of labor is a long line of men waiting at the gate,” said utility baron and famous Gilded Age greedhead Samuel Insull.

Don’t expect billionaires to return the favor

I don’t know if the future looks good for organized labor or not. But I’m starting to think that, as America enters a more difficult economic period that could last for decades along the lines of James Howard Kunstler’s Long Emergency, the middle class is going to need to get organized just for self-protection.

So maybe if we don’t all become Teamsters, we may all wind up as slaves.

And despite what Glenn Beck says about Cheesehead Revolutionaries being socialists in league with Al Qaeda, there’s no shame in standing with your fellow working person, blue- or white-collar, against corporate overreach.

As Robert Reich (Bill Clinton’s labor secretary) has explained, Governor Walker and his ilk would like to separate the middle class into rival groups — policemen and firefighters versus teachers, public workers versus private-sector employees — in order to divide and rule.

But make no mistake. When peak oil hits much worse than it has already, if the middle and working classes agree to tighten our belts with a smile and meekly accept cutbacks in salaries, benefits and working conditions without an honest chance to negotiate, we can be sure that billionaires will not do the same.

Billionaires will continue to demand tax breaks while their handpicked politicians like Governor Walker make cuts in services for the middle class.

While we lose our jobs, our homes and our dignity, all in the name of fiscal responsibility and pulling together in an economy ravaged by high energy costs, billionaires will still be pulling in public funds to support their lavish lifestyles: buying crazy-expensive cars with brands you haven’t even heard of, adding just one more private island in the Caribbean to their real estate portfolio and collecting Armani loafers by the dozens.

Even an economy on the verge of collapse still has many fruits to be plucked.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice Magazine

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  1. Bloomer says

    There is no democracy in the workplace. Take your paycut and reduce benefits or find a job somewhere else. As unions have been weakened, so has workers’ bargaining power. It is no coincidence that as union membership has declined, so has the middle class. The press loves to vilify the unions. The term “union boss” is the most moronic and misleading term, I have ever heard. Union workers have voice and vote, the membership is the union not some “boss”. I have worked in non-union and unionize workplaces. You will find slackers and malcontents in both environments, while the majority of people work hard and take pride in their job. The biggest difference between union/non-union jobs is the working conditions and what you take home in pay after a honest day work. Corporations are out to destroy all unions, as unions are the last bastion of true democracy. The demise of unions marks the end of freedom and the beginning of serfdom.

    • says

      Right on, Bloomer. I’m starting to discover that organized labor is more important than many people may realize. The middle class can’t count on management to look out for our interests. We need to band together and support each other, white- and blue-collar alike. This will be even more important in the developing energy crisis with even more economic turmoil.

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