Choosing to celebrate workers in September instead of on May 1st as the rest of the world does has long been a sign of how uncomfortable we exceptional Americans have been about defining ourselves as “labor.” Most of us would rather think of ourselves as junior members of the same middle class that includes Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.
This year, it’s become especially ironic that we’ll be observing Labor Day. Or perhaps the better word is anachronistic. In fact, I’m surprised there isn’t a movement afoot to change Labor Day to National Employers Day, or Job Gratitude Day. I’ll expect the US Chamber of Commerce to get right on that as part of their union busting — uh, sorry — job-creation agenda.
Not only are today’s jobs and wages flat, or disappearing, but yesterday’s workers are berated by the chattering class as a worthless mob of losers whose only real contribution to America was to cost the companies they worked for too much and force them, oh so reluctantly, to move their factories to China.
Workers, schmerkers, they’re all shirkers!
We hold no love for our workers in the US anymore.
After a strident and unstinting half-century campaign by the corporate elite and their GOP minions to sully the reputation of unions, US labor unions have been all but wiped out in the States. Oh sure, there’s a few. Writers in Hollywood. Actors. Some police.Teachers. But they’re constantly harassed by CEO types, FOX News talking heads and anti-worker politicians for allegedly being the cause of everything from factories closing to pension plans hobbling state budgets.
Or, they say that unions are just inherently corrupt.
And hey, our government has a history of corruption, too, mostly when bought off by business interests. Right now the revolving door between political lobbyists and elected officials is moving at a dizzying rate. Yet, Enron, AIG and Lehman Brothers certainly haven’t resulted in bringing back the days of the limited corporate charter.
Why is it that workers then, the backbone on which truly productive output depends, get the short end of the stick both on earnings and reputation? And why do they take it?
Self-loathing is a full time job
There’s a self-hatred among America’s workers that may not be visible at first glance, but is certainly there.
Some say the rise of social conservatism, and anti-gay religious sentiment divided the worker against himself, causing many socially conservative factory workers to side with Republicans, traditionally labor’s foe. Predictably, the GOP did nothing to advance the worker’s interests, but at least made him feel he had an identity as “not one of those.” And “those” here would be coddlers of queers, uppity women or pushy foreigners who wanted to take all “our” jobs.
As the unions were broken up starting in the seventies — partly by free trade agreements that forced American workers to compete with Chinese making 10 cents an hour — at their moment of greatest peril, workers failed to unite. Instead, they continued to let themselves be led astray by corporate media that meant them nothing but ill, splitting labor into Fox News fans vs MSNBC viewers.
You may not have had a job, but by gum you had a Ford 4 x 4 and an American flag pin on your lapel and for a good long while that was good enough. The rise of the social-values voter over the labor voter on the concrete issues that affected their lives was complete.
Era of lopsided government
And while this may have left people feeling they had an identity amidst the shifting tides, that they could at least rant against their own interests on the new channels of the Web once that came along, it also threw the political balance so woefully off in this country that there’s been no effective, unified counterweight to corporate hegemony since then. Now we’ve got the far right, the middle right, and the right-of-center as the playing field on which all major decisions for this country are made.
Even President Obama, the man of hope and change, has made generous concessions to Big Business even as he takes their drubbings for not doing more. Should we have expected less from a man as trapped by corporate money politics as anyone out there? Can a broken system really offer hope?
But all of this puts the American worker in a pretty tough position. He’s told that if he organizes with his fellow man he’s a closet Socialist. No, he’s not likely to be a Bolshevik or a Castro sympathizer, but deep in the myths surrounding the nature of organized labor this disturbing negativity persists. Jobless and isolated then becomes preferable to seeing what one has in common with rafts of other workers equally marginalized under the out-of-balance corporate plutocracy ruling the nation.
Holding the reins of power and influence both in and out of government, the plutocrats don’t fear a worker uprising, so confident are they that they’ve reduced us all to the sidelines in work, civic and media life. Workers who rise up, speak out and demand change under law and in cultural perception are considered radical, rather than merely doing what any self-respecting person throughout the history of broad political engagement has ever done: vocally press for rights and fairness.
So working Americans need to stop blaming ourselves to start with.
“Who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold”
For workers to now see that we have something in common with all the other unemployed, underemployed, underpaid, under-benefited, under-served and underrepresented in this country, the first step is to reject the notion that the worker descended to such an abject place because of his own laziness or stupidity.
We need to stop believing that the rich are rich because they are more naturally good or are somehow favored by God. Remembering how half of them have got rich in recent years, especially the bankers, ought to put the old myth that wealth=virtue to rest.
But it’s not just the crime-committing, bailout-dependent rich who gained an unfair advantage over—and undeserved admiration from—we the lowly workers.
Corporate bosses are also the legislating class, or what might be called the ruling class, and through money and influence in politics, they write laws that favor themselves. This practice has lead to hugely wealthy corporations paying little or nothing in taxes while their political puppets tour the country and rail on TV about welfare moms, the unemployed and immigrants, suggesting that millionaires are taxed enough and that it’s really the poor, the working and middle classes that need to pay more.
The gap between rich and poor hasn’t grown because hundreds of millions of us are lazy, worthless, unambitious and just not clever enough to have made it to the big time. The gap has grown because of unfair legal advantages that make the rich richer while leaving the rest of us holding the bag.
We’re now supposed to feel guilty for using any public or government project, from our local schools to our roads to unemployment checks in times of need. We’re even supposed to feel bad for calling in FEMA when hurricanes level our communities. Never mind that the practices of Big Business are accelerating the changes that make storms worse today. It’s all about externalities, chump!
As long as we fail to see what most of have in common with one another, as long as we continue to buy the GOP line that we don’t deserve to enjoy a commonwealth of government services and a commonwealth of preserved natural resources fairly treated and distributed, as long as we accept the premise that if we don’t have what we want it’s our own fat, stupid lazy faults, and as long as we let ourselves be pitted against each other on wedge social issues, we’ll continue to pursue individualized niche issues, often ones that can’t be solved by government. In that scenario, we’ll fail to unite on what really matters — fairness in this country for the largest number of people rather than unfair rule by the few, the proud, the elite.
Are we ready for a general strike?
A general strike could help accomplish our unity.
Heaven knows enough of us are out of work that we could afford to sit in for a while, if we weren’t ashamed to stand up for ourselves.
But as long as we refuse to #StandUpFightBack we’re going to get the shorter and shorter end of the stick on everything from hydrofracking and tar sands to job creation and lifestyles. And we’ll be the inheritors and creators of a wholly imbalanced political system in which no counterweight on the left is present to hold the corporate right wing to account.
We are worthy. We are deserving. We are creative. And what we are fighting for is necessary for ourselves and for our planet. Ordinary workers everywhere, from assembly lines to offices need to see what we have in common as workers. And like looking through the eyes of a CEO, we need to make that the bottom line.
This Labor Day, forget the sales, forget the rare day off as a time to catch up on all you’re behind in. Forget that you don’t have a job but are laboring twice as hard for half as much. Observe the holiday instead. Recall that once upon a time Labor was a force in this country. It can be so again, on new terms for new times. But only if we UNITE!
– Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice