My sister-in-law works as a labor organizer for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). I’m proud of the work she does and remain resolutely convinced that her efforts to facilitate the unionization of workers count among the most important contemporary attempts to reform the American workplace and reduce income inequality. But because she works on behalf of organized labor, she also encounters, on occasion, some of the knee-jerk, reflexive, unthinking hostility toward unions that is so common among American workers and the American middle-class, who seem determined to ignore, marginalize, and sometimes actively work against, the one entity that could do the most to rescue them from their ever-worsening economic decline. Last week or so, on telling someone she worked for the AFSCME, her interlocutor baldly said to her face, ‘That’s like working for organized crime.’
Right. You could call that ‘false consciousness‘ and move on. But what I find most revealing about that kind of remark–and it is not that different from the standard hostile missive sent organized labor’s way–is its straightforward exclusion of the worker-who-wants-to-unionize from any aspiration to a supposedly common ‘dream’, the ‘American’ one. For in that dream, everyone is an entrepreneur, doing the best for himself, scraping out, by any means possible, the best possible configuration of economic and material affairs for themselves and theirs. Those that succeed at this combination of hustle and hard work, always supposedly achievable by chutzpah and the nose to the wheel, are the American ideals, the success stories to be recounted, and the idols to be built for future generations to venerate and cherish.
Everyone, except, it seems, for the worker. When he does the best for himself, by ensuring a regulated workplace that pays attention to his health and safety, or by monitoring the hours worked, and asking for overtime or compensation pay for hours worked over those contracted for, or by ensuring appropriate pension schemes, health benefits and vacation times, he is castigated and described as a leech singularly responsible for the decline of the American economy. Budgets fail to be balanced and crisis stalks the land. Turns out, everyone can be an entrepreneur and do whatever they can to meet the bottom line, except for those that work for bosses.
So for now, in the grab-bag of tricks and tactics that are allowable to the worker in his effort to play the part of the American hero doing the best for himself, he is to be studiously denied access to worker collectivity. Rather, workers must place themselves at the mercy of the entity that manages and manipulates them, who are then free to give the fullest expression to their entrepreneurial spirit. Praise is theirs alone; the castigation, the calling-out, the vilification are reserved for the unionizing (or unionized) worker.
Note: Linda Greenhouse reminds us of the Supreme Court’s role in marginalizing labor unions. Of course, these decisions are easier to make within a particular social context, one created by the attitudes described above.