Has the One Percent Already Won This Thing?

Evidence that things are far, far worse than we ever dreamed can be seen in John Q. Public’s resentment of labor unions.  Twenty-five years ago people who argued with me (and I had these arguments every single day) about the contributions of organized labor used to maintain that unions were “bad” because they were either (1) too anti-democratic and dictatorial, or (2) too “corrupt” (i.e., mobbed up or otherwise “crooked”)

But that was the extent of it.  Back then, no one suggested that unions weren’t beneficial, or that they weren’t devoted to the interests of working people or, considering the stark alternatives, that they weren’t, in fact, “necessary.”  Rather, their gripes were confined to the procedural, to the way unions were governed.  Or to be more accurate, to the way they perceived unions to be governed (because, in truth, people often confused “corruption” with simple laziness and inefficiency).

Unfortunately, that’s all changed.  While you still hear the occasional grumbling directed toward “corrupt union bosses,” what people complain about today it that labor unions are “elitist.”  It’s true.  Shocking as that may seem, America’s working people actually use the E-word when referring to other working people—to people who, by virtue of a union contract, have managed to stay above water, who’ve managed to retain decent wages and benefits, and haven’t fallen victim to the biggest money grab since the Gilded Age.

At first I thought this attitude was simply a manifestation of petty jealousy or schadenfreude.  But the more I hear, the more I’m convinced the public honestly believes that working people who feel they’re entitled to decent wages and benefits see themselves as being somehow “above the rest of us,” and should, therefore, be knocked down a peg or two.  Instead of a union contract serving as a model for the rest of us—something to raise our standard of living—they see it as an insult, a humiliation.

When I try to explain that without unions maintaining decent wages and benefits, we’re all subject to the inevitable downward pull of market forces, which, given our surplus of labor, means that many of us will not only remain stagnated but will slide inexorably toward the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour (which, incidentally, the Republicans find too generous and wish to abolish), people bristle.

They bristle when they hear this.  For one thing, they seem to trust unconditionally the restorative powers of the so-called Free Market.  They honestly believe the rich won’t be motivated to exploit the rest of us, because, without being able to explain the specifics, such a thing would be “counterproductive.”  For another, when you use the innocuous phrase “surplus of labor,” some people will scream, “that’s what Karl Marx said!!”

Not to sound defeatist, but maybe the one-percent has already won this thing.  With the poor now cheering for the rich, the plutocrats’ wildest and most ambitious fantasies have been realized.  Not only have the rich succeeded in convincing workers to root against labor unions—the one and only institution dedicated to their welfare—they’ve convinced them to fight for the interests of the wealthy rather than the interests of their own tribe.

Holy Mother of Jesus, this makes no sense.  And it’s not simply politics.  It transcends political ideology and voter booth privacy.  Rooting for the rich is crazy.  It’s not only illogical and impractical, it’s unnatural.  Indeed, it’s tantamount to the chicken population of the United States naming Colonel Sanders its “Man of the Year.”

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.