Building Momentum for the Labor Wars To Come

At a recent town hall about wage inequality, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren pointed out: “I think it’s clear. Unions built America’s middle class, it’ll take unions to re-build America’s middle class.”

For all the flack she receives from some Progressives who feel she too often acts on political convenience rather than principle, Warren may be the most viable Democratic candidate for President in 2020. (Especially if you are one to think Bernie Sanders is too old to run again.) In what figures to be an abnormally large — I refuse to classify it as “robust,” or “strong” — field of contenders, Warren is currently the favorite of the bunch to win the White House, albeit only slightly, at 8:1. While that last nugget is besides the point, she is correct about unions and should be talking like that all the time, rather than, say, only when she is on a panel with Bernie.

According to the Bureau Of Labor Statistics, in 2017 14.7 million American workers — just 10.7 percent — belonged to unions. This as compared to 1983, when the data was first available, where “the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.”

Labor has had a unique struggle throughout American history. Slavery itself, the lowest point in that timeline, was in its essence the ultimate form of capitalism. It’s that idea — of the rich hoarding the lion’s share (or in the case of slavery all) of the profits — that drives the American political system to this day. The hundred-millionaire and billionaire class want to keep more of their money, and the best way to do that is to bribe politicians on both sides of the isle to pass legislation in making that so.

Part of that process, effectively 50 years in the making, has been dissolving labor unions. Even since 1983, a modest 35 years ago, union membership has been cut nearly in half — from one-fifth of workers to just a shade over one-tenth. So it should come as no surprise that the middle class hasn’t received a raise in almost 20 years. If profits kept up with productivity, as Elizabeth Warren says in this 2013 Huffington Post article, the minimum wage would be significantly higher:

“If we started in 1960 and we said that as productivity goes up, that is as workers are producing more, then the minimum wage is going to go up the same. And if that were the case then the minimum wage today would be about $22 an hour,” [Warren] said, speaking to Dr. Arindrajit Dube, a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor who has studied the economic impacts of minimum wage. “So my question is Mr. Dube, with a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, what happened to the other $14.75? It sure didn’t go to the worker.”

Though the minimum wage, the middle class, and union membership are three distinctly different topics worth combing over individually, they each go hand in hand (in hand). When the American economy was stronger and worked better for all people, the labor had a livable wage, unions were feared, and the middle class thrived. None of those items is true in 2018.

Even in spite of the fact that half the country is currently living at or below the poverty line, that 60% of Americans can’t afford a $1,000 emergency, or that people are going bankrupt trying to keep up with medical expenses, the mainstream news has the audacity to peddle the erroneous idea that the economy is booming. This is largely to do with the historic rises in the stock market, as if that is some universal barometer. In reality it’s the already wealthy who have been making the bulk of the recent gains, not the poor who don’t have any disposal income to invest.

To curtail this indecency and unfairness, a wave of grassroots activism has started mobilizing. I wrote in February, of the West Virginia teacher’s strike, that “It would be ironic, as well as kind of beautiful, if a place in the supposedly backwards pocket of the United States turned into the tip of the sword in showing the rest of the country the way.” And now, in a struggle that’s ongoing, Oklahoma and Kentucky teachers have picked up the baton in marching on their respective capital buildings.

I tried then to make the argument that the dilapidated living conditions in the South make it the likeliest jumping off point for unions to make their comeback. It just makes too much sense. Even though I hardly consider places like California or New York “labor strongholds,” as the Times article suggests, it should be plain to see in those states that workers get a better deal than, for argument’s sake, West Virginia, Oklahoma or Kentucky.

What I’m arguing now is it’s good for everybody to see workers unite, and win. If teachers can come together in the South, who is to say it won’t inspire teachers in South Dakota, or San Francisco? What do you think it says to minimum wage employees at Wal-Mart, who upon being hired are shown propaganda videos actively discouraging them from unionizing, or Amazon? Perhaps most importantly, what message does it send to middle school and high school kids? (Post-Millennials are even further to the Left than the already-super-lefty Millennials who directly preceded them. It means something if the youth can see, right in front of them and in realtime, that standing united is a winning strategy.)

To me these questions don’t seem all that difficult to deduce: When workers organize and fight for common goals, they can’t lose.

Because capitalism demands the worship of money over all, and certainly I’m not immune, it is destined to be a fight of the haves against the have-nots. Think about how fucking challenging it was just for West Virginia teachers to get themselves a 5% raise. The people who own almost all of the wealth are not going to give it up without a fight, even though the labor are asking for only their measly sum.

I hesitate to say the rich are forcing workers to pry every last dollar they can from their cold, dead fingers, but it does appear to be the unavoidable direction we are headed if nothing changes. We’re still at a point where workers can accomplish what they desire through peaceful protest, as has been proven in West Virginia (and will be further proved in Oklahoma and Kentucky). The only thing that hurts the cause of grassroots activism is when there isn’t enough of it.

The American Labor Movement has a violent history, and we should never forget the blood that had to be shed, and the lives that had to be lost, to earn workers such benefits as a weekend, or of “just” a 40-hour work week, or of a mandatory minimum wage such that moms and dads wouldn’t have to send their 9 and 10 year-old kids to work in factories.

Those laws didn’t come to pass because the rich ownership class thought their workers deserved a better deal. They didn’t once upon a time step in and say, Hey, you know, even though I am doing fantastically well, and even though the reason I am doing fantastically well is off the backs of my low-wage workers, I think it’s high time they get their fair share of the profits.

Of course that shit never happened. What happened was labor banded together and refused to work until their demands for better conditions were met. For the owners to continue succeeding, they needed their workers to produce. So it really became a fairly simple math equation: Would the rich rather own 60 or 70 percent of something, or 100 percent of nothing? The owners understood the writing on the wall.

Those who know me well no doubt think I’m something of a hypocrite on the issue of money, because they know how much I love it and how materialistic I am about certain things. But to always default with some version of “if you were a rich person you would be doing the exact same things as them” is to miss the point. My diatribes against the top 1% are not about jealousy, or having contempt for rich people because they are rich. That isn’t and never was my message. My message is that the system is what’s immoral. The wealthy are only taking advantage of that system, because the system lets them. Poor people, meanwhile, simply lack the means.

It was John F. Kennedy who said “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” and, well, now is the time. American workers have finally again reached that moment where they are giving the super-wealthy the chance to do the right thing. It may have started on the national scale with teachers from West Virginia and Oklahoma and Kentucky, but eventually, like an avalanche, or a tidal wave, workers from Wal-Mart and Amazon will descend upon a city near you. Workers from Comcast, and Verizon, and Nissan factories, will be together in lines holding picket signs. With the most optimistic intentions, this vision is what the next five years will look like in the United States.

My guess is, it won’t be so simple. Billionaires still own the corporations, and the corporations own virtually everything you see on the news and read in electronic print. It isn’t easy to find solid, independent journalism. The Washington Post, arguably the most influential rag in the country, is owned by the richest man on the planet, Jeff Bezos. Any misinformed conservative can swear up and down that the The WaPo is a liberal news outlet, but when was the last time you saw them produce something anti-war, or pro-union, or in favor of single-payer healthcare?

Those articles don’t exist, because The Washington Post is not owned by a man of the people. It is owned by a man who makes his wealth from denying workers a livable wage, and whose workers are not unionized, and who drives out mom-and-pop small businesses in the same way Wal-Mart has always done.

The mainstream news, which I have talked about ad nauseam on this blog, operates identically. When networks turned into the slaves of massive corporations and the advertising revenue they poured in — which Fox News, MSNBC and CNN all accept with open arms — it inevitably became a conflict of interest. If CNN and MSNBC run ads for the fossil fuel industry, of course they aren’t going to spend hardly any time on air talking about why the fossil fuel industry is bad for the environment. So they don’t. It’s the same thing with predatory lending companies, Wall St., and the Pharmaceutical industry. They are the ones with all the money to spend on commercials, and so the networks turn a blind eye to all the damage they do to Americans and the economy.

I went off the path of talking about unions quite some distance ago, but by this point I hope you understand that everything involving money, and its direct relationship to the United States Government, is related. And while there is a lot of it out there — America is, after all, the richest country in the history of the world — it’s never been truly accessible to those born into the wrong zip codes. That is why recent demonstrations by labor are such a dire wake-up call. Working class teachers have been banging their heads against the capitalist wall for so long that they would rather protest illegally than continue on with the same old song. Imagine just how bad things have to be to instigate such a choice.

So it’s my belief that workers should start, or follow the example of the teachers, asking for more. If history has proven anything, it’s that American Labor will have to take matters into its own hands, because no one else — and obviously not the ownership class — is going to do it for them. I contend there is no better bargaining power than the strength in numbers, and, if the company you work for rakes in tens (or hundreds) of millions of dollars each year while you are stuck making some bullshit wage, it might be a solid time to grab a beer with your brothers and sisters who are in the same boat with you.