Friday, January 29, 2010

Labor's Love Lost

Those of us fortunate to have a job right now, particularly with a big corporation, are beginning to notice a certain trend, though maybe we haven't precisely put our finger on it yet.  Those of us who remain at our workplace are being asked... no, expected... to do more with fewer resources for no more pay than we were already receiving.  It'll be passed off as a "everyone has to pitch in and contribute a little more," but what it translates to is that they intend to squeeze every last drop of blood from you until you crack, or until you fail.  Either way it hardly matters, since you're eminently replaceable.  We all are.  A corporation's only moral and ethical duty is to maximize its shareholders' profits.  The physical and emotion stress laid upon its workers to accomplish this is of no concern.  It is a vampire, draining you dry, and you have no recourse other than either complete surrender or allowing yourself to break beneath the lash.  If you're an ordinary citizen in this country, driven to the edge of solvency by the multitude of things on which you must spend money, you cannot afford to break.

In a just world there would be some recourse, some way that you, as an individual, could somehow fight back and still retain your position.  Some way that you and others like you might stand together to show that you are not grist for their mill, that you are more than simply meat to be fed on until you are gone.

But those of us of Generation X and later generations came into this with a vague and unnamed feeling of betrayal, that somehow organized labor had let us down.  It made us more than a little vulnerable to the lies of the Republican party, and the various and sundry corporations who spend millions every year to produce propaganda attacking organized labor.

It never occurred to me to wonder why until I began thinking about it this very evening.  What was it that broke labor in this country, that turned a movement that used to involve a reasonably large percentage of the American population into a shadow of its former self?  I have a few theories, but honestly I believe it began when organized labor declared victory, beat its swords into plowshares, and sat down at the table to dine with those who would be our masters.  Labor began in opposition to the system, but it was eventually co-opted by it.  Its leaders were brought to the table and allowed to "negotiate" with the people who made the decisions.

This wasn't what killed it.  It just made it vulnerable.  Labor wanted this access, this... acquiescence.  Its leaders were tired of fighting, particularly since some remembered when it was really a war out there.  When people actually died fighting for the things we've since learned to take for granted.

Then the counter-culture had its semblance of victory at the end of the Vietnam war, and through the scandal of Watergate.  The Old Guard was thought to have toppled, to be replaced by young and vibrant people interested in changing everything from the inside.  Except it turned out that, at least to some extent, the forces that ran things in this country were a bit like ancient China.  In conquering it, invaders found themselves becoming Chinese.

We stumbled through the next few years, and watched as a wise man failed miserably as President to be replaced by someone who believed government wasn't worthy of his greatness.  When Ronald Reagan became President, he broke the back of the Air Traffic Controller's Union and, in so doing, broke the back of organized labor.  The Air Traffic Controllers were the only union that supported his candidacy, and almost immediately he turned on them.

And when it happened we saw precisely what union solidarity meant in this country.  Nothing.  No one wanted to risk their hard-won access, their place at the table.  In one fell stroke it became illegal for those in occupations "vital to national interest" to strike.  The capitulation became finalized because their ultimate weapon had been stripped from them.  And no one else dared strike in their stead.  From that moment on, organized labor became a bit like a toothless dog.  It could bark, but became very unlikely to draw blood.

Employers found ways to make organizing less attractive.  They saw the value in treating their employees with some measure of respect, in offering benefit packages that might draw the best and brightest into their fold.  Why pay union dues when you could get the same thing for nothing?  What could they offer that the employers didn't offer already?

Aided by the so-called "liberal" media, strikes began to be seen as the actions of greedy workers just "out to make even more money than they already do."  Rumors began to circulate, sources unknown, that they protected lazy, unproductive workers and did nothing else of import.

So now we stand fractured, in the middle of the worst economic downturn in decades, unable to even stand up for ourselves against the cry of "more profit, damn you!"  We are islands in a sea of mindless greed, alone beneath the lash.

We are not ourselves blameless, of course.  We took the beating, accepted their vampiric bite year after bloody year, and did nothing even when we knew we should.  We stood by and let anti-labor people conquer the polls time and again, saying nothing, doing nothing.  When we heard the word "labor," we thought of the unions, of the organized labor we felt had abandoned and betrayed us.  But they're not the only aspect of labor that exists in this country.  Most of labor is unorganized.  It's us.  The little people.  The modern peasants so easily dismissed.

But the irony is that we have the greatest tool of organizing there has ever been.  We have nearly instantaneous communication and social media to make it all possible.  We could do it ourselves, without the unions who have so clearly failed us.

But only if we have the courage and strength of purpose to stand not up not only for ourselves, but for our neighbors.  Imagine--a spontaneous protest nationwide at any one employer... where 50, 75, or even 90% of the employees simply walked out into the parking lot and said "We have had enough.  We will not return until something changes."

It could happen.  They forget, this is a pyramid.  It is the people on the bottom who keep everything going.  If "Atlas Shrugged" no one would even notice.  The world would keep turning as it was.  But if we shrugged it would be a whole different story.

Would it not?

One of the richest men in the world, Warren Buffet, said "This is a Class War, and we're winning... even though we shouldn't be."

Why should we stand by and let them take potshots at us from  higher ground without ever once firing back?  Yes, it's a class war, but it wasn't the lower classes who started it.  But it is the lower classes that can win it.  Unless we follow in the footsteps of organized labor and simply surrender.

Doesn't sound like much of a plan to me.


Dracowin said...

Not only are we hurting ourselves by just keeping quiet and taking all the crap, but many of these corporations learn too late that they're killing themselves also. I've worked for several companies that kept cutting staff and expecting those left to pick up the slack and improve things with no real incentive to do so. Before long each of these businesses went under. Two of them were a craft store chains, similar to JoAnn or Michaels, but one of them I think was much nicer than those. We had very knowledgeable staff who really enjoyed their jobs and working with our customers. Then things changed. Most of the best people were let go first since their knowledge and experience cost more for the management which left a mostly inexperienced staff who couldn't help customers as well plus less staff on the floor for customer service overall which of course led to those customers going elsewhere and even more staff cuts until it all finally went belly up. I truly believe that if things had been worked differently at least some of these businesses would still be around and would have top notch employees. Of course no one in management is going to think about keeping well trained quality people and keeping them happy being the best since it would cost them more and cut profits (at least until those quality employees started bringing in better business). Its up to those doing the work to stand up for themselves and insist on being treated like human beings and not just the slaves who bring in the profits for others.
Maybe the fact that I've never been willing to put up with the bullshit when it starts getting really bad that has led to or at least contributed to my current lack of a job.

Saje said...

Yes, and this is a trend I've noticed as well. I've witnessed a purge of supervisors unprecedented in all my years of working just as the economy began to fail. That's when I ended up steeping into the Foolish of me, perhaps, but when there's a leadership vacuum I'm usually the one who steps into the void.