Union Maid: Made and Unmade

“Don’t talk old to me,” Norma Rae tells her dad. “I don’t like it.” But in the next scene a foreshadow appears when Reuben mentions Dylan Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” for in the next scene Norma Rae’s dad keels over, dead, into a basket of textile spools. “You load sixteen tons, what do you get?” These days, you get “another day older and deeper in [health care] debt,” augmenting the Merle Travis and Tennessee Ernie Ford classic. Labor laws may have rendered some of the early union causes moot, while many corporations may have also already adopted many if not most of the basic wants of the early unions – in most industries. The problem, as Hendrik Hertzberg explains in his March 7 New Yorker comment, “Union Blues,” is funding collective self-interest into political activism capable of representing the working stiff. Corporations can now marshal any number of deep pockets to advance their interests. Are corporate interests the same as the interests of those employed by the corporation?

But what foreshadowed the fall of unions? When we were kids and Dad was out of work, he went down to the Union Hall, where he put his name on the list. The Union Hall was as important as the Church. We could see the fall of the Church coming, but we missed the foreshadow predicting the fall of organized labor, in spite of, as Hendrik points out, its obvious “failings, all its shortsightedness, all its ‘special interest’ selfishness.”

James Surowiecki, in his January 17th New Yorker piece, “State of the Unions,” explains the unions’ fall from public grace: unions are now mostly public unions, and their wages and benefits no longer positively influence non-union wages and benefits. Solidarity, or any hint of symbiotic relationship, is lost. Envy and bitterness over disparate working environments have replaced any sense of brother-sister-hood. “Labor,” Surowiecki concludes, “may be caught in a vicious cycle, becoming progressively less influential and more unpopular. The Great Depression invigorated the modern American labor movement. The Great Recession has crippled it.” And will the crippling further atrophy gains made over those years to labor conditions that prevailed prior to the Great Depression?

The last company town is closing, with little or no foreshadowing. The story was filler in the LA Times; almost without notice, Empire, Nevada is being surrounded by chain link fence as its citizens strike out for elsewhere, forming a tiny diaspora of folks who once owed their souls to the company store. Empire, Nevada, the home of a gypsum mining plant, is being fenced off, and all the folks are getting out, for the gypsum mining plant was home to Empire, Nevada. The edge of the popped housing bubble has reached this far. The company closes; the town closes. “If living were a thing that money could buy, Then the rich would live and the poor would die, All my trials, Lord, soon be over,” goes the protest song of the folk movement. But living is a thing money can buy, as the health care crisis proves, yet the poor just can’t seem to die.

Jill Lepore’s “Objection: Clarence Darrow’s unfinished work” (May 23 New Yorker) gives us some idea of labor conditions prior to improvements attributed to the rise of unions. Lepore quotes Darrow: “The only difference I can see between the state prison and George M. Paine’s factory is that Paine’s men are not allowed to sleep on the premises.” The Darrow quote comes after Lepore describes that “the factory doors, Paine doors, were locked once the workers got in, at 6:45 A.M., and kept locked, except for a lunch break, until the guards came and turned the key, when dusk fell.” At question in the case, according to Darrow, Lepore reports, was “whether when a body of men desiring to benefit their condition, and the condition of their fellow men, shall strike, whether those men can be sent to jail.” Meantime, the Wisconsin governor had called the National Guard into Sawdust City, where the city and company were essentially the same working entity: thus the government was the corporation.

The extent to which labor and management can feud was colorfully described in Caleb Crain’s January 19, 2009 New Yorker piece, “There Was Blood: The Ludlow massacre revisited” (Caleb’s piece begins as a review of the Thomas G. Andrews book, Killing for Coal, but becomes much more than that; see his follow-up on his blog). Crain concludes: “When a representative democracy wins people’s trust, it is capable of moderating disputes among corporations, the market, and the individual. Time suggests that nothing else can take its place, though from time to time corporations have offered to do so.”

Who or what will solve the disputes surrounding our public schools? According to Joel Klein, for eight years chancellor of New York City’s school system, in his June Atlantic piece, The Failure of American Schools, the conflict and divisiveness isn’t between management and labor but between management working with a co-opted union and politicians in conflict with children’s needs. Says Klein, “The school system doesn’t want to change, because it serves the needs of the adult stakeholders quite well, both politically and financially.” Klein concludes: “We need to foster a culture that supports innovation.”

For all their “special-interest selfishness,” most of our successful corporations have advanced and compete on their capability to innovate, while schools have declined due to their inability to innovate. But is there foreshadowing in the current economic crisis suggesting yet more implosions: Health Care’s inability to innovate; lack of innovation in energy and other green-sustainable industries; corporation management further removed from their work force as a result of globalization, automation, and the replacement of specialized manufacturing or trade skills with generalized office work capabilities; further declines for schools. Corporatism is not capitalism; unionism is not organized labor.