With the latest focus on actions across the country by Wal-Mart workers, many middle class people who have the privilege of not having to work a low wage job announce their solidarity with the workers. But their focus is narrow and their solidarity rings hollow. Until a smaller more active union stepped up to support some of the workers who have had the courage to step up, Wal-Mart workers were and (still remain largely) the butt of classist jokes, derisive comments and dismissal by most Americans.
In fact most low-wage work has the stigma in this country of being work occupied by lower educated, slower witted persons who by their lack of the exceptional talent of their middle class betters, have failed to advance economically. This classist attitude rings hollow in the face of the fact that as the American job pool shrinks, more and more people are forced into working low-wage jobs. Jobs traditionally shut-off from the traditional unions. Like a self-serving circle of hell, low-wage workers get stuck in a system where their poverty and desperation feeds an inability and fear to agitate for better wages and working conditions. Short working hours and low hourly pay that leads to poverty existence squeezes the reserves of workers who lack the flexibility to move to other, better paying work. Armchair libertarians and the like love to argue ad infitnitum that all workers have mobility to “take their labor else where”. Such fantasies serve only to blame the worker, leaving better paid workers, the employer and government policies that enable working poverty off the hook.
Sorely missing from the popular perception and focus of the Wal-Mart workers’ action is the acknowledgement that similar workers struggle everyday, unnoticed and unrepresented. The theme in American politics reflects the tacit willingness of Americans to be separated by class distinctions with signage and slogans that cry out the lame theme, “Protecting the Middle Class”, as if there exists a fear of associating with the ‘unwashed’ and the invisible class — including day laborers and those who languish on unemployment that washes them into the fast growing river of workers struggling to make ends meet with barely crumbs.
Does the American ruling class consist of middle class workers? Are not all workers struggling the same? It appears that instead of seeking to embrace all workers, the traditional labor unions have made the strategic decision to “grow” their dwindling movement only among those that fit their aged and concrete-clad vision. All workers share the same basic struggles. As traditional unions beg and work hard to gain support in their struggles to defend collective bargaining rights, where are these unions to defend the millions of workers who don’t work for the most hated retail chain in America?
Unfortunately the labor unions presently making up less 12% of the population naturally, have continued their isolation from many workers. Workers in low wage jobs that larger unions have decided long ago not to organize have suffer from the lack of union representation. Exploitation of low wage workers has increased as the economic depression increases the labor pool and emboldens employers. Some union organizers claim that the old ways of organizing do not work as jobs in lower wage fields tend to have a large turn-over, tend to offer little incentive for workers to remain and thus such a fluid membership base leads to instability and inability to organize long term.
This is disputable when one considers that the largest proportion of the workforce with the most direct exposure to the public is the low wage worker, whether in service jobs, healthcare or retail. They provide the opportunity to larger trade unions to increase support for and understanding of the struggle to keep legal protected rights such as collective bargaining and (although diminishing and very limited today), the right to strike. In exchange, formerly neglected workers should justly expect some support for their cause, where such has been historically lacking.
Diminished representation has weakened support for the union movement nationally. As workers feel further and further distant from what many perceive as weak, disaffected or out of touch union representation, frustration within the ranks increases. Many members complain bitterly of lack of rank and file participation in meetings, apathy among members and even many members who enjoy the benefits of their union job while supporting exactly the opposite in political ideology and public policy, hypocritically assisting those who wish to undo the union and keep more workers out while benefiting from union members themselves. Ironically, union leadership and members do nothing to stop this inside sabotage while more and more workers linger on the outside looking in, unable to find a slot in increasingly unavailable union work.
Also membership reduces as well as the cost of carrying a card and paying dues while unemployed becomes prohibitive. Unions have shrunk not only due to assaults on worker’s rights to organize and act for their betterment, but also due to attrition as a result of the dwindling union protection. Started by Ronald Reagan, the Republican and ‘New Democrats’ have unraveled protection for worker expression with only barely audible squeaks from union leadership. Sold down the river on the idea that some kind of gentleman’s agreement exists between labor and big business that they must continue to protect, big labor unions have chosen to bargain with the devil than to reach back and lend a hand to their brother and sister workers who could offer strength in their effort to finally resist big business’ assaults on labor.
The labor movement cannot survive in its current state. Dwindling membership rates and even more diminished actual power when one considers participation rates and support in current unions, has a ripple effect on all workers everywhere. As John O’Reilly points out here, the larger unions smirk and snub workers they consider beneath them at their peril. Only with all workers united together to fight the nihilistic and dehumanizing forces of corporate capitalism will workers succeed and together bring the living standards of all workers to enable peaceful, dignified existence.
John O’Reilly on how the labor movement talks about itself and how he interprets it as a member and organizer of the IWW.
I’ve been thinking recently about the way that the labor movement sees itself and talks about itself. Labor movement activists often talk about labor as a kind of community, a place where individuals can reach across differences and speak to each other based on a shared connection to their unions and unionism more generally. There are big, well-funded internal publications that the large unions produce which help move this discourse. But there are also independent voices which participate in this discourse. I can think of Labor Notes as an example that I’m most familiar with.
Labor Notes and magazines, blogs, or other publications like it have this particular way of speaking about the labor movement and the changes that it needs to implement that I’ve always had a lot of trouble connecting with. I like Labor Notes, I think its a useful piece that praises rank-and-file struggles and shows how the bosses and the business unions are strong and powerful but also have weaknesses. It’s the kind of publication that shows that working people can have independent publications that highlight our stories of success and explain why and when we fail with a good analysis (usually).
But I’ve always had trouble connecting with the language that LN and similar publications use to talk about the labor movement. There’s a positioning of “inside and against” that I’ve always been unable to connect with. The discourse often goes “we are the labor movement, we need to do better, we need to get better leadership and democratize our unions, we need to organize the unorganized.” I like all the reclaiming of the labor movement narrative, that’s a great step I think. Saying that “we,” being rank-and-file workers, are the labor movement and that unions are not just the union leaders, is really important. But to me as an IWW organizer, I’ve never felt part of some community of labor.
Read more: Outside the House of Labor, by Jack O’Reilly, IWW organizer, originally published in Labor Notes.