Here is a thought. Three individuals are seated at a table. One is a corporate CEO; one is a middle-class conservative and Tea Party activist; and the third is a worker and union member. In the center of the table is a plate with twelve cookies on it. The CEO takes eleven of the cookies, gets up to leave, then turns to the Tea Party activist and says, “Watch out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie.”
It’s a joke. Or is it? In order to see the humor in it, you would have to be able to understand the reality behind it. And if you understand what the “joke” is referring to, then you are likely to smile, nod your head in the affirmative, and say, “How true it is.”
I think the reason this little story is making the rounds on the internet is because of the recent bloody massacre in Madison, Wisconsin. Workers’ rights, indeed, basic human rights gained by decades of struggle for justice in the workplace were swept away by a small group of Social Darwinist legislators.
In recent days, I have had several discussions concerning whether or not workers should have the right to organize workers’ unions to engage in collective bargaining with their employers. What really amazes me is how few people understand what is, or should I say was, at stake in Wisconsin. But then I live in Mississippi, the state with the lowest wages in the nation and where only ten-percent of high school graduates are deemed qualified for college-level work.
Some years ago, l lived in West Virginia, a state that has more than a little in common with Mississippi. Natural beauty and the extreme poverty of the masses are characteristic of both states. In both states a small number of wealthy citizens enjoy the good life at the expense of the laboring poor.
I am often reminded of what a barber in Morgantown, West Virginia, said to me with great pride. “We are always a day late and a dollar short,” he said, “poor but proud.” As I sat there in the chair with him clipping the hair around my ears and shaving my neck with a straight razor, I said nothing. But in my mind I wondered—why would anyone take pride in poverty and ignorance?
The fact is that Americans have long been taught to see some sort of virtue in poverty and ignorance. Is it part of a gigantic conspiracy on the part of the rich to keep the masses poor and ignorant, in order to guarantee a cheap labor force when needed? I don’t think so.
Perhaps the existence of poor and rich is the result of basic economic laws. That is an idea that Adam Smith would agree with. Perhaps, as the Social Darwinists allege, the disparity results from the ever present struggle for survival of the fittest that characterizes all of life. Progress is the result of a bloody struggle by which some, the strong, climb to the top of the heap over the bodies of the weak. Since the only law is the law of the jungle, justice is what is, and mercy is a sign of weakness.
The classic liberals, called conservatives today, held that the only legitimate function of government was to act as a sort of referee over competition—economic, political, or whatever—between autonomous individuals. The winners enjoy the fruits of their success, and the losers suffer the consequences of their failure. Justice is getting what one deserves, another version of the law of the jungle. As for mercy, think of Oliver Twist and the workhouse.
The fact is that the exploitation of the many by the few has been a constant in human society since the dawn of history. Some would ascribe the very existence of civilization to that reality. I’m not sure that I can agree with that. But then, maybe my understanding of what it means to be civilized is different.
So, what has all of this to do with the recent events in Madison, Wisconsin?
One of the unfortunate byproducts of the Industrial Revolution was what historians call “the evils of industrialization.” Among them was the assumption that labor was only another of the various costs that went into the production of widgets. That led to the crass exploitation of the working people by those who owned and controlled the means of producing wealth. Under industrialization that meant capital, natural resources, etc.
The classical liberals believed that each individual must be free to enter into a contract. For example, the worker must be free to enter into a contract with an employer to sell his/her labor for an agreed upon price. That of course was an illusion. How could the individual worker bargain with the factory owner for wages on any sort of equal footing? My maternal grandfather went to work in a lumber camp at age five. How far do you think he would have gotten, if he were to ask for a fair wage or any so-called “benefits?”
The working classes of America struggled for many years to achieve the right to a decent lifestyle. Only through the right to collective bargaining, and the right to have a union shop, can workers achieve justice.
The assault upon workers’ rights by the governor of Wisconsin and his supporters is an attempt to return America to the Gilded Age of the robber barons, only this time with steroids. It is an attempt to return to Social Darwinism in labor-management relations.
Historian Norman F. Cantor has said that the golden age of the American working class was the period from the end of World War II until the mid-1980s (The American Century, 1997). That golden age was the result of the union movement, not the generosity of the robber barons.
It is true that a decent standard of living did not extend to all workers. For example, in the old South where so-called “right to work” laws made unionization difficult or impossible, workers suffered under entrenched exploitation. Those who controlled the wealth kept the working classes poor and ignorant by retarding the growth of public education and playing whites against African-Americans. The white worker who grumbled at his subsistence wages was reminded that he could always be replaced with a black worker. Thus he was persuaded to accept his station in life, and sooth his wounds with the illusion that at least he was better than his African-American brother.
There should not be any rejoicing about the momentary victory of Governor Scott Walker and his allies over workers’ rights. Instead, the sound of weeping and anger should be heard throughout the land.
A battle has been lost, but not the war. In the end justice will prevail.