The Rise and Decline of Organized Labor in America, or We Rallied ‘Round the Flag Boys, and Look Where it Got US

By Michael BB

If popular culture is a reflection of the society that produces it, take a look at the comedies and dramas of the 50’s and 60’s, the so-called Golden Age of Television. Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton were both union members in NYC in The HoneyMooners. Police officers Gunther Tooty and Francis Muldoon were NYC beat cops in the policeman’s union on Car 54, Where Are You?

The generation of men who were combatants in WWII either went to college on the GI Bill and became professionals of some kind or went to work in the U.S. manufacturing sector, in such a wide range of industries that we can now hardly believe there were that many blue-collar jobs throughout the U.S. Union members were everywhere.

Beginning in the mid-60’s the heads of households on TV began to have careers like Rob Petrie, a comedy writer, or were lawyers like Carl Betz on the Donna Reed Show, or newspaper writers like William Schallert on the Patty Duke Show. No union presence there.

Two of the later union workers portrayed on TV were John Goodman’s character on Roseanne, and of course, Archie Bunker on All in the Family.

Rob Reiner’s character, the liberal college student, had no idea what his father-in-law had to deal with each day. Michael Stivik had some good ideas about social justice, but was not aware that his own father-in-law had economic justice problems of his own.

All across America, the women who had done the factory work that won the war were sent home, and replaced by the men who were lucky enough to survive combat. They made and built everything, often from scratch, like patternmakers and tool-and-die workers.

Where are these industries today? A better question is what kind of a job do you want your child, or your parent, for that matter, to have? The answer is, you don’t want them to have a job, you want them to have a Career. And careerists don’t have, need, or even want unions, right?

If a young person in their mid-20’s today were to WANT to work in an auto assembly plant, or a steel mill, (if you can find one) a packaging operation, or an oil depot, their parents would probably be quite disappointed. If their parents were Euro-Americans with some college themselves, that is.

They would think their child had no ambition, or no intelligence, or was opting out of any middle-class aspirations. And, they might very well be right.

The only reason that American industry has gotten away with exporting our blue-collar economy is that most Middle-class Americans don’t want to be a part of it, anyway. They want their children to be graphic designers, or sales managers, or they want their kids to start their own businesses, not in manufacturing, but in web design, or marketing, or financial services.

If you are making cars, plastic tubing, or replacement windows, or are working cleaning chicken carcasses, other people’s clothes, or serving food, you are an Official Failure according to today’s Career Standards. But, you are more likely to be represented by a union if you have any of these occupations.

Unions represent people who have not made it into the management levels of anything, or into a profession that has a degree requirement. Thus, unions simply no longer have the weight of the American middle class behind their efforts and concerns.

But, wait a minute, you say, what about those teachers, police officers, firefighters, nurses, even EMT’s? They all have unions, don’t they? You bet they do.

The BIG difference is that these jobs are all publicly funded public service positions. Our entire civic infrastructure is built, run, and maintained by public sector union employees, or used to be, until their unions, excepting the police and firefighters unions, of course, were put on the political hit list. If taxpayers did not pay the salaries of teachers there would be an entirely different narrative in education.

This wholesale assault would never have happened in Labor’s heyday, because rank and file union members, from the UAW and AFL-CIO to the Teamsters and service unions, were the Majority of the voting public.

These days, more and more people see unions as an extension of organized power that gets abused, and does not serve its memberships larger goals. I would argue that just the opposite is true.

If there is no countervailing force against corporate management and ownership, there will simply cease to be any interest in the economic success of the majority of the American electorate. We see this even now, as Republicans and their business constituents delay getting our sluggish economy going again for fear that a sufficient recovery would not provide enough angry voters to oust the nation’s first black President.

State, county, and city workers are easy targets for politicians who want to break the last vestiges of Democratic (yes, Democratic with a capital D, just like Republican with a capital R, not Democrat, that’s an individual, not a party) interests, the public sector unions.

Since the rest of the union movement gets resistance even from the people it tries to help, the lowest-wage workers themselves, it should be easy for state legislatures around the country to knock them all down like bowling pins, right?

Wrong. Every wealthy person needs to know that if the middle does not hold, the perimeter will fall. Every working person needs to know that income disparity is THE No. ONE issue that confronts our democracy. Without some remedy, and a solution with dignity and respect for work done by both doctors, lawyers, teachers, dentists, police, chicken de-boners, short-order cooks, hotel maids, waiters, and writers, artists, musicians, dancers, and film-makers all alike, our consumer-driven House of Cards will collapse, since we create so little real wealth in this country.

Ohio rejected their legislature’s attempt to bust the public sector unions. Wisconsin is going to get its chance as well.

It has always been about this elusive construct called the American Dream, has it not? Do black Americans have the same hopes as Euro-Americans, or Hispanic or Asian-Americans?

I think this dream has always been about moving up and out, but not moving ahead and bringing everyone else along. I do not subscribe to such a dream. I want everyone to get a real stake in the fate of the American Experiment, not just college grads, or Yale grads. Our past has been exported, but our future can yet be preserved if we resist the temptation to get our own, and not insure that the people all around us, who support our families, our communities, our lives, have an equal interest in both their own success, and the well-being of the Nation, with a Capitol N.

Next time, look for some words about why NOW is a Great time to be in the ARTS!

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