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On the Virtual Picket Line | The Nation

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On the Virtual Picket Line

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The cultural reasons for this require some explanation. One of the interesting aspects of the American working class is that it is not known as a working class. Instead, it is nominated as middle class (even by its leaders), or, in the case of those in the secondary labor market, referred to as working poor. The working class is not an acceptable American category, perhaps because it reflects group or social solidarity in a nation that prides itself on individualism and "making it on your own," a very silly self-deception indeed. Thus the term "middle class" conjures a certain economic independence while it prizes individualism. The reality is different in that this "middle class" is insecure, often overworked and greatly in hock. It is a debtor class. A labor leadership that seeks to point out this reality can hardly be expected to receive much praise in the "free press." Indeed, as Bahr points out, the New York Times no longer bothers to have a labor beat reporter. Similarly, the Washington Post gave up such notions of "specialized" coverage long ago, as its business and sports pages expanded.

About the Author

Marcus G. Raskin
Marcus G. Raskin, a Nation editorial board member, is the author of more than twenty books and the editor, with Gregory...

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One should not be surprised that under the catechism of Capitalist Realism labor leaders are depicted as greedy and self-interested, even those who are moderate and community-minded. Thus Bahr points out that the legendary leader of the AFL, Samuel Gompers, is fixed in the minds of millions of schoolchildren as the labor leader who was asked what labor unions wanted. He is reputed to have said, in an answer like that of a Wall Street yuppie, "More." What was created in the minds of generations of Americans was that no essential difference existed between capital and labor. Both wanted "more." But what Gompers said was far different. "What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails, more books and less arsenals, more learning and less vice, more constant work and less crime, more leisure and less greed, more justice and less revenge." In other words, Gompers had a social democratic conception. Like other labor leaders, whether Eugene Debs, Walter Reuther, the Dobbs brothers or Bahr, Gompers had a clear vision of the role of labor and the individual: The liberation of the worker and the liberation of society go hand in hand. Yet this social vision could not compete with the romance of the American individualist.

In the popular culture, we have created loner archetypes, heroes and antiheroes, self-made and unconnected to the social forces around them--the American cowboy, for instance: independent, uses force when necessary, can be counted on in a fight, etc. (There is a tragic quality about the cowboy as well, for he is also a failure in financial terms, lacking that magic of commercial entrepreneurialism that the economist Joseph Schumpeter writes of as the spark of capitalist innovation.)

The paradox, of course, is that a worker's individuality and dignity can be best protected through his or her organization, the labor union, the institution in which personal and community interests are brought together. This fact is something that Bahr understands, for he knows that individuality needs safeguarding--big time. Hundreds of thousands of people are now employed in management and public relations offices to mask this need by discouraging workers from joining unions. What is at stake, under the banner of "productivity," is control over workers' time and space. Bahr tells of a worker being treated for an illness with a medication that caused her go to the lavatory several times a day. Each trip was announced on the plant loudspeaker by management. Such corporate control over the worker's life is no sideshow. It defines, albeit in extreme form, the situation of millions of people.

This brings us to labor leaders. Where do they fit into the pantheon of heroes and villains? We've seen them drawn out in Ray Ginger's biography of Debs, The Bending Cross; Mary Jones's The Autobiography of Mother Jones; Harold Livesay's Samuel Gompers and Organized Labour in America; Melvyn Dubofsky and Warner Van Tine's biography of John L. Lewis; Victor Reuther's The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the U.A.W. and elsewhere. They are part of the romance of America, but the question is whether they will be rendered irrelevant when labor movements don't organize and lose membership or moral purpose.

One of the tasks of the antihero of modern capitalism, the corporate gunslinger, is to turn the labor leader into a dying breed without relevance, who must fall before the wonders of changing technology and social organization. Cultural stereotype celebrates business as the innovator and the entrepreneur as the heartbeat of America. As President Coolidge put it, "The business of America is business."

With its prerogatives, business becomes the locomotive of American life. And in countless texts US entrepreneurs are presented as folk heroes who, through determination and innovation, keep society going in a progressive direction. This is an old story. Even John D. Rockefeller, thanks to the massaging of the press by his public relations experts, ended his days less as the villain of the Ludlow massacre than as a grand paternal figure whose largesse, along with that of Andrew Carnegie, guided education and science. Never mind that Henry Ford was almost overwhelmed by his own anti-Semitic ravings and undermined by a brutal internal police force aimed at destroying an independent labor union. Ruthlessness is forgiven because US economic ideology claims to be serving a greater good: the project of production, which has received intellectual blessing through modern economic ideas, from left to right. In the popular culture the question became one of whether there was a counter to these men among leaders of labor. The "disinterested" needed a picture of what labor leaders were.

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