On the Virtual Picket Line
There are two prevailing, composite perceptions of the labor leader. One comes to us through the corporation and the media, the other through literature and folklore that oftentimes does not find its way into middle-class or "mainstream" literature and consciousness. In Hollywood the labor leader is commonly depicted as selfish, brutal and uneducated, a villain, invariably on the take from a businessman or from crime bosses who remain the shadowy string-pullers.
The cliché of the arrogant and parochial but cunning labor leader who cares nothing about local communities is almost perversely the inverse of the extraordinary sophistication that labor leaders/organizers tend to possess concerning their workers, irrespective of the industry involved. Indeed, just like CEOs at major corporations, national union heads, for good or ill, commonly depend on highly trained staffs. And while some labor leaders undeniably have been corrupt, they have hardly been a match for the likes of the senior Annenberg, or even of Hollywood moguls.
The second and more sympathetic account of labor leaders is that an overwhelming number of them were cut from a different mold. They were organizers who at great personal risk and undeniable suffering built the movement in the United States. Joe Hill told his comrades not to mourn for him but instead to organize. Such great labor leaders of the twentieth century as A. Philip Randolph, Eugene Debs, John L. Lewis, Harry Bridges and Walter Reuther were powerful organizers who saw no contradiction between the demands and needs of the larger community and those of workers as a class.
This deep understanding of the role of organized labor continues into the twenty-first century. Its organization does not represent capital, it represents the community--that is, people in terms of their everyday needs. This can be seen in the extraordinary work of Morton Bahr. The CWA represents 630,000 workers from diverse industries, "all of whom have common concerns." Bahr envisions his union as a broad social and economic movement. As he sees it, the labor organizer must not only win recognition for the union but organize the basis of material benefits both inside and outside the workplace. Unions must fight for the rights of the unorganized so they can become citizens of the political nation. Like other of his forebears, Bahr believes that organizers are teachers with two objectives. One is serving notice that workers are more than extensions of a machine or marginal, disposable as used Kleenex.
Second, that workers' dignity is the key element in this nation's drive for its humane identity. While the two major political parties, supported by their corporate sponsors, are concerned about "competitiveness," workers know that human dignity is the purpose of work. And where that is not present, union leaders must reshape industry (indeed, the nation) to that purpose. Bahr believes that unions have moral as well as financial capital in their pension funds, which the nation--and business--has been trading on throughout the twentieth century.
So, what does a modern labor folk hero look like? He or she seeks a moral vision grounded in sophistication about law, business, government and politics, as well as technology. He or she knows the difference between selling out and business-labor cooperation, and seeks ways to insure that technology is understood as a tool of workers and society rather than an instrument to which people must refashion themselves as in a Procrustean bed. And he or she is not afraid of being either on picket lines or in boardrooms when necessary. Nor is that leader passive about investment of pension capital in the regeneration of society. It would appear that Bahr qualifies as a modern labor folk hero.