“Every culture lives within its dream,” wrote Lewis Mumford in 1934:
“It is reality – while the sleep lasts. But, like the sleeper, a culture lives within an objective world that…sometimes breaks into the dream, like a noise, to modify it or to make further sleep impossible.”
This Labor Day it’s conventional wisdom to say the American dream is broken. For those who ever dreamed it, that dream featured all that typically fills the fantasies of capitalist cultures: if not heaven, then at least happiness here on earth, built from stuff and standing acquired through human sweat and toil; Americans sold themselves (and others) another fancy too, a fair shake, in a “city upon a hill” nation replete with opportunity. (The facts of slavery, land theft and genocide notwithstanding.)
For many who were sleeping soundly previously, the noise that’s broken in is that of millions of Americans living without enough to eat (46 million, including one in five of all children); the racket of rampant ill-health, the half-of-all jobs that barely lift families out of poverty ($34,000 or less) and the kicker: less social mobility than exists in most of Old World Europe.
The trade union dream is in trouble too. That’s the one in which organized workers mass enough muscle together to extract what’s due labor from the bosses. Union membership in the private sector in the United States today has fallen to levels not seen since the 1930s. Public sector unions are holding steady (where unions are allowed) but they’re under constant attack from Republican governors, propagandist media and the profiteers that underwrite both of those.
Globalization, mechanization and the fast switch from muscle to money-markets as the primary means of amassing wealth have not just modified labor’s dream, they’ve made further sleep impossible.
Talk to labor leaders and “hard times” doesn’t come close to expressing it. As labor organizer and Nation writer Jane McAlevey, put it in this interview:
“There’s been a fifty-to-sixty-year campaign in this country to destroy the reputation of unions. We don’t have a labor page; we have a business page in every newspaper. We get a one-way view from the American capitalist media every day, and it drums into people these horrible lessons. There is a total lack of understanding of what the real purpose of a union in this country really is and what it does.”
Larry Hanley, President of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) said this, when we spoke earlier this summer:
“Our view is that the problems that our local unions and members face are not restricted to one bargaining table in one isolated place. There is no way we can remedy the attack on workers by just fighting through the methods we’ve been taught for the last fifty years.”
What to do? There’s another aspect of the “dream” that needs modifying. That's the part (as Mumford also put it) that separates “man’s soul” from the “material world.” In more prosaic terms: it’s time, say these leaders, that organizing crosses—not the picket line -- but the industrial era divide that splits “work” from the rest of our lives.
As McAlevey puts it:
“We create neutrality on the ground by having the workers tap their own existing relationships to their own community…. It’s through our rank and file in the labor movement that the relationship to the so-called external allies needs to be built.
McAlevey’s not the only one saying the future for labor lies outside the workplace, in the many dimensions and relationships of worker’s lives. Hanley continues:
“All of our efforts now are aimed at building coalitions. We have dedicated almost all our training over the course of the last year and a half both in the field and in Washington to getting our officers and our members out from behind the wheel, meeting with people who ride the buses. We have about 100 passengers for every member we have driving a bus or driving a train or fixing them, and our sense of it that we have to go out and organize those riders to stand up not only for us, but for themselves because we have a completely common interest with the people who ride in our systems.“
Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations, talks in terms of “love”; Occupy Wall Street focused on shared public space. The meeting place, it seems to me, is meeting place. Labor leaders are saying workplace organizing needs to come out of the workplace. Community activists are saying they need to expand their idea of “community” to include not one identity, one issue, one group, but all-comers.
We won’t hear any talk about this at the DNC this Labor Day. (The only turning out the major parties are interested in is turning out voters this November and then returning the people back to their homes.) But a new noise does seem to be audible and getting louder in the world of labor and organizing. More work, less pay, longer hours, slimmer chances for us or our children to advance; the message is coming up: we can’t Labor without our Lives. The site of struggle is the workplace, but it’s also everywhere else.
Jane McAlevey’s book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade in (and Out of) the Labor Movement, is forthcoming this November, from Verso.