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At a rally to organize workers at a supermarket chain recently, a woman stopped as I gave her a leaflet. When I told her that part time workers at this chain didn't have any health care, she shook her head, and I expected her to sympathize.

Instead, she said, "Health care? Who has health care? They should be glad they have a job at all. It’s unions that are killing this country, trying to make all these demands of companies and dragging them under."

Yes, I thought to myself, all these demands like affordable health care—-demands like a secure retirement—-demands like a wage workers can live on with dignity, that lets them pay the bills and put food on the table for their families.

Demands like these aren't killing America. In fact, they’re the only thing that can save us...

When Lehman Brothers failed, I didn't hear talk about how the employees (not the execs, but the employees)there made too much, needed to accept less, didn't need these "legacy benefits" like health care. And I'll bet a lot of them made more than the average auto worker.

But now that it's blue collar auto workers in trouble, all we hear is that they need lower expectations, to be more competitive with foreign workers—-and that unions, especially, are in the way of that competitiveness. This despite the concessions the UAW made and is continuing to make in the spirit of "we’re all in this together-ness."

You can talk about the obvious class warfare going on there—-Michael Moore did last night on Countdown.. Seems a little odd that we don’t ask too many questions of our white collar financial masters, but when it comes to blue collar workers in the manufacturing sector, we can’t be too critical or too demanding. How dare they demand middle class wages, not to mention health care and a pension!

But the bigger concern for me is this: what's left of America when we don't value our own workers and their economic well-being? How do we keep what made this country great, when our workers are constantly being told to work harder for less and shut up about it or their job will go to India or Taiwan? It seems like many pundits and politicians (not to mention business executives) have forgotten what allowed America to succeed uniquely in the first place: the drive and determination of America's workers--not our CEOs. And our economic success came when we rewarded those workers and gave them an incentive to work hard in the first place.

As Terrence O'Sullivan put it recently:

The American Dream is about upward mobility through middle class jobs, not an economic race to the bottom. Middle class jobs built our country by allowing one generation to work hard, support a family and give their kids opportunities they never had themselves. And those jobs were based on good wages and benefits that improved over time to meet the demands and costs of a modern society.

I can just hear the argument from my friend in front of the grocery store now.  "Oh, but that was before globalization. American workers should be lucky they even have jobs now."

But I wonder where we stop once we start sliding down the slippery slope of "staying competitive." What price do we extract from what is uniquely American when we tell workers their work doesn't have value anymore? That they need to accept what workers in India or China will accept? That upward mobility is a thing of the past?  What happens to America when hard work and ingenuity are replaced by a general sense of disappointed complacency?

What happens to the American Dream once we've sold American workers out?

Cross-posted at UnionGal

Originally posted to 4workers on Thu Dec 04, 2008 at 11:39 AM PST.

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