“As for class consciousness and the ascension of the wealthy, one of the old writers may have described the American view best: “Raw, glittering force, however, compounded of the cruel Machiavellianism of nature, if it be but Machiavellian, seems to exercise a profound attraction for the conventionally rooted. Your cautious citizen of average means, looking out through the eye of his dull world of seeming fact, is often the first to forgive or condone the grim butcheries of theory by which the strong rise.” Theodore Dreiser, The Titan, 1914.
I grew up in Michigan. I followed, for a time, the path of many boys from Michigan in the early and mid-1960s. I graduated high school, went into the service for a couple of years, and then went to work in a series of factories. Later I went to college, but that’s an another story. Looking back on the that time of my life, I remember working in non-union shops (yes there were some small factories that weren’t unionized particularly in the smaller cities in mid-Michigan) and I worked in union shops of about the same size (50-450 employees making parts for the auto industry). I know where I was better off and God Bless the UAW.
The “Right-To-Work” law in Michigan prompted these musings and the following general thoughts related to unions and class in America.
- The United States has always been a society with distinct social classes without true class consciousness. Thus the quote that began this diary.
- The degree of class consciousness has varied significantly over time and currently is at one of its low points.
- I don’t know why general class consciousness is currently low, but one result is that as soon as there appears to be a trend of “in-sourcing” jobs the media (my latest exposure was Morning Joe an hour ago) celebrates it as the coming resurrection of American Manufacturing.
- Another result is that workers are tickled to get jobs making $14 to $15 per hour producing “stuff” that workers a generation ago were paid $25 to $30 per hour to make.
- Unions continue to lose ground and I don’t believe that comparatively low wages will be the catalyst that spurs a reversal in this trend.
- This makes reversing the current movement to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few very difficult because unions not only got higher wages for their workers but served as an important coordinating entity for Progressive legislation at the federal and state levels.
- Losing unions means leaving the field far more open to business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, for example, can offer a consistent and articulate pro-business policy to both the public and legislators. It was, after all, the C of C to which Lewis Powell addressed his letter in the early 1970s outlining what business had to do to counteract the New Deal and the Great Society.
- Unions won’t make a comeback based on wages. The memory of the so-called Great Recession will keep workers frightened enough for a long enough time to prevent this and companies will make some wage concessions.
- What will not happen is better benefits and what I think will happen is a decline in the quality of the work environment.
- I think that what will ultimately spur a renewal of the union movement will be a decrease in safety, a decrease in amenities in the workplace including paid breaks during the workday and decreased paid vacation, and an increase in required working hours.
So, these are my ramblings of a cloudy Tuesday morn in the nations’ oldest city. The final point came to mind as I recalled a billboard my wife and I saw in Marquette Michigan this past June. It read “Enjoy a 5 day, 40 hour workweek and paid vacation? Thank a Union.”