[from The Beacon, William Paterson College, Sept. 11, 1995]
Stephen R. Shalom
These are grim times for most Americans.
Real wages have been declining for three decades. The inequality of wealth in the United States stands at a sixty year high. While the rich have been making out like bandits -- and not just figuratively -- the majority of Americans are worse off. Sweat shops, not seen since the Great Depression, are back and the living standards of all working people are under assault.
Things are no better politically. Fewer and fewer people vote in each election. All too many Americans are profoundly alienated from the political system, seeing no prospect that it will seriously address their concerns. The Republicans who recently took over Congress offer no solution. They were voted in by a mere twenty percent of the electorate (receiving a slim majority of the 40 percent of people who bothered to vote), and they rode into office on record levels of special interest and corporate money. Republican leaders Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole have opposed any serious effort to limit the impact of big money on political campaigns, and they are hard at work passing legislation to pay back the financial interests that bankrolled them. Meanwhile the Democrats are exerting all their efforts to out-Republican the Republicans. And billionaire Ross Perot is just more of the same.
These depressing realities are matched by another one, one that unfortunately seems to evoke negligible concern and is thought to be unrelated to our other ills: the decline of the labor movement. At one time, more than a third of U.S. workers were union members; today fewer than one in six are. There was a time, Thomas Geoghegan reminds us in his recent book Which Side Are You On?, when John L. Lewis, the fiery head of the Mine Workers Union, would make a speech and it would be carried live on the major radio networks; today you'd be hard pressed to find a labor leader on any one of the 599 cable channels. Unions have become an object of ridicule -- jokes about where Jimmy Hoffa is buried or about million-dollar-a-year baseball players sticking to the union. And, indeed, the labor movement has much to answer for. Its corruption, its racism, its self-centered myopia: these are not just figments of the Wall Street Journal's vivid imagination.
But the labor movement has always been much more than this. Studies have shown that unions have helped provide decent lives for their members and for other workers too. Is it any surprise that when the organization of working people is in decline, the incomes and very life chances of most Americans suffer? Despite the racist policies of many craft unions, the great industrial unions organized in the 1930s brought together blacks and whites and were a crucial part of the movement for social justice. Is it any surprise that as these unions are battered, the prospects for all Americans are impaired? And unions gave political power to the powerless, to those without the money to buy themselves a politician. They empowered those who had no voice at the workplace and who were bypassed by the political system. Is it any wonder that as unions have fallen into eclipse, political alienation has become so widespread?
Imagine if we had strong, vibrant labor unions! Think of what they could do to protect working people from the relentless attacks of their bosses. Think of how they might help revitalize the civil rights movement. Think of how they might provide the nucleus for a labor party, a political alternative to the parties that are beholden to the rich.
Unions gave this country one more important thing: they emphasized the value of solidarity. Those who own capital have been merging into bigger and bigger conglomerates, while those who work for them have become increasingly atomized, fighting amongst themselves for the paltry scraps. To resist the onslaught of the wealthy few, we need to replace the me-firstism of our current culture with solidarity. Imagine if we could all embrace that old union slogan "an injury to one is an injury to all!"