Monday, September 06, 2010

Let Us Sing Of Labor

Today is, after all the day for labor in the United States, though the culture has managed to turn it into the last-day-to-go-to-the-beach-before-schools-start. If I were a suspicious goddess I'd wonder what conspiracy managed to erase any smell of work and workers from these celebrations.

But no conspiracy is needed, unless the American media is viewed as one gigantic conspiracy factory. I bet most American workers don't know that they have the shortest required vacations in the industrialized world, for instance, or one of the lowest unionization rates or the worst provisions of parental leave. Those things don't go very well with the-greatest-country-on-earth thinking.

It is the trade unions I wish to talk about today. They are a dying breed in this country* where the laws are geared towards the prevention of unionization and where the unions themselves have sometimes misbehaved in terms of crime and bigotry.

But the alternative of unionization is for every single worker to be a tiny, tiny fish in the ocean where the corporations act like sharks. The tiny fish could negotiate with a shark, sure! Let's just sit down and discuss better vacation conditions, an actual forty-hour week, more human and humane work places! The shark will understand and listen carefully, too, and then the sprat and the shark can write a labor contract and agree to arbitration in case any misunderstandings crop up later on.

Corporations are not necessarily sharks. But no market will function very well when the workers are tiny particles and the firms much larger ones. The point of the unions is to give workers more negotiating power. Without such collective action workers will get the absolute minimum the political system manages to get them.

Except that the U.S. political system is tied to money. The best democracy money can buy, goes the famous quip, and there's truth in it. The workers are not powerless but they must make up the edge money has by being far more numerous in their political efforts, more disciplined, more persistent. This is hard to do when employers have the upper hand and when even the Democratic Party is half-inclined to be the party of the corporations. Because politicians need money to run.

I sometimes think that what American workers need today is the kind of consciousness raising the second wave feminists practiced. Workers don't really see themselves as workers but as future capitalists, and the individual problems of individual workers are personalized. This leads to a search for purely individual solutions.

Such solutions have their place, but they will not increase the annual vacations of U.S. work force or offer better working conditions for all. For that we need collective action.

Happy Labor Day!
*Except for professional unions. Those are still strong. It may not be a coincidence that we don't think of, say, the American Medical Association when trade unions are mentioned.