by NomadLet’s Begin With My Father
In the economic boom of the 1950s, my father found employment as a precision sheet metal worker at a aircraft manufacturing plant. Along with thousands of other unskilled workers returning from Korea, the company trained my father with the idea of steady long term employment. In turn, my father worked at the company for thirty years. He did not particularly desire to rise up in the hierarchy of the company. He told me that he’d prefer not to have the stress that went with the responsibility. He preferred to spend more time at home at the end of his shift. There was also the goal that he knew that his children would, by his hard, boring and unsatisfying labor, have a better life than he did. It was an attainable goal. Through the use of collective bargaining of his union or the rare labor action, my father’s wage steadily increased.
The company respected the union and the union bargained in good faith. In a delicate balance, the workers, too, knew that union would represent them fair and square and, if a strike could not be avoided, the union would do its best to make sure no family went hungry.
I remember one protracted strike back in the late 60s when I was quite young. The unions delivered specially prepared food packages for worker families. I’ll not forget that. Wheat bulgur (or was it corn grits?) to the families. It was strange to see my mother hesitatingly take charity. Yet, she took it, knowing that my father was walking the picket line with the other workers night after night when the company refused to negotiate. How could this be considered a handout?
In the thirty years he worked at the plant, my father was able to pull himself and his family out of the depths of the poverty he had known in his youth and install himself firmly into middle class. A large home- not grandiose, mind you, but comfortable and safe and affordable. The little boxes of suburbia, it’s true. A car that suited a family of five (a station wagon) but not at all showy. (“If you keep it maintained, it will last you for years.”) A quiet neighborhood in the suburbs and a high quality school for his children to attend. This was the American Dream and the dream was real.
As his child, I noted other traits of my parents that helped them support their “American Dream.” The sparing use of credit, for example; scrupulous saving through US Bonds and other long term investments. (My mother, fumbling through the precious bank notes she stored in a safe under the bed, would explain it thus, “It’s like investing in country.” I thought that was silly because, after all, didn’t the government make the money?) For my father, it was all about “living within your means.” Credit, he warned as I would roll my eyes, was a dangerous thing.
As a teenager, when I found and quit my first job, my father was quite upset with me. “You can’t go from job to job like that. It’ll look bad on your record,” he told me. (I had been a waiter in a Chinese restaurant.) The age was changing and in my time, it was already becoming harder and harder to find a decent job in the way my father had. Employment would come and go and no matter how hard you might be willing to work and under what conditions, there was absolutely no guarantee that you would have a job the following week. The message was constantly drummed into my head. You are expendable. Don’t complain. Consider yourself lucky to be working.
It was the dawn of the replaceable worker and the end of Big Labor- the beginning of the end of the American Dream.
I was not much of a scholar. I couldn’t have spelled proletariat or bourgeois, much less understood what the terms meant and the only Marx I knew of was Groucho. Like most Americans all those political terms sounded like pretentious European concepts that didn’t really apply here at home. I was never given the opportunity to play the student revolutionary on campus. After some less than successful attempts at higher education, I went to work in a mid-sized plastics factory. The pay was better than the minimum wage and the work, while mind-numbingly boring, was, for the most part, not very arduous.
By the 70s, the situation was noticeably different than from my father’s time. Generally speaking, union reps were never to be seen. The local shop steward was the mother-in-law to the company supervisor and nobody seemed to see this as a conflict of interest. On the one occasion, I, along with a group of other workers, met our union rep, he came to the meeting- held in a Denny’s- late, driving a very nice car, smelling of expensive cologne and dressed in a pricey three piece suit. His message to us was “Don’t complain about unsafe conditions. It’s not the right time. It could cost you your job.” That was it. The meeting was over in less than twenty minutes.
By that time and starting from the 1950s, organized labor in the US had become heavily infiltrated by organized crime. The Mafia had, for example, used unions to create extortion rackets so that, by their command, workers would slow or halt construction if contractors or developers didn't make the right payoffs. Also large unions had immense union pension funds to play with and would inevitably finance other criminal operations. At one point, the Mafia could have brought nearly all construction and shipping in the United States to a halt. Such alliances tarnished the reputations of all union and organized labor associations in America.
Therefore, when the Right to Work laws came along around 1978, which made union membership a matter of free choice and not mandatory, most of the workers questioned the necessity of joining the union, at all. What was the point? What good was a union?
Reasons for the Crash
It is no accident that the fall of the Soviet Union has been attributed to many factors but, in the US, one important factor is usually forgotten. According to the neo-conservative version, promoted by such Koch-supported think-tanks as The Heritage Foundation, President Reagan demanded that Gorbachev “tear down” the Berlin Wall and the whole Communist bloc unraveled like a cheap sweater. It is a pleasant sounding fairy tale, I suppose, a tale for children or childish minds.
In fact, one of the factors that invariably goes unmentioned in post-Reagan America is the Polish Solidarity Movement. And there’s a very logical reason.
August, 1980, sixteen thousand workers at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, (formerly the German city of Danzig) led by an electrician named Lech Walesa, struck and occupied the plant. They were soon joined by other workers “in solidarity” as well as intellectuals, and had the support of the Catholic Church. The Solidarity Movement was thus born. The workers demanded free trade unions, freedom of speech, release of political prisoners and economic reforms. Poland’s Communist leader, Wajciech Januzelski responded by proclaiming martial law, arresting the leaders of Solidarity, and thereby “saving the nation.” He was unable to stop the movement, however, because the government was unwilling (and perhaps unable) to impose a full scale reign of terror. Solidarity continued to grow as an underground movement, and the Polish people began acting as if they lived in a free state, even though they did not.
In 1989 with the country on the brink of economic collapse, Solidarity convinced Poland’s communist leaders into legalizing the movement and to allow free elections to Poland’s Parliament. The Communists expected to win most contested seats, and still controlled a majority in the Parliament, but were roundly defeated in the election. Most of the contested seats were won by Solidarity leaders. Many angry voters crossed off the names of unopposed Communist candidates and wrote in the names of Solidarity candidates. The result was the Communist Party did not achieve the majority it had anticipated. By forming a coalition with two minority anti-communist parties, Solidarity took control of the Government and the editor of Solidarity’s weekly newspaper was sworn in as Poland’s leader. The new government slowly eliminated the Secret Police, Communist government ministers, and other officials; but did so at a deliberate pace so as not to invite military intervention from the Soviet Union. A free market system was introduced, and Poland became the first Soviet Bloc country to experience revolution.And it didn’t stop there.
Solidarity had caused a domino effect on the rest of the Eastern Bloc. Inspired by Poland’s reforms East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania quickly followed their neighbour’s lead. East Germans took to the street in 1989 and called for reforms such as visits to West Germany and West Berlin. Eric Honecker the East German leader had to eventually bend to the pressure of the people which led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
There’s a good reason why the role that unions played in the fall of the Soviet empire has not been given its rightful place. There has been a purposeful attempt to minimize the role the unions played in the fall of the Soviet Union.
One year later, on August 3, 1981, President Ronald Reagan announced that he would fire the striking air traffic controllers who were seeking better working conditions, better pay and a 32-hour workweek. He told reporters:
Let me make one thing plain. I respect the right of workers in the private sector to strike.... But we cannot compare labor-management relations in the private sector with government. Government cannot close down the assembly line. It has to provide without interruption the protective services which are government's reason for being. It was in recognition of this that the Congress passed a law forbidding strikes by government employees against the public safety. Let me read the solemn oath taken by each of these employees, a sworn affidavit, when they accepted their jobs: ``I am not participating in any strike against the Government of the United States or any agency thereof, and I will not so participate while an employee of the Government of the United States or any agency thereof.''
Ironically Reagan’s position on government unionized workers’ right to labor action would, no doubt, have been unanimously approved of in Communist Moscow. After all, the same argument might well have been made against the Polish workers, where ALL workers were government workers.
At the time, many Americans sympathized more with the government’s position than with the union. Still the move was breath-taking. On one hand, the president spoke of the danger of a strike of government workers to such an important sector and yet, the move to fire and re-train new workers as fast as possible could only be equally as dangerous.
When Air Florida Flight 90 crashed upon takeoff into the Potomac on one snowy January afternoon in 1982 in Washington D.C., followed by the crash a few months later of PanAm flight 759 from Miami to Las Vegas, many worried that about the safety of the air industry. During the investigation, Reagan played up the “heroes” of the rescue, perhaps as a means to divert attention. In fact, no evidence was ever found to connect the training air traffic controllers to any of the crashes. There was only a suspicion which quickly faded.
Reagan’s bold move should not be underestimated. According to Damon Silvers, Associate General Counsel for the AFL-CIO
In the first days of his administration, President Ronald Reagan responded to a strike by air traffic controllers by ordering the firing of the striking controllers and their replacement by “replacement workers.”By this act, Reagan sent a signal to private sector employers, a signal comparable in power to that sent forty years earlier by the War Labor Board. The message was—the federal government fires strikers and hires replacement workers; you can too.
By doing so, the right of employers to hire permanent replacement workers, a right that had been recognized in theory by the NLRB in the 1950’s, but never acted on, became a living part of American labor law. Employers used permanent replacements to break strikes across the industrial landscape in campaigns like International Paper, Hormel, Caterpillar, Continental and Eastern Airlines. Of course, Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) was followed by the effective cessation of labor law enforcement by the Reagan National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a pattern, which after a hiatus under the Clinton Administration, has been resumed with renewed vigor in the George W. Bush Administration. In the decade that followed PATCO, even where union density remained, bargaining power was fundamentally weakened. And not just for union members. Though there has been a dramatic revolution in workplace productivity driven by the information technology revolution, America’s workers have, with the exception of a brief period in the late 1990’s, been unable to bring those gains home with them in their paychecks. And the root of this disconnection between worker productivity and worker income lies in the change in the spirit of American labor law that took hold in 1980.
The consequences of this policy were as predictable as they were grim.
In part two, I will examine the effects of Reaganomics on the country, explain why capitalism- American style had- until recently- managed to prove Karl Marx incorrect.