I grew up in Anderson, Indiana, when that town’s Guide Lamp and Delco Remy plants employed large numbers of workers, and unions were strong. My father was a small businessman–he owned and operated an auto parts store–and I can still remember conversations between my parents that focused on the excesses of those unions. Strikes, of course, hurt my father’s business, but it went beyond that; union members sometimes engaged in thuggish behaviors of which my parents strongly disapproved.
Those snatches of conversations were really all I knew growing up about labor unions, or the issues that came under the heading of “labor-management disputes.” Then, earlier in our married life, my architect husband often railed against construction unions that brought projects to a halt until their complaints were addressed, pointing out how those stoppages–often over “jurisdictional disputes” that seemed petty–drove up costs.
Let’s just say I wasn’t a fan of unions. I missed the point.
What I now understand is that wildly uneven distribution of power is never a good thing. Both management and unions have been guilty of bad behaviors, and those behaviors ought to be punished when they occur, but when management holds all the cards, the economy suffers and inequities and social discord increase.
The success of the business community in crushing unions has been a substantial contributor to the current, enormous gap between the rich and the rest, and to the resentments that feed America’s culture wars. So–despite my earlier bias–I see the signs of union resurgence as unequivocally good news.
The Guardian recently reported on the elevation of Liz Schuler to the presidency of the AFL-CIO. The article noted that
Public approval for organized labor in the US has climbed to its highest level in more than 50 years, as many young workers are flocking into unions and millions of overstressed, underpaid frontline workers are impatient to improve their lot.
There are obvious barriers to a rebirth of vigorous unionism. At this point in time, only 6% of private-sector workers are in unions, and as the article points out, “the Republican party is intent on weakening unions, and most US corporations – led by behemoths Amazon and Walmart – are fiercely opposed to unionization.” Add in the prevalence of gig workers, tech workers and immigrant labor, and the employment landscape is considerably different than the largely factory-based labor force of my youth.
That said, we need only turn on the evening news to hear reports of efforts to unionize behemoths like Amazon and Starbucks, and more recently, striking workers in a number of sectors. The reluctance of workers to return to low-wage and often dangerous jobs in the wake of the pandemic and the proliferation of “help wanted” signs points to workers’ new ability to bargain for change. How all of this will play out is anyone’s guess.
The new aggressiveness of workers is just one piece of the social upheavals Americans are currently experiencing. Those upheavals remind me of another facet of my earlier life: the period we now refer to as “The Sixties.” Many of us in my (advanced) age cohort vividly remember the Sixties as a time of extreme social discord, a time the nation seemed to be coming apart. But that turmoil generated enormous–and largely positive–social change: it gave impetus to the civil rights movement, expanded healthcare for the elderly and the poor, reinvigorated the women’s movement and the gay-rights movement…The Sixties shook America out of the complacency and conformity of the Fifties.
Regular readers of this blog may be shocked by this evidence of actual positivity, but as troubling and fraught as the current landscape is, I am convinced that we are going through a time of reordering and reconsideration not unlike what Americans experienced in the Sixties–hopefully, without the degree of violence that erupted during that time.
If we can protect our basic democratic system–which, in my view, absolutely requires passage of the Voting Rights Act–we can emerge with a new understanding of civic equality and economic justice, a new recognition of the proper balance between “I” and “we,” and a renewed appreciation of the significant degree to which “my” prospects require a healthy and robust “us.”
So I’m cheering on the unions, rooting for the Biden Administration, appreciating the millions of Americans who’ve protected their neighbors by getting their vaccines, applauding the educators and historians who are correcting propaganda in the face of racist blowback– and reminding myself (sometimes daily) that a degree of upheaval–disquieting as it is–really can lead to a better tomorrow.