The one and only time I belonged to a union was also my first job. I was pushing carts and bagging groceries at Jewel. I was 14 or 15, or thereabouts, so this must have been 1993 or 94. It was the beginning of Clintonism, as the Democrats had moved away from what we called the “New Deal Dinosaurs” or “old Labor Dems” like Mondale and Dukakis.
I remember distinctly joking with my friends about having to join the union, as I was the only one whose job made me do so (that I recall, anyway). We joked about me becoming a labor boss, and being super corrupt. That’s what unions were to me: an old-fashioned relic and an avenue for corruption.
The only experience I really remember from it was sitting in the poorly-lit and, to a sensitive teenager, bleak break-room while a rep explained to me when I could take my breaks, what rights I had, safety protocols, and everything else. I remember being bored, of course, and sort of uncomfortable, and certainly plagued with dread about the adult world of work. This break room filled with tired grown-ups and burn-outs was my haven? That was my union association: a painted break-room in the bowels of Jewel.
What I didn’t understand was that my dismissal of unions was part of one of the great tricks the boss class has ever pulled: convincing Americans that unions are the real enemies of workers, and that we’re better off without them. For decades, the monied right has led a frontal assault on organized labor, an assault that has reached its furious peak under that great hero of the white working class, Donald Trump.
It’s here that I know I should clear my throat and talk about how corrupt unions are, etc. But fuck that. It’s true that there has been corruption in unions, labor and otherwise. But there is no more than in any other human institution, and far less corruption than the pure distilled brutal greed of the boss class, parasites who turn workers into capital and then grind them into dust.
This is the damn problem. Democrats have taken this attack as one made in good faith, with a “well, unions have problems too”, as if incidents of corruption compare to the horrorshow of greed that is the entire system. As if incidents of labor violence compare to the forces of capital marshaling state violence against them.
But we’ve accepted this narrative. As unions disappeared, victimized by unregulated capital flight, the boss class, aided by a sniveling wealth-humping corporate media, portrayed the few remaining unions as greedy and selfish. We look at government workers and say “why do they have good benefits” instead of saying “wait, why don’t I?” They’ve stripped away collective bargaining rights from millions and trained them to see the few strong unions left as the enemy.
(This isn’t too terribly removed from race, of course: federal unions are some of the greatest guarantors of the black middle class. It’s very typical of the ruling class to destroy the livelihood of white people and then blame greedy and lazy black folks.)
The attacks on unions keep coming. The template was set in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, when he attacked teachers as being corrupt and ruinous while giving away the state and its resources to the monied few. Kavanaugh’s confirmation, assuming it happens (which seems inevitable) will open the door for anti-union laws to pass through the highest courts. And of course, Trump continues his attack, not just on unions, but on every worker. As Steven Greenhouse writes in the Times today:
Most recently, he used his authority as president to deliver a harsh Labor Day message to the 2.1 million people who work for him, canceling pay raises for the civilian employees of the federal government. In May, he issued three executive orders to weaken federal employees’ unions by, among other things, limiting the subjects they can bargain over. (On Aug. 25, a judge ruled that this move violated federal law.) In March 2017, Mr. Trump signed a law repealing an executive order signed by President Obama that sought to keep the federal government from awarding contracts to companies that violate laws protecting workers’ right to unionize, as well as wage and job safety laws.
Since taking office, Mr. Trump has installed a conservative majority on the National Labor Relations Board that has moved quickly to make it harder for unions to organize. Last December, the board overturned a rule, beloved by unions, that made it easier to organize smaller units of workers in big factories and stores. In another board decision, his appointees made it tougher for workers at fast-food restaurants and other franchised operations to unionize, although that “joint employer” ruling was vacated when a labor board member later recused himself because of a conflict of interest. The board is also looking to slow down unionization elections, a move that unions oppose because it would give corporations more time to pressure workers to vote against unionizing.
From Day 1, Trump’s one consistent belief outside of flagrant racism and tinpot authoritarianism has been that anyone not rich and powerful should get screwed. He screwed over his contractors constantly, and he screws over workers now. They aren’t real people to him.
But they are real people. They are people who deserve a better life, which is what unions have always fought for. They are people who deserve the right to bargain collectively, because that’s the only way to stand up to huge and powerful corporations. They deserve the right to live decent lives in exchange for their labor. A job is not a gift, nor is it noblesse oblige. A job is you selling your labor, your talents, and your time. You don’t owe them. They owe you.
It’s absurd how much we kowtow to the bosses and to the wealthy. It’s disgusting how much our official monied media goes along with it. It’s terrifying how many Americans are willing to sacrifice these rights because we’ve demonized the Other. There’s no one reason why we’ve abandoned our democracy, but the willingness to celebrate the wealthy and institutionalize inequality while destroying the ability of workers to mobilize is certainly a key element.
Looking back, it is amazing that someone sat down a skinny and bored cart-pushing twerp and explained safety regulations and told me my rights as a worker. But that’s what unions do. The union did that in a break room they earned. It wasn’t given to them. It wasn’t a damn gift. Unions fought for it.
They fought for decades so that we have short days and we have weekends and we have the right to take breaks. And we’ve given that away. People fought and died for these rights, sacrificed their lives so that others of our class could thrive. They died for people they don’t know, because they knew that real democracy is impossible without class consciousness.
So today, on Labor Day, don’t work. Don’t feel you have to catch up on things. People died so that you don’t have to. Unless we stop giving away those hard-earned rights, we’ll give up everything that makes us American.