Labor versus Business: From Economic Wars to Culture Wars?

Nmuralew Orleans I wonder with the diminishing strength of unions whether we are about to finally move from front page economic wars to the back page culture wars so much enjoyed by the right.  Not able to fully move women back to the kitchen or African-Americans back to the plantation, perhaps they feel they will now have more success eliminating the history of workers altogether.

A couple of things brought this to mind.

Early this morning setting up Citizen Wealth and Social Policy at a conference being held by the Association of Labor Educators, I listened to a fellow from Stoneybrook complaining to a colleague about how union leaders themselves never referred to their members any more as workers or a part of the working class, but instead talked endlessly of losing “middle-class jobs,” assaults on the “middle class,” and so forth.

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin seemed to make sure he was always a long way out of camera shot from the statue honoring populist politician and labor backer, Robert Follette, the legendary Wisconsin freedom fighter, during the recent evisceration of public workers rights in that state, where those same rights had been pioneered.  Now it seems there was a big controversy in Maine over a 36-foot mural in the state Department of Labor building there which depicted loggers, shoemakers, shipyard workers, and others, but also had a panel on the big Jay, Maine paper strike among other things.  The Governor Paul LePage, another newly elected Republican, has ordered it removed according to one of the last labor reporters on the newspaper beat, Steven Greenhouse.  He thought it offended some business folks, even though it has been up for 3 years with no real problems.

These are more than just canaries in the mine shaft.  The history of workers and the working class in America (and elsewhere!) has always been a behind-the-doors, back-of-the-house specialty.  Hearing how attendance has dropped among the labor educators as university programs have been pared down, unions forced to eliminate education programs, and states from California to wherever in bitter political purges of funding for such work, it is clearly a situation where there’s going to be even less and less that gets out there.  The chance that what emerges will find its way into the hands of workers themselves is even more unlikely.

The signals are clear that the right wants to bleach out the last of the blue collar as they glorify greed, bankers, and high-tech, even while we bailout them out and their secretaries print out their e-mails for them.  It feels like now that they see blood in the water and feel the whip in their hand, that the effort to make workers invisible and erase what remains of their work, honor, and tradition in our culture will build up force to try to sweep everything in the way of its rage.

No longer able to command the front page with news of strikes or settlements, it appears now we will find our place in the Arts section as more obituaries are written to mark the passing of our times.

We better stop it now, while we still can!

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Thanking John Sweeney

sweeneyWashington There are few grace notes in the current divisions within the forces of institutional labor, but I happened to experience a small one at Georgetown University in a special ceremony held to honor John Sweeney, retiring President of the AFL-CIO, with an honorary degree.  I had been invited by Joe McCartin, an organizer with Houston ACORN decades ago as a Jesuit Volunteer Corps member, and Jennifer Luff, who worked as a researcher for me in the HOTROC campaign in New Orleans.  Joe is now a professor at Georgetown specializing in labor history and Jennifer just signed on with him to help put the Kalmanovitz Institute for Labor and the Working Poor together, where he is also acting as director.   The Georgetown Labor Center, as another organizer called it, as we drove to Georgetown was exciting enough to drawn me down to talk about what people had in mind and how I could help.

I stumbled into the fine hall after the ceremony had already begun, taking a seat just behind Jon Hiatt, Sweeney’s long time general counsel at SEIU and now the AFL, who reached out his hand, and Bill Lurye, from New Orleans sitting down the row past Ray Abernathy and Denise Mitchell, the communications wizards I had known so long.

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