The AFL-CIO posts the following question on it Web site: “The sustained war on workers from the right has left unions trying to prevent rights from being weakened rather than setting the agenda. Where are the opportunities to play some offense?”
The answers are all over the lot; no coherent agenda is evident. But that does not mean that a coherent agenda cannot be imagined.
The first and essential element of such an agenda is anger. During the heyday of the union movement, the more so in its early years, anger was manifest, directed at “the bosses.” But the anger was and is constricted by four contextual conditions: First, the system developed a brilliant capacity for diverting attention from issues that might have provoked anger by offering, instead, bread and circuses — bread and circuses, football and baseball and basketball [pace, ice hockey and soccer fans] and a lottery culture.
The rich and super-rich were less reviled than they were regarded as lucky. The life styles of the rich and famous were seductions; intended to or not, they channeled what might have developed into anger into more pacific responses. Not lust but envy was the principal response.
Second: To propose anger is to invite attention to class, and class is a taboo concept (save for the middle class) in America. We take pride in our classnessness, or did, and to introduce class into the conversation is to be accused or promoting class warfare.
Third: The union movement is not what it was. The system not all that long ago offered suitable villains. But wonder of wonders, the war against unions — think, for example, Wisconsin — even a naked assault on unions, and especially on unions representing public workers, proceeds with only minor bumps along the way.
Fourth, the standard paradigm “back then” was employers vs. employees. In an economy heavily rooted in production, that was an easy and readily available call. But the economy has changed. In the place of producers, we now have money managers. It is harder, much harder, to penetrate the arcane and in many ways abstract world of finance than it was to know the factory on the other side of town. (As a child, I toured the great Ford factory in Dearborn, Michigan, watched as cars were built from scratch. What is there to see in the world of finance? Computer screens.)