In November I will have worked in the labor movement for 25 years, a silver moment for me. From editing the AFL-CIO News, assistant to the legendary Director of Information Rex Hardesty, to producing campaign material for leading labor PR agencies, and now helping to shape message and content for all media at one of America’s great unions, AFSCME, it’s been a great ride.
I’m a Labor Day baby, born the first of September – and this year that is indeed the holiday. Labor Day has always meant more than end of summer and back to school. It’s a time to honor workers, certainly, on a holiday conceived by unions. And it’s also time to get to work. And to think about how there ought to be more reward for the work we do, and more work, period. And about those culpable politicians we need to get rid of.
Yes, Election Day is just around the corner. What I like most about working for unions is that labor has the means – millions of members and effective political alliances – and the will to fight for economic justice, and that is the fight of our lives, in my view. It’s a fight because the enemies of economic justice, the wealthiest individuals and corporations, have unlimited resources and no compunction about wielding their wealth as a bludgeon. In their warped world, the strong survive and the weak are kicked to the curb.
The opponents of economic justice, led by billionaires Charles and David Koch, are devious and pushy, as former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich illustrates in another of a series of important lectures on the economy. As Reich says, we have to stand up to the bullying tactics of the Kochs and demand a level playing field, economic justice for the other 99 percent:
Economic justice to me is captured in the spirit of Norma Rae, the iconic underprivileged, single-mother textile worker who rises above her station by demanding her rights at the mill. The scene with Norma Rae, played by Sally Field in an Oscar-winning performance, jumping on the table and holding up her handmade UNION sign as the bosses rush in to haul her away, gets me every time. You go, girl!
This Labor Day, I am reminded of a call I got back in 1992 from a Hollywood “producer,” a guy looking for an idea he could pitch. He called the editor of the AFL-CIO News to ask who in the labor movement might be the next Norma Rae. Where is that great story in modern-day America?
I’m not sure who the hero is, I said, but the great story in modern-day America is how all the good jobs are leaving America, shipped to other countries by greedy multinational corporations. And how politicians are in league with these corporations, passing so-called “free trade” deals that are making the situation worse.
I could almost feel the stifling of a yawn on the other end of the line. “I know it’s not sexy,” I said, “but it’s the big labor story in America today.” We had just been through a strenuous fight over NAFTA, and President Clinton had shoved it down our throats, twisting enough arms to overcome Democratic opposition. We were already hemorrhaging jobs. Parts of towns were being boarded up. People were suffering. Everyone was affected.
Of course, no one rose from the ruins of a shuttered manufacturing plant to demand change, to defend her job or call for the right to bargain. That’s true even today, and it’s gotten worse. Now corporations that can’t outsource jobs are moving their headquarters to other countries to avoid paying taxes – Burger King is running to Canada to be a tax dodger.
It is hard to find a modern-day hero in this milieu. Sure, there are great stories out there in the organizing trenches, workers standing up for their rights against vicious management tactics, but the wins are getting harder to come by, particularly in the private sector. The laws, and the lack of enforcement, allow employers to stifle organizing drives, retaliating against organizers and intimidating workers. If you don’t like it, well, your job could be performed in Juarez or Kuala Lumpur.
So, instead of labor heroes the movie mavens give us corporate anti-heroes, people like Gordon Gecko, who proclaimed, “Greed is good” in “Wall Street.” In the Hollywood movie today, the Great Gatsby is in and Tom Joad is out. It’s a sad commentary on Hollywood, but it’s all about making money, and labor just isn’t selling in the mass market nowadays.
We can appreciate Norma Rae for what she says and what she stands for, but no sense looking for the sequel. Better to find the spirit of these times in the stories, the poetry, the songs of our generations, not necessarily in film. The storytellers become the heroes, and I like that just fine. Listen to this modern-day poet conjure up the spirit of America, suffering in Youngstown:
That’s bleak, like many of the songs on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a Bruce Springsteen masterpiece that elegantly tells the stories of struggle and hope in search of the American Dream. That dream is getting harder to find, but unions still provide a concrete path to success, despite the roadblocks being set up by the corporate class and their political lackeys.
For this Labor Day, let’s turn to a voice of hope and vitality – what happens in our cities when people come together and demand what’s right, confronting the rich and their political agents. That’s the power of unionism, and few tell it with such vibrancy as Tom Morello of the Nightwatchmen, formerly with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Wherever you are this Labor Day, make it a “Union Town.” Fight for what’s right: