Rebuilding The American Middle Class
Of all the many comments, pro and con, that have been made about the widespread attempts to weaken American unions, none have been clearer or more on the mark than the words of President Bob King of the United Auto Workers Union.
King, of course, is on the union side of the argument. But as King made very clear, that's the side to be on if you believe working people should have full collective bargaining rights and the decent wages, hours and working conditions that result from fair bargaining.
King's comments came in an exceptional column in the latest issue of Solidarity, the UAW's official magazine. The column is titled, simply, "Do Justice."
To Bob King, "doing justice does not mean trying to reduce the wages, benefits and standard of living of all workers in America," as far too many Republican politicians at all levels of government are trying to accomplish, with their main target – for now – public employees.
"Doing justice to me," said King, "means that everyone has an equal opportunity, and if they make the individual decision to work hard and live by the rules, then they will be able to live a middle-class standard of living and retire with dignity and maintain their middle-class standard of living."
I know, and you know, that can't happen if working people are denied the essential right to unionization – the essential right to a strong bargaining voice in determining their pay and benefits through their unions. That's obvious, for unionization is the main reason for the rise of an American middle class, beginning with the granting of union rights to most workers by federal law in the 1930s.
But as Bob King warned, those rights and the middle class they established are under serious attack by anti-union politicians and others who "preach the vision of scarcity, the vision of division and the vision of fear."
Ours is a country gifted with great abundance, with plenty to give each of us a fair share. But union opponents preaching "the vision of scarcity" deny that. They act as if there's not enough in this, the world's richest country, to give a fair share to all.
Yet there is enough to go around, as we should know, and unions are the primary vehicles for guaranteeing that working people get their fair share of our abundance.
Which is why greedy corporate interests and other anti-labor forces that want a larger share at the expense of others argue selfishly against unions and, indeed, against the very concept of collective bargaining.
The anti-union forces that preach scarcity, noted King, are saying in effect that we should be selfish, that "we had better be jealous of anyone who has more than we do. We had better try to take away from someone who has more than us and bring them down to our level of scarcity rather than trying to bring ourselves (and everyone else) up to their level."
That's clearly what's behind the attempts to reduce or even deny public employees and others the pensions and other fringe benefits and in some cases the pay raises they won in past bargaining and that they earned through their often hard work.
It's not just a matter of wages, hours and working conditions. As King said, doing justice also means "giving workers a real voice in decision making in building the best product or providing the best service for their customers."
Auto workers know that all too well. It isn't U.S. auto workers who are in charge of designing and marketing the vehicles that so many American buyers reject in favor of those designed and skillfully marketed by Japanese firms and other foreign auto makers. U.S. auto workers only build them, in accord with the designs of others that have proved unpopular with so many American drivers.
We shouldn't forget, either, as King reminded his members, that the exercise of the legal union rights granted U.S. workers in the thirties "dramatically reduced poverty and created a far greater sharing of the wealth of this country, The exercise of these rights built the Great American Middle Class." Certainly we do not want to destroy or even weaken a movement capable of such deeds.
King said "the forces teaching scarcity, division and fear have been working very successfully to destroy the American middle class. They want workers to have less and less so the wealthiest can have more and more."
Rebuilding rather than destroying the middle class is what's badly needed, for "there cannot be a strong democracy without a strong middle class, and there cannot be a strong middle class without strong unions."
It comes down to this, said auto workers President King: "Do we want an America of scarcity, division and fear, or do we want an America of abundance, common good and deep caring about one another?"
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, dickmeister.com, which includes more than 300 of his columns.