Monday, October 19, 2009

A Laborious Effort - by Wes Bishop

In 1939, amidst a flurry of controversy one of the greatest American novels hit the book stands to a population divided over the message that the book sought to explore. The book was The Grapes of Wrath, written by the American literary master John Steinbeck.

Within the book Steinbeck discussed many issues, one of which was the labor movement in the United States. For this exploration, and his other thoughts, Steinbeck created a backlash within the conservative community that resented the fact that an author would dare to explore the darker side of American life. So infuriated where many that a plot developed to arrest Steinbeck and falsely charge him with raping an underage girl. Fortunately for Steinbeck the plot was foiled but the resentment none the less continued to boil.

Such an occurrence is unfortunately common in the States where patriotism is hijacked by the nationalistic to become a state where only certain values are championed and where problems that are inconvenient are white washed and ignored. Such is the case with the labor movement in the United States.

As Steinbeck shows in his novel the right for the worker to organize and work for better conditions in the work place is a fundamental and natural state for workers to gravitate towards. In the book Steinbeck illustrates this by having his protagonist family, the Joads, go to work on a farm picking fruit. Upon arriving they discover that the wages, although not stupendous, are acceptable. It is only later that they find out that they are “strikebreakers”, workers that have been shipped in to force the old workers who are demanding better wages to give up their strike for better wages and working conditions.

In the actions that follow Tom Joad (one of the main characters) tells Preacher Jim Casey (another main character) that the strikebreakers will not join the strike because the wages they are currently receiving are “pretty good.” Jim Casey tries to reason with Tom that the only reason they are getting good wages is because the strike is forcing the hands of the bigger companies. Tom says that this may be so but to most workers it will not matter, all they will care is that they are receiving good wages for the time. Before the conversation can go much further company thugs show up and kill Preacher Jim Casey. This effectively ends the strike and the very next day the wages of the strikebreakers are reduced.

This scenario is not a farfetched science fiction plot. Instead it is a very plausible situation and it is because of its stark realism that many were angered by its being vocalized, because as it is mentioned above there is a strong tendency in the United States to overlook the blatantly unjust, the painfully unfair, and the pathetically inequitable. This tendency is so because it is accepted by many to be unpatriotic to make America look the fool, and to point out the inequities in the society, for if this is ever done the idea that this is the nation of the free and unrepressed is questioned. Again as it is mentioned above, patriotism is all too often interchangeable with nationalism.

Nearly half a century later the lesson of Steinbeck is still pertinent because despite all that has been achieved for the common worker much still remains to be accomplished.

FDR’s New Deal and the natural political evolution that grew out of that movement has done much to help working people but much of that natural evolution was later retarded by the rise of the conservative forces in the country.

Beginning long before the 1980’s but definitely coming to age in the time period known as the Republican Revolution, views towards unions and organized labor began to sour. Instead of policies that were pro-union and for a strong middle class, philosophies that favored concentrations of wealth and greater inequity began to come back into popular favor.

The reasons for these are many, one of which were the points that conservatives began to espouse to the American people. These messages included the idea that the government was a nuisance that needed to be removed and limited, that the best way to lead a country was not to look towards democratic institutions but instead private companies, and finally that those who had very little deserved their state and that concern for them was dangerous communism. Although the politicians of this era are very much to blame for what they did to harm the labor movement it should be noted that they were not alone in their progress. It should always be remembered that politicians are only as strong as the people who support them. The situation that the United States finds itself in at any time period is the direct result of citizens either demanding certain policies or being apathetic towards the government, therefore to summarize Shakespeare the fault dear reader lie not in our political leaders but in ourselves.

There will of course be many who read this essay that say that this is ridiculous and that the conservative philosophy towards economics is somehow superior. Fortunately the conservative movement is not renowned for innovation and therefore the points that will be raised by the conservative reader can easily be foreseen. To begin the underlying statements of conservatism will be examined.

Conservatives essentially make two claims when it comes to governing and the role of government in economics. On the one hand they claim that the government should simply stay out of as much as possible and instead give the keys to leading the country to the “people.” This is the first claim, and intellectuals on the left, eager to finally break from arguing with evangelicals, embrace it as a legitimate academic thought, ignoring the following point conservatives make about the economy. That second claim is that all in all unions and organized labor is bad for the economy.

Now the term “people” is a confusing expression because on the surface it looks as if the conservatives are saying that every single citizen is collectively responsible and therefore valued in the decision making process. Yet, on a closer examination people can see that “people” are really a select few, who have either been diligent or simply lucky enough to come to a position where they can gain enough financial might to earn a place on the American Mount Olympus where they can then hand down their decisions to others.

In the United States we fuel our egos and pretend this is somehow original to the world and therefore call it Reaganomics, a system that proudly espouses that the super rich will hold the keys to the economy and a trickledown effect will benefit everyone. Of course to any adequate historian or political scientist a brief musing over Reaganomics shows that it is nothing new but instead a reinvention of the socio-economic wheel. All one need do to see Reaganomics at work in history is to peruse European history. Feudalism, as any grade student will dutifully report, is a system where a few landed gentry (individuals who got to that position because of diligence or luck) have control over a mass majority of the population. The only way this system really works is if a political philosophy prevails where it is deemed ethical that a few have more than the many. This is not only true for material goods, but also influence in policy, practical control over what is circulated in the media, and monopoly over the direction of public discourse. In short Reaganomics is American feudalism.

Now the reason it is odd that conservatives make the two claims is that on the one hand they say that citizens and the public should determine the course of the country, this is illustrated in private companies as well as gatherings of citizens to bring about change on their own. However, conservatives also state that unions are a bad thing for the financial system so what occurs is
only the private companies are legitimate in the conservatives’ eyes for shaping the economy.
The next argument that conservatives are prone to make concerning unions is the idea that unions hurt worker productivity, that they are detrimental to a company’s profits, and that in fact they do more harm than good. This is a very bizarre claim because again anyone who has seriously studied history knows this to be false. Granted is the point that unions bring about their own issues and complications. Such is the case with anything in life, but to go from that admittance to the idea that somehow unions have led to a worse environment is ridiculous. Before organized labor it was common to have children work in coal mines and expose workers to equipment that could lead to serious disfigurement or even death. It is difficult to imagine that there is any human alive who would honestly hold that it is far worse for company’s profits to be cut then it is to have a child killed in a coal mine.

This should be very apparent because although unions have been hurt in the past few decades it is nothing compared to what the rest of the world has had to experience. In an attempt to short change the American people companies have not only outsourced jobs but also pre-New Deal working conditions to the people of the developing world. And the cruelest irony of all is that for the most part people will become angry at the poor soul in India, China, or some other nation for taking “their” job instead of becoming mad at the companies that refuse to recognize their work force as human beings.

In closing, I would like to address all of those who still slumber in ignorance over this issue and continue to yell “communist”, “socialist”, or whatever large companies are labeling those who believe workers have fundamental rights. This is not communism, or socialism. It is in essence simply right; humans have the right to be treated like humans.

To quote the great social philosopher himself, “The strongest bond of human sympathy outside the family relation should be one uniting working people of all nations and tongues and kindreds.” No it was not Karl Marx, but instead the radical Abraham Lincoln. If you will excuse me now dear reader I have some reading to catch up on and judging by the refusal of many to accept the simple, I will probably be engrossed with Steinbeck for quite some time to further understand our present state.

-Wes Bishop
Dayton Ohio
October 11, 2009
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  1. We are fighting an uphill battle, as American workers today are convinced that capitalism and an unregulated free market is the best thing for the workers themselves.

    Is anyone still waiting for the wealth to "trickle down"...? >.>

    I may sound bitter. But watching how people have jumped on Obama every time he tries to do the slightest thing for the country makes me, yeah, a little bitter I guess. Everyone out there is becoming an objectivist, believing that the more laissez faire a society is the better.

    Possible that's why Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath the way he did. He wanted people to really think about the consequences of capitalism. People need to do that now, and fast.

  2. This is a very interesting post. Thanks for writing it! I'd like to make two comments.

    1. You make a good point about unions. There are always problems either way, with or without unions, but it's important for the workers to have a voice. An individual worker can't really negotiate fairly with a large corporation. Unions can become corrupted, of course, but I don't think the solution to that is to just do away with them altogether but to make sure that the workers really are being represented. Also, you make a good point about how bad things were before unions, especially how badly many workers were treated.

    2. I love the ability of literature to make humanity think about important issues.

    Thanks again for writing.

    (By the way, I got here from Xanga. I'm Jedi Master 713 there.)

  3. "Fortunately the conservative movement is not renowned for innovation and therefore the points that will be raised by the conservative reader can easily be foreseen."

    Excellent writing.


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