Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Europeans are Noisy and Angry, While Americans Man the Internet Barricades (those Twits!)

I've read a number of articles lately questioning why Americans aren't angry in the face of economic hardship and injustice whereas the Europeans take to the streets. A NY Times article by Steven Greenhouse, their labor reporter, offers a dispiriting narrative between the lines. As opposed to the photo, which actually has the caption "THEM" under a crowd of angry European workers protesting in the streets, the picture of American labor is far more tame and sobering.

One assertion is that our government is more trustworthy.

Greenhouse quotes Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union, who said, "I actually believe that Americans believe in their political system more than workers do in other parts of the world." He said large labor demonstrations are often warranted in Canada(!) and European countries to presure parliamentary leaders.
I'll come back to him later.

Americans are also proud of their rugged individualism. Mentioned but barely emphasized is the downside of an American society built on individualism as opposed to community: shame. If rugged individualism is the guiding principle of success, then you are solely to blame for your misfortune. Your fate has nothing to do with socio-economic forces, only your own failings.

Greenhouse quotes David Kennedy, a historian of the Depression-era time period up until WWII, who cites a 1940 study by social psychologist Mirra Komarovsky, whose interviews of the Depression-era unemployed found "the psychological reaction was to feel guilty and ashamed, that they had failed personally."

This sentiment is currently borne out in a quote from a wsj.com article about people moving back with relatives because they've run out of money and options. The following anecdote from the story is about Pam Wilson, a 37-year-old social worker who had made $60,000 and shared a home in Kentucky with her mother:

After unsuccessfully looking for work, depleting her $25,000 in savings and exhausting her unemployment-insurance benefits, she realized she and her mother couldn't afford to live on their own. So she made the difficult decision for them to move back to Georgia to live with her two sisters. The four women share the house.

Ms. Wilson and her mother share a queen-size bed. Ms. Wilson cooks and says she sometimes does extra things around the three-bedroom house like making her sisters' bed, or taking out the trash.

"You just want to make sure that you're not perceived as some type of burden or freeloader," she said. When company comes over, she feels like she might be in the way and retreats to her room. She knows she is welcome, but can't help feeling ashamed.

Not only is conflict muted by shame, there's also fear. Not merely of murderous strikebreakers, but of future consequences.

When desperation and anger finally overcame shame during the thirties:

[W]orkers' protests increased in number and militancy. They were fueled by the then-powerful Communist and Socialist Parties and frustrations over continuing deprivation. Workers also felt they had President Roosevelt's blessing for collective action because he signed the Wagner Act in 1935, giving workers the right to unionize.

From Wikipedia:

The National Labor Relations Act (or Wagner Act) is a 1935 United States federal law that protects the rights of most workers in the private sector to organize labor unions, to engage in collective bargaining, and to take part in strikes and other forms of concerted activity in support of their demands.

When WWII was over and relative prosperity returned, fueled by unionization and big government programs like the G.I. Bill, Congress used the left leaning sentiments of those involved in collective action in the thirties during the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and McCarthy hearings as a cudgel to consolidate power against the overblown threat of the Communist menace (not unlike the fearmongering of the Bush-Cheney years). People who joined collective movements in the thirties were branded as traitors and were blacklisted and imprisoned.

Reagan put the final nail in the coffin of unionization by firing all 11,500 air traffic controllers on strike in 1981.

But the numbers tell the story: Last year, American unions engaged in 159 work stoppages, down from 1,352 in 1981, according to the Bureau of National Affairs, a publisher of legal and regulator news.

Many opinionators in Greenhouse's article spout the party line that Americans are more effective in their internet protests, using energy otherwise wasted in angry, noisy demonstrations. However, this belief (that the internet, or virtual activity, is equivalent to collective action) may be a way to divert attention and let the vox populi think they're actually making a difference.

The most hilarious statement in Greenhouse's article comes from Gerard. (See, I told you I'd mention him again. Now go back in the article and find the first mention).

Demonstrations are less needed in the United States, he said, because often all that is needed is some expert lobbying in Washington to line up the support of a half-dozen senators.

If "expert lobbying" is what's needed to right outrageous wrongs, then big corporations must be ecstatic as they pour millions of dollars into campaigns and strategies to shut down the Employee Free Choice Act.

The Act, which would allow workers to join a union automatically upon employment, is discussed succinctly in David Frieboth's article in the Seattle Times. He lays out the competing narrative against the Act (it bars secret elections, it takes away individual choice) and addresses the realities behind the need for the Act. Employers protest that unionization is well-protected under current law. Freiboth politely disagrees.[My apologies to you, David, for taking so much of your content, but I feel your work is invaluable.]

Scare tactics that highlight problems with union intimidation during organizing campaigns are just that — scare tactics — designed to subvert the essence of the issue.

Problem is, the current law that protects workers' freedom to choose to bargain collectively has been perverted. When faced with a union organizing drive, 25 percent of companies fire the "ringleaders," according to the National Labor Relations Board.

Although this practice is technically illegal, the bar for proving union-organizing discrimination is so high and the penalties so low that when workers express a desire to unionize they are, in effect, risking their livelihoods.

In addition, employees who want to form unions are often threatened with plant closings, offered bribes, spied on and intimidated, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The result? Only 8 percent of private-sector workers actually belong to unions, even though 58 percent of U.S. workers say they want a union in their workplace — the highest percentage in 25 years — based upon a report by the independent researcher firm Hart and Associates.

I only hope that President Obama (who voted for the original act while in the Senate) can persuade Congress to resist the lobbying currently muddying the Washington swamp, an activity that a major labor leader says is all that is needed to achieve goals to strengthen labor in a time of escalating unemployment and makeshift Hoovervilles.

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