Wayne M. O’Leary

Labor Blues

The first thing to say about Wisconsin is that it takes money to beat money. So-called boots on the ground are important and necessary, but people power alone can’t win elections in the era of Citizens United. In retrospect, the dream of defeating Gov. Scott Walker’s cash-heavy juggernaut with an empty wallet was just that — a dream.

The nearly eight-to-one advantage in GOP spending was key to Walker’s win. Voters may insist they are not influenced by TV and radio advertising, but that’s just not the case; they are, especially when a relentless, around-the-clock drumbeat of partisan messages goes unanswered over time by the other side. Constant repetition has a cumulative effect on the public psyche; say it long enough and loudly enough, and it becomes the truth.

Barack Obama didn’t help things much in Wisconsin by substituting a last-minute “tweet” for putting his own boots on the ground; he evidently didn’t want his administration closely associated with what appeared in the closing weeks to be a losing cause. In any case, the president, seeking independent votes, has never evidenced an overwhelming desire to identify with controversial public-service unions; he’s given lip service, little more.

Nevertheless, Democrats need to look past this ill-advised transgression and go all out for a second Obama term, because the president, if returned to power, can make Supreme Court assignments crucial to future Wisconsins. He will not likely elevate left-liberals to the high court, but neither will he nominate the sort of right wingers Mitt Romney will put forth, given the chance. One or two center-left appointments is all it would take to reverse or modify Citizens United and turn off the conservative corporate money tap that is distorting American politics.

Of course, corporate money and a presidential absence from the field are not the only reasons for the discouraging outcome in the Badger State. A stronger candidate (Russ Feingold?) would have helped, as well as convincing the undecided that a recall campaign, normally reserved for legal malfeasance in office, was truly needed and not just an expression of political sour grapes.

There’s a rule of labor activism that has long been observed in the union movement: Don’t call a strike unless you’re sure you can win. The same applies to recall elections. Progressives didn’t carefully reconnoiter the public terrain and prepare the ground; instead, they let themselves be ruled, understandably, by their anger and emotions. Looking back, they would have been better served to keep their powder dry until 2014.

The recall, which included four legislative contests, did produce one significant side benefit, however: it turned a formerly Republican state senate seat Democratic, and took control of that body out of GOP hands. As a result, Scott Walker’s remaining agenda, particularly his ambition to make Wisconsin an anti-union “right-to-work” state, will be stymied for now. Regardless, Walker’s personal triumph is an immense propaganda victory for Republicans, a template for other ideologically motivated red-state governors, and (above all) a deep psychological blow to organized labor.

The damaging impact on labor cries out for some analysis. Why would working people, including a quarter of Wisconsin’s union members and a third of its union households, vote against their own interests in a stunning lack of solidarity? The collective-bargaining rights at issue applied only to members of public unions; that’s one obvious contributing factor. But Scott Walker’s desire to eventually enact statewide right-to-work, equally crippling to all unions, was clear by inference.

Encouraged by Republicans, a defeatist, self-flagellating attitude seems to have taken hold among beaten-down workers at large. The unorganized no longer aspire to organize in order to gain what public workers enjoy; they instead appear jealously anxious to reduce public workers to the lowest common denominator — i.e. “If I don’t earn decent wages and benefits, why should they?” Misery apparently wants company.

Something similar to this “pension envy” also seems to be operating in the minds of some unionized private-sector workers, whose benefits and job security traditionally lag behind those of their publicly employed counterparts. Not for nothing did Scott Walker formulate a “divide-and-conquer” union-busting strategy.

But perhaps there’s more to it than that. A negative stereotype of organized labor in general has gradually become part of America’s cultural baggage over the last couple of generations. Why has labor’s popularity eroded? In a visually oriented era, I’d nominate Hollywood as a prime culprit. Individuals who don’t follow broad economic trends, intricate labor negotiations, or evolving corporate stratagems in the workplace do watch movies; what they see on screen mostly undercuts the labor movement and gives it a bad image.

The tipping point can be readily identified. In 1954, the peak postwar year for unionization with 35.1% of the American workforce organized — today it’s 11.8% — Elia Kazan’s groundbreaking On the Waterfront was released. The film, which won eight Oscars and confirmed Marlon Brando’s acting genius, revolved around union corruption and labor ties to organized crime. It’s a theme that still endures and lends credence to such misleading right-wing pejoratives as “union bosses” and “Big Labor.”

Nowhere has Hollywood employed the narrative device of corrupt, mobbed-up unions more than in films about James R. (“Jimmy”) Hoffa and the Teamsters. The checkered career of Hoffa, Hollywood’s favorite labor leader, inspired both the violence-laden Sylvester Stallone vehicle F.l.S.T. (1978) and Jack Nicholson’s moody, belligerent Hoffa (1992). In between, there was Act of Vengeance (1986), with Charles Bronson playing assassinated United Mine Workers reformer Joseph (“Jock”) Yablonski, a victim of mob-connected UMW officials.

The Sally Field tour de force Norma Rae (1979) offset some of the bloodletting and provided some needed balance, but was more a feminist than a labor film. Otherwise, only the John Sayles classic Matewan (1987), set in the West Virginia coal fields, has accurately portrayed the hard reality of union organizing and presented union activists as other than thugs you don’t want to meet.

But where are the Hollywood depictions of squeaky clean union heroes, such as, for instance, Walter Reuther of the UAW and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers? They were incorruptible and idealistic, and, therefore, of no interest to America’s filmmakers. In a time when the visual arts are supreme, labor could use some friends in the creative community.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, with a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2012


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