Throughout the course of writing this project, many individuals I spoke with have asked me why we should care about unions, about runaway production, about the middle class or aboutAmerica as the global hegemonic power.
The American Labor Movement is in crisis. Despite the fact that 58% of Americans approve of labor unions (Gallup 2005), the percentage of Americans who are members of labor unions has declined from an all-time high of 33% in 1960 to 12.5% at the present day. Today, approximately 16.1 million Americans belong to unions.
When we talk about what labor union solidarity emerges from, we can begin to understand what is being lost. According to Joshua Freeman, a labor historian, this can be characterized as an “ethic of solidarity and mutuality.” Freeman said,
“[S]ome of it grows out of necessity; you’re living on the margin, you need to turn to other people, whether it’s extended family to watch your kids, or whether it’s neighbors. That mutuality is part of the way of life for working-class people. The labor movement is something that grows out of that. This notion of solidarity, this notion that to improve yourself and promote the values you have, you have to stand with other people, it’s a necessity and an ethic and a value system. And I think that’s a very civilizing notion. I think that that notion is one that labor, at its best anyway, has embodied and promoted” (Freeman 2006).
Another good reason to care about the unions is that the unions, like our government, are manmade structures that can stand in the way of the rationalized destruction wrought by capitalism. The unions “hinder the strict carrying through of the sheer market principle” (Weber 1946a:185). (Max Weber was talking about other social structures but his idea easily applies to unions.) Unions are often problematic organizations that serve at least as a partial bulwark of protection for large groups of people. Capitalists often consider them inconvenient because unions, in principle, value the preservation of human life and dignity over the acquisition of ever-increasing amounts of money. Given the dehumanizing power of capital, which results in a human being alienated in a “steel hard casing” as Weber so famously put it (Weber 1946b), and given the civilizing power that Freeman discusses, these labor union structures are worth our renewed consideration and intelligent, eternally vigilant, support.
However sensible unions’ avowed purpose, direct experience of union leaders’ activities like those discussed in this project (or publicity about them) makes it difficult for many to consider unions as a viable option for protecting working people.
To the above generalizations about unions, I will add another: all unions are different, and every individual within every union is different. One aim of this project is to show that within the unions and within individuals, there are possibilities for awareness and for social change. I argue that labor unions, however flawed, vitally serve the public interest by providing bulwarks against the ravenousness of corporate greed, to the extent that their membership and the public hold the unions accountable.
Similarly, the existence of the middle class is a bulwark which transnational corporations are in the process of “hollowing out.” Runaway production is part of that process. If any other industry were losing $10 billion a year and over 23,000 jobs, this would be front-page news. There are many issues involved, including the fact that the multinational corporations who own the movie studios also own many of the newspapers. It is not in the corporate interest to report on this subject. One other issue may be the American public’s belief in the “American Dream.” To many early twenty-first-century citizens, the concept of the American Dream feels eternal. It is a common, albeit logical, fallacy to assume that something has always existed just because one has always known it to exist (Tversky 1982). It is as fragile as the eroding union solidarity discussed early in the dissertation (sorry, not on the blog).
I believe that we can play at moral relativism and take an “impartial” “scientific” stance by saying there is no good or bad in this situation. But as a sociologist who draws from both quantitative and qualitative evidence, I cannot in good conscience argue that relativist position. The only beneficiaries of that position are corporate interests. That stance is only possible with a depopulated world view, where you count statistics and forget individual talented flesh-and-blood people who are, often enough, making an American product so spectacularly unique that it is irreplaceable. This project argues against such moral relativism.