Monday, March 15, 2004

Sauerkraut accomplished ...

I can now form sentences again.

I just got finished reading The Working Poor: Invisible In America by David K. Shipler. I would love to make this required reading for anyone who babbles about how poor people are just lazy and that all one needs to succeed in this country is a willingness to work hard. There's an idea of the "deserving" poor that seems to exclude most poor people (even working ones) from consideration based on behaviors and decisions that would likely be overlooked or considered benign in middle-class or wealthy people. I'm sure this entire book would cause such cognitive dissonance in so many people that it probably wouldn't make much difference even if it were hugely, widely read. (And with a name like "The Working Poor," the people already content to let the poor starve, be homeless or die of easily preventable diseases aren't likely to see this as a book even worth reading).

Anyway, the last chapter of the book infuriated me. Shipler presents the obligatory "What can we do about it?" suggestions, the main one being that poor people should turn out and "vote their class interests" (which by his implication would mean voting Democratic). So all he did was further push the lie that the Democrats represent the interests of the working class. Sure, Bill Clinton felt your pain as he kicked you off welfare to take a job picking up garbage or flipping burgers for $5.15 and hour while businesses were posting record profits and executive pay skyrocketed.

Some president (I think it was either Herbert Hoover or Calvin Coolidge) once said: "The business of government is business." The only time the business of government concerns itself with the working class is when they present any disruption to business, which brings me to the subject that occupies just one sentence of Shipler's conclusion: unions. He dismisses them as a factor by pointing out that even some union workers are low-paid. It's true: marginalized, weak and bureaucratized, present-day unions are a far cry from the powerhouses through which the workers fought for and won 8-hour days, minimum wages and other laws curruently (mistakenly) taken for granted. The unions need to be rebuilt.

These gains were not won by voting for Democrats and then begging them, they were won by striking, which is what current labor bureacrats are loathe to do (and which is why they should be tossed out and replaced with people whose main ambition is not to go golfing with the Democrats). A lot of people these days have this idea that unions are just some sort of middleman, instead of correctly seeing the union as a collective extension of their power as workers. A union exists because collectively workers have a power they don't have individually: the power to withhold their labor and bring production and profits to a halt. That's why we have to build and rebuild unions in this country, and that's the only way the working poor will ever show up on the radar.

People are always talking about boycotting Wal-Mart or whatever in the mistaken belief that their power is as consumers. But what would really get the attention of Wal-Mart management is a picket line around their stores that no one dares cross, with Teamster drivers refusing to deliver to the struck stores and longshoreman hot cargoing their containerfuls of junk coming in from China. That would rock.

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