“Never before have so few with so much promised to take away so much from so many and then laugh their asses off as the so many with so little vote for the so few with so much" --Jim Pence, The Hillbilly Report,.
The old Knights of Labor “tried to teach the American wage-earner that he was a wage-earner first and a bricklayer, carpenter, miner, shoemaker, after; that he was a wage-earner first and a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, white, black, Democrat, Republican, after,” historian Norman Ware wrote.
The Knights meant that whatever else divided them, workers had work itself in common. Work was, by far, the most important factor in their lives. Thus, workers should unite as members of the working class, the Knights urged.
Active in the late 19th-century, the Knights were among the pioneers of the union movement in America. They are long gone.
What the Knights tried to teach workers might seem like Mission Impossible today with so many union members who regularly base their votes on issues that aren’t working class issues. But it is Mission Imperative.
The Knights were right. Workers, no matter what job they perform, are wage earners first. “An injury to one is the concern of all,” was the Knights’ famous motto. It still rings true.
“All” meant the whole working class. Leaders of the Knights and other early unions routinely differentiated between the “working class” and the “employer class” or “owner class.” Those terms still have meaning, too. Yet if you use them, the well-heeled union-haters will yell “class warfare!”
Berry Craig with the late William W. "Wimpy" Winpisinger, international president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
Never mind that most rich people stick together and vote their class interests. And since when is voting “warfare?”
For the record, it’s far-right-wing, anti-union Tea Party tilting Republican types -- not union leaders – who routinely use gun imagery against politicians and policies they don’t like.
Union leaders and union members don’t suggest “Second Amendment” remedies. We don’t urge anybody to “empty the clip and do what has to be done.” We don’t wave signs warning “We came unarmed (this time)” or pack guns to political rallies.
Anyway, some of my union buddies think it's high time for union leaders to start re-emphasizing the fact that there is a working class and we're in it. They say anti-union Republican politicians are able to use social issues to con union members into voting for them because union leaders stopped drawing sharp distinctions between the “working class” and the “owner class.”
In other words, workers have lost their working class consciousness. Sadly, some workers identify more with their bosses than with their fellow workers.
Not coincidentally, many union leaders quit emphasizing the working class-owner class divide at the onset of the cold war. Unions, especially those in the Congress of Industrial Organizations, were branded as “communist” because they battled injustice on a broad front and stood for uplifting the whole working class, not just union members.
Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy, boosted by the anti-union right-wing of his party and by union-despising segregationist Southern Democrats, smeared as “red” anything liberal. The entire American right-wing eagerly embraced the anti-communist hysteria, singling out unions and accusing them of fomenting “class warfare” like the communists in Russia and Red China.
Anyway, I am a history teacher. But I am a wage-earner and a worker first, just like a factory worker, construction worker, dock worker, miner, truck driver, carpenter, plumber, firefighter, garbage collector, grocery clerk and every other worker. We all belong to the working class.
”Working class” – there, I said it.
So did the late labor leader William W. Winpisinger, many times. I heard the feisty, cigar-chomping, unapologetically democratic socialist president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers speak at the IAM district lodge hall in Calvert City , Kentucky , near where I live. It was 1981.
More than a few of Wimpy’s brother and sister Machinists had fallen for the Republican social issues sucker play – guns, abortion and school prayer in particular in those days -- and helped elect Ronald Reagan president. Winpisinger challenged them to vote their class interests next time.
Wimpy pointed out that it wasn’t right-wing Reagan-style Republican “free enterprise” economics that enabled workers to enjoy a decent living. (Reagan would go on to become one of the most anti-union presidents in history.)
Union members earn good pay and benefits precisely because they belong to a union and because of government activism on behalf of the working class, he reminded his audience.
"Free enterprise,” still means what it’s always meant to the union-hating crowd: union free and free of government regulations that protect workers and the environment against the greedy excesses inherent in unfettered capitalism.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the heyday of unrestrained “free enterprise,” most workers toiled long hours at low pay in jobs that cost them their lives and limbs. “Robber Barons” like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie made millions of dollars at the expense of millions of impoverished workers -- men, women and children.
Today’s Robber Barons and their Republican friends have declared holy war on organized labor. They want to turn back the clock to the days when government sat idly by as the owner class enriched itself by impoverishing the working class. (Regrettably, more than a few Democrats have run up the white flag, surrendered or even joined the GOP’s anti-union and anti-government chorus.)
Anyway, the problem for union leaders is easy to see, but hard to solve: How do they convince rank-and-filers to vote their class interests?
Granted, it’s always been easier for labor leaders in other industrial countries to raise working class consciousness than it has been for labor leaders in America . For example, class lines were plainer in Europe than in America .
European countries had rich kings and nobles who lorded it over peasants and workers. If you were a miserably poor peasant or worker, it was easy to see whose foot was on your neck.
Most Americans pride themselves on the fact that we’ve never had a rich king or a titled nobility. I’m glad we told George III and the Brits to take a hike in 1776. But from then to now, we’ve had a wealthy elite that has run things. And that elite has always worked hard to convince working stiffs that in America everybody can get rich.
In the late 19th century, when the gap between rich and poor widened into a chasm, Horatio Alger Jr. became famous for writing novels about poor kids who got rich by working hard and not challenging the capitalist system.
Millionaires loved the Horatio Alger stories. Alger's implication was that many, if not most, millionaires were like Rockefeller and Carnegie, who were men of humble origins. “While some multimillionaires started in poverty, most did not,” Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States.
Zinn added: “A study of the origins of 303 textile, railroad, and steel executives of the 1870s showed that 90 percent came from middle- or upper-class families. The Horatio Alger stories of 'rags to riches' were true for a few men, but mostly a myth, and a useful myth for control.”
The myth is still around. The rags-to-riches story is still the exception, not the rule. Most Americans are still born, live and die in the same economic class.
In addition, the gap between rich and poor is still wider in America than in any other industrial democracy, including Old Mother Britain, with its queen and nobility.
In America , the owner class and its friends in politics, the press and the pulpit, have always been adept at dividing workers by skill, race, gender, religion, ethnicity and nationality. Today, the wedge issues include what one of my union friends calls "The Three Gs -- God, guns and gays."
At the same time, the powers-that-be continue to gull the working class by claiming that if you own (or are making payments on), say, a three-year-old Chevy and a two-bedroom house far from Easy Street, your interests are the same as the guy who tools around town in a brand new Lexus, or a BMW, or an Escalade and beds down in a mansion behind the walls of a gated community.
A lot of union members buy it and vote for rich, right-wing Republicans who want their ballots, but, of course, not their company. GOP politicians are all for working stiffs showing up on election day to cast Republican ballots. But heaven forbid the hoi polloi dropping by the mansion for dinner or the country club for a round of golf on the way home from the polls.