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Are We Letting It All Slip Away?

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Some years ago the American writer Jack Hitt made a clever, off-beat suggestion. He suggested that if African Americans seriously wished to defuse or neutralize the remaining iconic influence of the confederate flag (which not only is still displayed in the Deep South, but proudly hangs from South Carolina's capitol building), black rappers should co-opt it. They should make it their own.

Hitt advised rap musicians to emblazon the image of the confederate flag on their jewelry, their clothing, their posters, their record album covers -- on everything they can think of. Turn the confederate flag into a universally recognized symbol of black pride and black defiance... do that, and watch how fast that Southern gravy bib is removed from the statehouse's flag pole.

It was a clever idea. One wonders if there's any way this same sort of "reverse," in-your-face approach could be adopted by labor unions. As things stand now, many union leaders and members (along with the Democratic politicians who give them lip service) are so beaten down and demoralized, they seem almost ashamed or embarrassed by their union affiliation. They behave as if there was, in fact, some truth to the smear campaigns being waged by the Republican right.

But instead of offering mealy-mouthed, half-hearted defenses of their unions, what if these people took the offensive? What if they portrayed organized labor not only as a viable institution -- one acknowledged to have had glorious antecedents, a rich and storied history, a record of positive social change, blah, blah, blah -- but as America's last and only hope if the middle-class is to survive?

What if they resorted to some dramatic examples, such as pointing out that Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who heroically landed that jet plane on the Hudson River, was chairman of his union's safety committee, and reminding people that those 343 firefighters who died on 9-11 were all union members -- every last one of them.

More substantially, unions need to make the point that without economic leverage America's working class will soon be at the mercy of corporations (not that they already aren't). With our federal labor laws being watered down and chipped away, and organized labor regularly coming under assault, the only thing that's going to be standing between working people and the gateway to hell is the federal minimum wage, which, at $7.25 per hour, translates to $15,080 per year -- that is if you're lucky enough to work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.

Unions are letting the game get away from them. Organized labor is not only being systematically badgered and misrepresented in the U.S., it appears to be given short shrift in Europe as well. On February 8, PBS NewsHour presented a glowing report on Germany's astonishing economic success. Even in this uncertain and increasingly volatile global economy, Germany has managed to pull off a minor miracle. Their economy is flourishing.

As to the influence of organized labor, there's no denying that Germany's economic bonanza was largely achieved by union members. Like most Western European nations, Germany has a sizable percentage of union workers. More significantly, most of those unionized workers are employed in the country's high-tech, high-profit manufacturing sector -- the sector that is most responsible for Germany's recent success.

And unlike the U.S., German politicians don't make a career of bashing labor unions, and German talk show hosts don't make a name for themselves by demonizing national health care, equating it with "evil socialism." Indeed, Germany's health care program is considered one of the finest in the world.

So instead of giving those same old, tired, faux-patriotic stump speeches that glorify American virtues and accentuate American exceptionalism, our politicians need to adopt a broader, more internationalist view. Hopefully, we're not too stubborn to learn from other people. Our leaders must take the initiative. They must convince us to embrace Europe. They must convince us to look to Germany as a model.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net.