A few days ago, on December 28, a potential strike by the ILA (International Longshoremen's Association), representing East Coast dockworkers, was averted when union negotiators agreed to extend the contract for another month, and continue bargaining. Both sides took this to be a hopeful sign.
There's an old joke: An Oxford professor meets a former student and asks what he's been up to. The student tells him he's working on a doctoral thesis about the survival of the class system in the United States. The prof expresses surprise. "I didn't think there was a class system in the United States," he says. "Nobody does," the student replies. "That's how it survives."
When it comes to strikes, the general public seems more tolerant -- more grudgingly accepting -- when the shutdowns involve jobs they respect. A good example was the WGA's (Writers Guild of America) 100-day strike of 2007-2008. The public seemed to accept the fact that these writers had a valid beef with the producers, and were entitled to withhold their labor. After all, a strike is the only "weapon" a union has in its arsenal.
Another example is airline pilots. Although pilots don't seem to go on strike anymore, when they used to do it -- despite the tremendous inconvenience it created -- people more or less took the view that these guys must have had a legitimate gripe. As irritating as it was for travelers, people seemed to understand that the pilots were exercising their legal right to hit the bricks. Nurses might fall into this same general category as well.
But let the jobs be ones the public thinks anybody can do (janitors, bus drivers, housekeepers) or ones the public feels are already adequately compensated (autoworkers, longshoremen, electricians), and they freak out. They become indignant. When people hear that bus drivers or hotel housekeepers walked off their jobs in order to seek better wages, they don't seem to have much sympathy.
The argument can be made that this is all about class distinctions. Let it be a Wall Street banker who's looking to jack up his $5 million a year to $7 million, and people don't so much as flinch, even though the average person hasn't the vaguest notion of how Wall Street operates or how that money is earned (we're using the term "earned" in its loosest sense).
This ILA dispute is a perfect example. No one is saying dockworkers don't make a decent wage (even though the figures released by management are wildly misleading). They are firmly entrenched in what is, alas, the rapidly shrinking middle-class. But because they realized they had some leverage here, they were looking to improve their contract. That strategy makes eminent sense. Looking to take advantage of an opening is as American as apple pie.
Indeed, if these people weren't longshoremen, if they were defense contractors or bonds salesmen or real estate speculators or lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry, they not only wouldn't be criticized, they'd be applauded for their ambition and resourcefulness What's that you say? You're reaching for the brass ring?? By all means, go for it!
But these aren't bonds salesmen. These are dockworkers. So instead of being praised for their initiative and willingness to go the extra mile to provide for their families, the U.S. Maritime Alliance, for public relations purposes, is portraying them as greedy bastards.
And of course, there's the issue of hypocritical self-interest, which arises every time the profit-motive comes into conflict with political ideology. In 2002, business groups begged George W. Bush to intervene in the lockout of West Coast (ILWU) longshoremen. Why did these anti-government zealots want the government to butt into the "free market"? Because they were losing money. So much for ideological purity.
A startling statistic: The Department of Commerce reported in November, 2010, that U.S. companies just had their best quarter... ever. Businesses recorded profits at an annual rate of $1.66 trillion in the third quarter of 2010, which was the highest rate (in non-inflation-adjusted dollars) since the government began keeping records more than 60 years ago. And we all thought we were still in a recession?!?
So if money is continuing to gravitate toward businesses, not only in generous amounts, but in record amounts, why are we opposed to the middle-class sharing in that largess? Aren't working folks, as much as Corporate America, entitled to a larger slice of the pie? As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich accurately noted, it's middle-class spending, more than anything, that fuels our economy.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd Edition), was a former union rep.