08/24/2011 07:07 pm ET Updated Oct 24, 2011

Do We Need a Heavy Dose of Street Theater?

"When the axe came into the woods, many of the trees said, "At least the handle is one of us." --Turkish proverb

You often hear labor leaders express regret at not having been around in the bad old days. The days when union activists regularly mixed it up with company goon squads, when Pinkertons armed with clubs whaled away on picket lines, cracking heads and causing havoc, when industrial riots, mass arrests and blood on the streets made the front pages of the newspapers.

Mind you, no one misses the violence or the chaos. What they miss is the clarity.

Organized labor's biggest gains were made back when there was no doubt about which side you were on: the workers' or the owners'. As soon as management made clear they were refusing labor's request for a larger slice of the pie -- in the form of profit-sharing or decent wages and benefits -- the lines were drawn. And it was across these clearly delineated lines that the battles, both figuratively and literally, were fought.

Then, roughly 30 years ago, everything changed. Following Reagan's firing of the Air Traffic Controllers, the lines began blurring. Corporate America announced that they would no long regard organized labor as an "adversary," and requested that America's unions do likewise -- that they recognize management as their partner, not their foe.

This more or less marked the birth of the "team" concept. And, of course, as anyone with a calculator can tell you, it's been downhill ever since.

Alas, many workers welcomed the change. They rejoiced at being included on the Team because it made them feel not only more secure, but more valuable, more important (even if their paychecks didn't reflect it). Accordingly, union workers put pressure on their leadership to take more accommodating positions, and non-union workers swelled with pride. Wal-Mart began referring to its lowest paid employees as "associates."

Corporations persuaded us that we had entered a New Age. They convinced us that working people and those who employ them are, in fact, on the same team, that we all basically want the same thing. Moreover, they convinced many of us that those fiscal policies which seemed so generously beneficial to the wealthy would almost certainly (eventually, some day) benefit the middle and bottom as well.

Yet, just look at the numbers. Ever since that absurd proposition was given credence, working people have been on a downward spiral, while, simultaneously, the rich have continued to edge ever upwards, toward the stratosphere.

Admittedly, one reason for the disparity is the tectonic shift in the U.S. economy. Because America is now thrashing about in a post-industrial environment -- where industries such as steel, paper, rubber, chemicals, heavy machinery, home appliances, automobiles, etc., have been ravaged -- the middleclass has suffered. There are simply too few traditionally well-paying manufacturing jobs.

But another reason for the decline is the woeful lack of old-fashioned American resistance. Old-fashioned American defiance. While losing our manufacturing base was a shocking blow, the response to the loss was equally shocking. Unlike the past, where union workers took to the streets in tens of thousands, and defiantly proclaimed their opposition to corporate America, few of us seemed to know what to do.

To be fair, part of it was confusion and uncertainty. Without a clear plan, without discipline and structure, people simply don't know how to mount a protest. After all, one doesn't just scrawl a defiant message on a placard and then go out in the street and began marching. It's an historical fact: Solidarity rarely manifests itself without leadership, even the grassroots variety.

Arguably, our lack of resistance can be traced to the drop in union membership, which stands today at about 12.4 %, down from a high of about 35% in the 1950s. Say what you will about organized labor's flaws, but it's the unions who offer solidarity. For close to 150 years, going back to 1866, with the formation of the NLU (National Labor Union), organized labor has been the workers' only friend.

And despite all the feel-good rhetoric to the contrary, there is nothing -- not lobbyists, not legislation, not angry letters to the editor -- that Big Business, Wall Street, and the wealthy fear more than worker solidarity, whether in the form of street protests or general strikes. Which is why they continue to demonize organized labor. Given the sorry state of the Democratic Party, they recognize unions as their only adversary.

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