02/28/2011 02:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: A House Divided Against Itself

In what in Wisconsin has become a struggle for the survival of the labor movement as an effective political force in this country, I wonder why it seems so difficult to convince what seems to be the majority of Americans that it is in their interests to organize themselves for better wages and working conditions.

"Rugged Individualism" in itself doesn't explain this reluctance to make common cause with others for the benefit of all. It certainly didn't prevent the Robber Barons of the past or the Robber Bankers of the present from organizing themselves into a Union of Self-interest even if in a superficial way they "compete." What seems to me at least one plausible explanation goes back to a statement by W.E.B. DuBois at the turn of the preceding century: "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of color line." I would extend that problem into the 21st century.

If we compare the history of the labor movement in other industrialized countries with our own, one salient fact stands out in explaining the United States' "exceptionalism." It was the only one of these countries that practiced slavery of some kind based on race all the way through the Industrial Revolution. Even after 1865, when the African-American was ostensibly "free," the South, with the complicit support of the North and the federal government , soon instituted the "Black Codes" that guaranteed that a disproportionate number of people of color would be laboring under a semi-feudal form of peonage called "share cropping" or involuntary servitude in which a petty crime or misdemeanor could result in a long sentence of hard labor. Thus the very amendment that freed the enslaved had a caveat that continued slavery within the U.S. penal system. Such labor often involved road repair and other infrastructure projects which the Southern States contracted out to private entrepreneurs, not much differently in its results as "outsourcing" in its impact on our working class and lower middle class workers today.

Whereas Europe had no labor shortage to the degree that the United States had until the middle of this century, the trade union movement in England, France, Germany and other industrial Western societies could create a sense of solidarity because of the traditionally entrenched class system in which only the nobility could own land. More, I believe, than "freedom," the United States became so attractive to immigrants because there was the possibility of owning land. The promise, in fact, made to the Freedman at the end of the Civil War was "forty acres and a mule," and when the "territories" of the Midwest began opening up to mainly white "homesteaders," this chance to own land -- albeit land that had been the home of Native Americans for thousands of years--was what evolved into "the American Dream."

While Black peonage in one form or another prevailed in the South throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, the exploitation of Chinese, Mexican, Irish, Italian and East European laborers enabled the United States to develop a manufacturing base and an elaborate infrastructure relatively cheaply. In contrast, European society, with a strong sense of class solidarity among a homogeneous population with no opportunity to own land, developed a working-class system that appealed to the majority of its citizens and in which one group could not be pitted against another because of race.

Still, there were early attempts in the Southern and Northern parts of the United States to establish a sense of solidarity between working-class Whites and the formerly enslaved with such pioneers as Ben "Pappy" Singleton (1825-1895?). There were various conventions that attempted to develop African-American institutions that would have political and social impact such as the New Orleans Convention of 1875 and the Niagara Movement of 1905 that ultimately resulted in the establishment of the NAACP.

These movements embodied the aspirations of African-American political activists. But racist cultural attitudes provided the White agricultural oligarchy in the South and the Industrialists in the rest of the country with labor that could always be cheaply obtained by willing new-arrivals who felt fortunate to reach their "Promised Land" and would be able to console themselves in their poverty since the African-American could always be regarded as "lower" on the socio-economic scale than they were.

Despite the gains of the labor unions in the early through mid-twentieth century, with the single failure to organize the South effectively, the American working class has often resisted the notion that they were all "brothers" so long as there was a class of consistently underpaid workers who would be chained, almost literally, to a caste system. Even during the "Liberal" era of the Roosevelt Administration, the law securing the rights for labor to organize, the Wagner-Connery Act of 1935, had a special codicil "permitting" unions to exclude African-American workers from their membership.

And of course, the trade unions were particularly discriminatory. In the case of my uncle for instance,a member of the Movie Projectionists Union, such discrimination was fortified by the requirement that a candidate for union membership had to be a relative of a member, or so he told me.

The legacy of racism and peonage which was practiced in the South and replicated or tolerated in the rest of the country through its restrictive practices in the labor movement has now to face the results of that legacy: the rise of a "peasant mentality" in regard to unionism. I have lately seen comments on blogs and editorials blasting unions for their "selfishness" in having better overall pay than workers in the private sector.

This is in marked contrast to the opposite feelings that were engendered in non-union working-class people in that "Golden Age" of unionism -- the '50s and '60s when most wage-earners enjoyed an increase in their pay every year except in times of recession: "if the union members are getting good salaries, I should organize my workplace so all of us can get good salaries." So long as racism and class envy can be used as a wedge against class solidarity, the United States will remain "a house divided against itself."