Friday, February 25, 2011

Welcome to the Jungle

Waiting for Lefty in Madison.
According to Rush Limbaugh, I am a "petulant, immature ... bottom-feeder freeloader."

That is, I am a teacher and a union member.  

Limbaugh was referring to the thousands of pro-union demonstrators at the Wisconsin state capitol.  He is not alone in his sentiments, as some anti-union demonstrators are there as well.

However, for all we know, the anti-union folks could be paid workers from nearby companies owned by the Koch Brothers.  They are the billionaires who seem to be Gov. Scott Walker's parent company and who have a vested interest in seeing labor unions destroyed.

Regardless of who the ant-union demonstrators work for, they seem to be just that: workers.  Folks who labor for pay from another person.  As Montgomery Burns affectionately calls them: "wage donkeys."

Release the hounds!
Yet there they are, demonstrating against their fellow wage donkeys -- in this case, state teachers -- who are fighting the governor's efforts to remove their union's collective bargaining rights.  The anti-union folks expressed resentment and perhaps even jealousy of the pensions and health benefits the teachers have.  They suggested the teachers are being greedy to attempt retaining anything the governor seeks to take away.  They seemed to believe the teachers should be grateful simply to have a job.

Their sentiments are echoed by a blogger for U.S. News and World Report's website.  The item is bluntly titled "Wisconsin Public Union Members Should Feel Lucky to Have Jobs."  In it Mary M. Shaffrey writes, "Having been laid off twice, I would be grateful for any salary and any benefits, because something is better than nothing. In this time of economic challenges, I would think most would agree with me, especially those who claim to represent the workers."

I am struck by the fact that the workers are directing their anger and resentment toward other workers rather than at the government officials threatening employee protections.  Has the competition for jobs become so fierce and are workers so desperate that they fight each other for the scraps of jobs and benefits that fall their way?  Rather than resenting the people at the table who are dropping them?

We can assume that those demonstrating against the union crowd work in the private sector.  The desperation there makes them envious and resentful of those who work in the public sector.  Yet rather than be resentful of the private sector leaders who seek to constantly lower wagers and benefits -- who send jobs overseas, who keep profits in the bank rather than create more jobs -- the workers want to reward them.  Perhaps the workers believe that if the corporations get more tax breaks, they will create some more jobs.

Forget whether any new jobs would be fairly compensated, provide benefits, or even be safe. 

Perhaps the union members in Wisconsin should be handing out copies of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle.  It tells the story of Lithuanian immigrants who come to America believing they will find better lives -- but instead they find a world of workers at the mercy of employers who offer low wages, unsafe work conditions, and no health care.  Those are all misfortunes that labor unions helped eliminate. 

The protagonist, Jurgis, sees his family disintegrate in a world with no protections against abuses and exploitation.  Finally, he is injured and finds himself unable to compete for even the lowest of jobs.

He could not hope to tide himself over by odd jobs of loading trucks; he could not even sell newspapers or carry satchels, because he was now at the mercy of any rival.  Words could not paint the terror that came over him as he realized this.  He was like a wounded animal in the forest; he was forced to compete with his enemies upon unequal terms.

The power of labor unions in the United States has drastically declined in the private sector, and its last stronghold is in the public sector.  Once it is eliminated entirely, as seems to be the plan of some Republican leaders, American workers could find themselves in Jurgis's position.  That is a history we should not want to repeat.


  1. Well said, Scott. I never had a union job. I wish I had one and am working on it (WGA-W) but it's a long shot at best. Near as I can tell, when you work in the "private sector" long enough--where your ability to sustain yourself (and hopefully 50% of a family too) is often subject to the rich owner's profit margin, or worse, his mood that day--you get to thinking some pretty crazy behavior and practices are the new normal. But if a body still has a shred of human dignity, hell, decency even, seems to me we all oughta be pushing government to do more than just not demolish something at least some of us are lucky enough to have. We oughta be pushing for the real stuff all of us need, you know, the radical stuff like living wages, universal single-payer healthcare, human rights. The sickening thing in the whole hoohah is, if those with the big wallet actually took the darned thing out and ponied up once in a while, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. But in Ferenginar, talking about the rich/corporations paying for anything let alone their communal share is verboten.

  2. Thanks, Jack! And good luck getting that Writers Guild card! I would love to have one, too. :)

  3. Well, I wouldn't call you petulant.