In 1848, The Communist Manifesto produced the political slogan, “Workers of the World, Unite!” Unfortunately for labor unions, especially in the United States, these few words connected the dynamic existence of labor with the ultimate bogeyman of communism, a connotation that exists to the present day. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued a papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, commenting upon the relationship between capital and labor, proclaiming sympathy for working classes against the excesses of capitalism. At the same time, Leo denounced socialism and justified the efforts of workers to establish labor unions without interference by government.
In 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) was founded and remains active today. The global characterization of workers further contributed to negative perceptions among the capitalist and political leadership of a conspiratorial nature of purpose. This, in turn, contributing to an embedded conflict in the annals of American history and culture. Economists, especially those academics engaged in quantitative evaluation, further dehumanized labor by pigeon- hoking it as a term in an equation, a mere component to describe the contribution of a group of people to rationalize economic dynamics.
The capitalist system in the United States succeeded, in part, because waves of immigrants satisfied the needs of capitalists to produce goods and services, then to become consumers of the system’s products. At the same time, the predominance of the large number of individual members of the laboring class was largely ignored with respect to both population and humanness.
One of the more significant efforts to humanize workers arose in the 1920s and 1930s when the depiction of widespread poverty and deplorable working conditions affecting families and children was publicized, creating a human dimension to working people. In 1974, Louis “Studs” Terkel authored Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, a series of personal portraits of workers expressing their views of work.
Significant major labor actions have occurred recently across the nation and across a number of industries. Labor organizing has reached into the new generation of gig workers and even the staff employees of political organizations.
The relationship of labor and capital is not predicated upon any notion of democracy, decisions by vote. Simple reason dictates that workers are numerically a far more numerous cohort than that of the capitalist. Nonetheless, it would not be unfair to describe the present temperature of the working cohort as “Mad as Hell” like the broadcaster in the film Network from 1976. Significant major labor actions have occurred recently across the nation and across a number of industries. Labor organizing has reached into the new generation of gig workers and even the staff employees of political organizations.
The lexicography of economists contributes to scrubbing the human face of labor and is readily employed by White House officials on board as economic advisers. Both Lawrence Kudlow and Gary Cohn, as spokespersons for the former president, decried the extent and amount of unemployment benefits provided to workers under pandemic relief efforts. They opined that terminating the benefits would coerce workers to return to employment, an ironic expression from an administration that eschewed mask and vaccine mandates. In other words, using financial leverage, force workers to return to work to the benefit of the gross national product. At the same time, that force implies workers prefer not working and reliance upon government benefits. That insidious proposition is finding no traction in preliminary post pandemic information attempting to explain the gap between available jobs and unemployment data.
Right-to-work restrictions and collective bargaining bans against public employees have begun to loosen in several state legislatures. Worker dissatisfaction with decades of stagnant wages and debate about an increased minimum wage have contributed to 267 strikes since the beginning of the year, involving household names such as Kaiser Permanente, Kellogg, John Deere, Frito Lay, and Burger King, totaling some 57,800 employees. The numbers for the nine months of 2021 exceed the entire annual number for five of the last ten years. The figures do not include 40,000 television, theatre, and film workers, who accepted a new contract before a pending strike vote. Commentators have dubbed this moment Striketober.
Strikes, whether successful or not, threaten especially the core of right-to-work laws that exist to preclude unions from receiving mandated dues from workers under a theory of freedom from workplace coercion to become a union member. The First Amendment has been interpreted to guarantee freedom of association and this principle was at the heart of Pope Leo’s Rerum Novarum and later underscored the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Ironically, the spearhead of the effort to create right-to-work laws throttling labor’s financial lifeline was directed and led by lawyers–all of whom are required by their respective states to pay a fee for the privilege of being licensed, i.e., to practice their trade.
The clash between freedom of association and a libertarian notion of absolute freedom, including that from vaccine mandates, will inform some of the debate. If workers appear like the Network broadcaster to be “Mad as Hell” and unwilling to “take it anymore,” that is not a mystery.