Note from The New York Crank: I've been in awe of Ben Kremen's reportorial skills since our college days. In 1957, he came back from vacation to the campus we both shared and he told me, "I've just been in Cuba. There's a revolution brewing there. I was up in the hills in a place called Oriente Province and this guy, Fidel Castro, he has tanks, he has guns, he has troops. He's getting ready to overthrow Batista." (Batista was then the dictator of Cuba.) I laughed and told Kremen, "You're full of crap. You're nuts! You're out of your mind. You've been smoking too much weed." But less than two years later, Castro rolled into Havana and Batista was finished. Now Kremen offers a piece on what's happening to the American labor movement and why it matters. I urge you to read it – and shudder.
— The New York Crank
— The New York Crank
By Bennett Kremen | The Labor Educator | July 10, 2013
A contract's being violated brutally, in fact many serious, profound ones are, which will, if unchecked, deeply threaten the well-being of all working people — indeed, of almost all people. Basically, what's being violated here is called "The Social Contract". This concept isn't really a hard one to understand. For centuries philosophers and political thinkers have been describing it as the very basis for justice and law and social harmony. And what they're talking about are the many "unwritten" agreements among all of us to respect and defend the rights of others so that our rights too are defended and respected.
Without these unstated understandings, no law alone or police force or army could forever control the chaos that would inevitably stalk our streets because, in effect, only my desire and yours not to attack or rob or rape anyone as we walk along coupled with everyone else's desire to live and let live creates the everyday peace we all need and must have. This for sure is a silent Social Contract.
Of course, though there are many written contracts in labor-management relations, totally necessary ones, there are also many significant social contracts, which if they didn't exist could only make labor-capital negotiations, never easy, grim indeed. But in recent years to our dismay, these quiet social agreements are, yes, being violated and with severe and growing boldness by the most aggressive corporations and their hired political henchmen infiltrating our government at every level. And the most painful example, glaring example, of their contempt for a vital, time-honored social understanding that has created economic justice and kept the peace for more than seventy years is their vicious attack, every day, on Social Security.
For decades this program, as we all know, was not to be messed with! And despite there being no law preventing it from being challenged, almost without exception both Republicans and Democrats understood that threatening Social Security was like committing political suicide and indeed was called, "the third rail of American politics". Today, that indispensable, unwritten contract protecting Social Security and the feeblest among us is being spat upon by many in both parties without a flicker of shame and with largely disappointing opposition. Shouldn't we be hearing a fearsome roar and fire-breathing rearing up in the AFL-CIO and every union against this cold-blooded assault on our aging, working folks, who have little else to defend them? But, uh uh, I'm sorry to say, it's not our brave heart, crusading labor leaders who are keeping grandpa out of the poor house. Only a seventy plus percent disgust rate among the public at such a thought is doing the job.
If this isn't enough to demand sweeping and dramatic changes in the thinking and leadership of the labor movement, let's describe a few more disasters inexorably descending on our brothers and sisters in factories and warehouses, in schools and offices — in short, everywhere. How about our wages flat lining while the unearned income — the stocks, bonds, real estate and hustles of the wealthy — have grown so dizzily, it can give you a nose bleed.
Sadly, the labor movement once thought they'd corrected this type of income imbalance forever during the economic battles of the 1930s. And actually, wages and benefits for more than half a century were pegged often to corporate profits, which was a Social Contract that worked pretty damn well. Now there's only arrogant disregard by the powerful for this basic American concept of equality. And surely those who should be fighting tooth and nail for this fundamental fairness, our very, very well paid labor leaders, simply keep bungling and sputtering on and on in embarrassing impotence while this situation gets worse and worse.
For they were blind-sided when Wisconsin's governor Walker tore up with a sneer the long-standing Social Contract guarding collective bargaining itself. And tell me please, why's there a near deadly silence from the movers and shakers of the AFL-CIO while virulent Right To Work laws quarantined mostly in Dixie and the red states of the West have started aggressively metastasizing northeastward into Indiana and Michigan's industrial heartland and who knows where else it goes next. And, oh yes, the lockout! No greater insult to organized labor exists. And once through those quiet understandings, it was rarely used. Today, they're smacking us with it everywhere, sticking it in our eye like bullies in a school yard, which I saw recently in a lockout in New York at Sotheby's Auction House, the world's playground for billionaires, where a tiny Teamster local of diligently working art handlers were mercilessly harassed into giving up some of their hard-won health benefits while the company made five hundred million dollars in profits that year.
So what's wrong here? What is it fellas? I've always seen labor leaders as strong people, who don't take crap. But what's happening now, it hurts me to say, appears more often than not to be just the opposite. For over and over I keep watching actions and maneuvers by the labor movement that lack even a hint of courage or daring while much of the urgent energy needed to battle what's going on flounders in blatant, self-serving bureaucracies and petty, intra-union politics, where originality all gets slaughtered, leaving only a frightening lack of imagination that's truly worrying me. And seeing labor's mostly passive acceptance day after day of these non-stop violations of the Social Contract fills me with dark thoughts of what will happen if we allow this to go on much longer. No, we can't. And we won't!