Can Labor Be Saved?

By Jay Thomas Youngdahl

The American union movement, and with it the ability of American workers to find justice on the job, is in really big trouble; and this should be a concern to all. Last September, when hurricanes Katrina and then Rita hit the Gulf Coast, much attention was paid to the inadequate response of the federal government and incompetence and cronyism in relief efforts. Relatively unnoticed, though, was the way that the Bush administration then weakened the protections and living standards of those who will work in rebuilding the area. When President Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which ensures that wages and benefits paid on federally funded projects will be at least the average in that area, he sent a clear message that big-business allies and the wanton movement of capital are more important than a local collectively organized workforce. (In New Orleans, the average wage for skilled carpenters was $9 an hour. With this move, the only floor on wages will be the federal minimum wage—$6.15 an hour.)

Historically, the way American workers have secured justice on the job is through the labor movement. Should the labor movement be the lowest common denominator of the workplace or can the union movement lead a movement for social transformation? If collective labor is going to be successful in reforming its movement, activists must redefine their message, connect with a crisis of values in this country that is acutely felt by working people, and infuse the labor movement with a religious-like spirit. As one of my friends in the labor movement said to me recently, a revival is required.

If we do not work toward a collective approach to solving social problems, both in-side and outside the workplace, outrageous spectacles will continue, such as the one currently underway at the auto-parts maker Delphi, in which the industrial workers are being asked to cut their wages and benefits by two-thirds, pension obligations are being dumped on taxpayers, and management is rewarded in court with large salaries, bonuses, and financial incentives for taking the company into bankruptcy.

Cooperation, the spiritual idea upon which unions are constituted, corresponds to religious teachings on what it means to be human.

The spiritual idea upon which unions are constituted—the crucial nature of cooperation among humans—corresponds to basic religious teachings on what it means to be human. The idea of working with one’s fellow citizens is humanness at its best; the prevailing concept of master and servant that undergirds contemporary workplace law in this country is not. For the less powerful, in unity there is strength—without unity, there is no way to confront power. By their very nature, unions work only when people band together. The core of workplace collective action, community and solidarity, expresses values that crystallize meaning that all humans crave. As such, unionism is a counterweight to the lonely individualism of modern life.

People have an unrealized hunger for community today—it is in concert with biblical values of love for one’s neighbor and the important recent philosophical and theological work of thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas, who highlight the importance of a focus on the “other” in ethical stances and worldviews. In modern society, an understanding of and a caring for those different than ourselves is crucial to the way of a truly ethical and just life. Working Americans want caring values articulated. This longing is a large part of the success of the new evangelical mega-churches.

For better or worse, the labor movement is not alone among progressive social movements in facing difficulties and reversals. The religious left has been overshadowed by the fundamentalist right—the extent of this domination has allowed the right to prevail in the battle of ideas and control the important use of metaphor in the debate over the role and nature of con-temporary religion and its relation to society and to politics. Many progressives now see religion and spirituality as inherently conservative and reactionary. The anti-globalization movement is floundering from lack of an alternate articulate vision to rapacious worldwide capitalism. And, of course, all progressives are depressed over the seeming unwillingness of the majority of Americans to confront their government over the war in Iraq, the use of torture, and the erosion of civil liberties in the war against terrorism.

 The American people seem stuck in a dialect of “whatever.” Satiated with celebrity gossip and Wal-Mart products and a “me-first” patriotism—far from group unity and the importance of cooperation—when and how will people act, even when action seems obviously to be in their own interest? A collective approach is required.

Jay Thomas Youngdahl is a union and civil rights lawyer currently studying at Harvard Divinity School.

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