Woody Allen has a famous line: "The crucial moral dilemma is you are walking by an icy river and you see a man drowning. Would you jump in to rescue him? Of course, in my case, I can't swim, so it's not an issue."
This is essentially the problem for liberals who see members of labor unions drowning in a sea of icy indifference. Roughly 80% of the American public has no connection to labor unions and likely no real sympathy. John Q. Public, when he thinks of a union worker at all, thinks of that union worker only when he is inconvenienced by a strike or when he sees a picket line. For the most part, most Americans walk across picket lines the way they walk by Salvation Army collectors on the street, eyes averted.
For my grandfather, who was born in the 19th century and who came to the United States for a better life, only to find he had to fight for that better life, the labor union was an unalloyed good. Nothing the union did could be wrong. His morality had the clarity of the absolute. The workers were always right, and the owners were venal, selfless and at best indifferent to the suffering of the masses; at worse the owners were heartless, ruthless, destructive, little better than the slave owners of the antebellum South.
In his day, women working in a shirt factory burned to death because the owners locked the doors to the work shop and a fire at Union Square killed scores of them, some leaping to their deaths to avoid the flames.
Union membership has declined precipitously and public sympathy for unions, always crucial for support of strikers, has evaporated. Wisconsin voters supported their strike breaking governor and supported a "right to work" law, which is, in fact, a union busting law.
|Workers Strike for The Boss They Trust|
The problem is, in the 21st century, the sons and grand daughters of the early 20th century union workers are now reaching management positions in multinational corporations and they find themselves having to fill in as strike breakers, when union workers go out on strike.
My own brother-in-law, a solid, liberal Democrat, worked his way up through the ranks of welders making airplane engines at GE. The type of welding these guys do is nothing like Rosey the Riveter, but more like a college physics lab. Once he reached a management level, he was respected and liked by his staff because he knew the job from the bottom up. But when they threatened strike, he knew he would have to stand in and do the jobs of his former mates, or lose all he had worked for. And he had kids in college.
To whom did he owe his greatest fealty: His co workers or his family?
When the nurses at a hospital where I had patients on the wards went out on strike, what was I to do? Cross the picket line and undermine the nurses, or leave my patients unattended in their beds?
To whom did I owe my greatest allegiance?
These choices are not easy.
|The Crime of Being Japanese American|
Would I have refused to obey the orders to transport those people to the camps if I had been a career Army officer? Would I have become the martyr, done the grand gesture, even though I knew it would not help prevent a single unjust imprisonment?
We are torn because there are good arguments on every side.
My grandfather would have argued, I risked everything for the workers; you should do the same. But he did not have a mortgage or kids who were in college. His kids went to the almost free City College. But he would have said he still had rent to pay and risked eviction and starvation. He supported a family. In his case, his co workers had no other choices and no social security or unemployment insurance or re training programs.
It does seem today's workers have more options and when they lose their jobs, they are less desperate, but that may be only because memories are short or because we are not in the place of today's workers. Many liberals have moved up the socio- economic scale to, if not the ownership class, to the management class, but they look back over their shoulders and they remember where they came from. That can cause some agony.
The truth is, when the government and big industry array themselves against the workers, the workers cannot hope to win. Standing with the workers, as a manager would likely be a sacrificial lamb moment. Nobody in authority would change his mind--they just fire you. What good does that do the workers?