How did we get here?

Tuesday March 22, 2011 @ 12:42 PM (UTC)

Yesterday Ryan and I continued our Peter Weir kick (which has already taught me that Australia itself, not just its fauna, wants to eat you) by rewatching The Truman Show. In case you don’t remember, Truman’s annoying TV-wife does forced, saccharine product-placement bits and nags him to have a kid to complete their suburban-perfection lifestyle. Her character-within-a-character is incredibly conservative, intrinsically conservative in the textbook sense: she functions to keep Truman the same; she is the caretaker of their retro, confined fantasy of a white middle-class heterosexual utopia.

And, trying to smooth over Truman’s accidental glimpse into a backstage area through an elevator door, she tells him about an “elevator disaster downtown” caused by “those non-union workers. Monstrous!”

I have to admit, this threw me for a moment. The climate has turned against unions so fast that this line, from a 1998 movie, seems nonsensical. Sure, thanks to a tip from Camille Alexa I know that Ronald Reagan said unions were a basic right. But in spite of his conservative canonization, Reagan was a while ago. In just 13 years, we’ve gone from an artificial shill of corporations and conservatism casually lambasting non-union labor to the GOP trying to break the back of unions across the country.

I like to understand why things are happening. We all do: that’s why conspiracy theories are so popular, because lack of explanation is primally terrifying. But more, as a history nerd and someone who thinks in stories, I want to know how we got here from there. I’m going to have to read up on it, because it boggles the mind. It seems like a nationwide revolution has been accomplished by sleight-of-hand within my lifetime. How can the wind change so entirely in such a short time? Why is the history of labor in America so often hidden history, when this is a country built by greed and baptized in the sweat of workers?


The Cold War ended. I think it is not any slight of hand sort of thing, I think it simply the natural reaction of people that were united against a common foe turning on each other once the good feelings of victory wear off. During the Cold War it was important to keep working people on the anti-communist side and thus Republicans/conservatives courted their vote and their were many more of them. Union members saw, rightly, that being tarred with a communist brush was bad for them and that they would get more negotiating with the conservative business leaders and supporting pro-union conservatives.

This is not the whole answer, but I think it is an important part of it.

To partially answer your question: the history of labor and the enormous wealth and comfort our nation enjoyed as a result of the demands labor made for safety, security, and decent wages is forgotten because wealth owns the newspapers, the radio stations, the television stations; because conservative have always had too much say about what is included in our textbooks; and because too many Americans are in love with individual wealth these days rather than general prosperity.

Reagan also broke unions in his day. Consider his deregulation of the airlines and destruction of the air traffic controllers union.

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