Why Workers Put Up With A Bad Economy

Given the mounting hardship and misery that has become common in most Americans’ working lives, one cannot help wonder why we have yet to take action — where are the strikes, demonstrations, unionizings, and other forms of pushback?How many more years of income stagnation, inequality, and stress can the majority of workers take? How much more difficult do things need to get?

The Atlantic has explored this conspicuous inaction, concluding that a combination of globalization, technology, and part-time scheduling has eviscerated workers’ solidarity while lessening the capacity for labor to come together and organize.

It is a long but good read, though I unfortunately do not have the time to give it a proper review here. The following excerpt sums up why this generation of working people is less activist and confrontational than those before, who ultimately gave us the labor rights and improved conditions we take for granted (and which are being increasingly rolled back).

A century ago, the United States was a developing nation, eagerly devouring the raw materials of the natural world. It was turning trees into lumber, iron into steel, the expanse of prairie into cash crops of wheat and corn. Many of its laborers were barely a generation removed from preindustrial life. They (or their parents) had been self-sufficient artisans, peasants, or small farmers before being swept into the massive new factories of the Gilded Age. The emerging capitalist system shattered their traditional communities, and thus seemed “intolerable to many of those violently uprooted by its onrush.” Accustomed to their independence, they were haunted by the nightmare of becoming wage slaves. The fear of disempowerment, as other labor historians have argued, drew partly on an embattled masculinity, but women, too, were active in building unions and striking to challenge the authority of their employers; the famous “Uprising of the 20,000” among garment workers in Lower Manhattan began 16 months before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911.

The new proletarians longed to restore the economic autonomy they had once taken for granted—and, not yet steeped in the culture of the marketplace, they believed this was possible. The factories, corporations, markets, and banks that they viewed as their oppressors were still so new that their endurance hardly seemed assured. Many workers imagined that sweeping transformations would continue. They felt that the horrific world they saw around them could not last, that they had the power to help usher in a more humane and egalitarian social order.

Fraser’s key insight is that their pre-industrial heritage, combined with an acute awareness of the dynamism of the new economy, may have left the workers of the last century far more “audacious in envisioning a non-capitalist future” than people are now. Moved by their utopian hopes, the growing ranks of workers in the fast-developing industrial system found the courage to challenge the inequities surrounding them—a spirit of bravery that Fraser suggests has now largely evaporated.

In essence, everything from the structure of the economy, the our cultural attitudes about wealth, class, and success, conspire to keep us complacent about the status quo.

Today, the expectations associated with a middle-class identity—homeownership, a college education, and health care, as well as the secure social position that they make possible—linger on, even though the historical context that once made those markers realistically attainable for many has long since disappeared. The political culture of equality engendered by the New Deal and the postwar order no longer exists. Nor do the economic institutions that thrived during those decades—more-affordable higher education, labor unions, and a growing social safety net. But those markers of middle-class arrival continue to beckon as integral hedges against losing ground (which indeed they are, perhaps even more now than in the past). And when they prove out of reach, people feel aggrieved—aggrieved enough to take on risk in a gamble for security: they are willing to borrow heavily on credit cards, take out chancy mortgages, or borrow against their homes if that’s their only recourse.

Economically, some may argue that a nation so starkly divided between rich and poor is prone to frequent recessions, high levels of unemployment, and debt-driven panics and crises. But the deeper problems, as Fraser and Geoghegan suggest, are moral and political. The stark hierarchies of the material world generate a culture of defeat and paralysis. At every level of our society today, the idea that only people with money matter is confirmed daily. From the kind of health care that we receive, to the schools our children attend, to the parks near our houses, our segregation by wealth renders a common social experience nearly impossible.

Organizing in the workplace isn’t enough, alone, to close those gaps. It can, though, give people a way to see themselves as something other than disempowered individuals. It can help instill the sense that they are part of society, linked to others around them, bearing mutual responsibility for the circumstances they inhabit, not just as workers but as citizens. What’s at stake is more than paid vacations or even health insurance or higher wages. When people organize at work, they alter something larger than any particular policy. They change the balance of power itself—on their jobs, and also potentially in their cities and states, and in Washington.

Without this larger vision of workplace democracy and political engagement, unions stand no chance of revival. A claim on the moral imagination has always been crucial to labor’s success. Hard though it may be to grasp in retrospect, the labor movement of 100 years ago, as Fraser writes, was “as much a freedom movement as the abolitionist movement had been or [the] civil rights movement would become”.

That last point is especially salient, as it speaks to our tendency to separate our economic lives from everything else, to treat work as a separate sphere of concern altogether. But labor is deeply intertwined and critically related to freedom, prosperity, and human flourishing. Our ability to make enough money to survive, to afford an education, to safeguard our health, and improve our communities — all of that leads to a better society. When people aren’t slaving away at exploitative and low paying jobs, they are given the time, resources, and mental well-being to be better loved ones, to be more civically engaged, to devote their energies and capital to other pursuits outside of basic survival — creative works, volunteering, etc.

Economic, political, and social pursuits are all mutually reinforcing; without economic freedom and fairness, social and political involvement is undermined. That is why so many people attribute their inability to participate in politics or public issues to lack of time, energy, and / or money. That is why so many people are finding it difficult to pursue or maintain relationships, to raise families, to fulfill self-actualizing activities — because again, we are all too damn busy, stressed out, and broke. Our jobs just do not cut it anymore when it comes to being receptive to our needs and preferences.

No amount of research, anecdotal evidence, or plain common sense is convincing owners, bosses, and managers to pay us better, treat us better, and give us more meaningful economic lives; nor do they have the sense of social responsibility or empathy to use their vast resources for the betterment of their workers, and by extension society as a whole. Their interests and worldview are simply not the same as ours, and it used to be that workers could — through unions and labor movements — challenge those perspectives and demand their voices to be heard.

Perhaps our inability to see the bigger picture about the economy is what has prevented us from devoting our energies in improving labor conditions and advocating workplace democracy. Or maybe it says something more deep-seated and perturbing about our deference to authority, hierarchy, and order above all other concerns; I am reminded of the observation that Americans are relatively more tolerant of inequality and economic unfairness largely because they each imagine themselves to be potential bosses and masters — what is good for the rich and powerful is good for the millions of people who style themselves as future rich and powerful (this mentality persists despite socioeconomic mobility in the U.S. being among the lowest in the developed world).

But I digress. Given all the sociocultural challenges to fomenting a sense of class identity and solidarity, where do we go from here? How do we improve working conditions and, with that, create a better society for all?

Whether it is possible to animate work with this meaning today is an open question. Near the end of his book, Geoghegan commits the equivalent of heresy for a labor lawyer: totally committed though he is to fending off the destruction of those unions that still exist (and represent 16.2 million people), he admits that a small part of him can’t help hoping that the right will continue its legal assault on organized labor until the entire rickety apparatus born of the New Deal collapses.

Unions would then be forced back into the streets, into relying on the active support of the people they seek to represent, as well as of the larger public. People might be jolted into recognizing that they’ve forgotten how to insist on their rights and freedom as workers. They would need to find ways—as people did a century ago—to speak about their aspirations in a political language that lays claim to democratic principles and counters the illusion that the world must be divided between a super-elite and those whose mission is to serve it.

Labor has grown so weak by now that whatever form of organizing might come next will have to start almost from scratch anyway, to build something entirely new. Such an idea may seem daunting—but no more so than it must have appeared to the miners in Ludlow. What that something might be—what it will look like, and how it might help us remake our society together—is an unavoidable question of the 21st century.

In short, it may just be that we need to cross that threshold into further immiseration and deprivation before we push back with renewed fervor and ideas. Given the vast changes in technology, economy, and society since the heyday of organized labor and economic freedom, it makes sense that for the new challenges of the 21st century, we are going to have to find new political and grassroots solutions.

What are your thoughts?


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