Wage Slavery

3,500 words

One of the objectives of this blog is to highlight the value-shift that occurs when we finally accept the fact that we live in a material universe. Fundamentally, that means eliminating the toxic residue of the Platonic paradigm that remains embedded in our social structures and value judgments.

This post is the third in a series on work. It ventures into the realm occupied by economic systems, and by implication the political structures necessary to support them. If it seems radical, it’s only because of the great distance we have drifted from an acceptance of our nature as material organisms. It lays out principles of practice derived from the premises established in two posts of July of this year: “Work,” posted July 1st and “Work in a Material Universe,” posted July 14th. I hope you can read them as a whole.

I want to start by making series of propositions.

(1) The economic systems of all modern complex western societies are based on what is aptly called wage slavery.   Wage slavery is a version of the master slave relationship. Wage slavery is not a metaphor. It is slavery. People may no longer be owned as persons, but as workers they are not free. Their work is owned by someone else.

(2) All remunerated labor tends to be servile. Money paid for labor is most often equated to the purchase of non-human objects or products. Such use considers what is bought to be then owned by the buyer. The buyer in effect becomes “God” with the right to annihilate or abuse the object purchased as he sees fit. He artificially individualizes the worker by treating his labor as an object owned, extracting him from the natural survival community and its instinctive cooperative collaboration.

But human work cannot be owned by another. Labor cannot be alienated from its author and his community because it is the expression of the conatus the resident energy that imposes the obligation to continue to exist on the individual material organism in its social matrix. Work is and always remains the output of the worker’s personal survival drive in collaboration with his natural community.

Analogous to the deferential way professionals are treated in western society, an individual’s labor can only be compensated for. Payment (in money or kind) can only be the attempt to counterbalance the temporary (and voluntary) deflection of the worker’s own life energy to the survival interests of someone outside of his natural community. To claim that labor can be bought and owned by the employer is fiction; it is metaphysically impossible. To force it is enslavement; it will fatally distort the humanity and relationships of the people involved in the attempted transaction.

Notice that professionals are treated differently. They are also remunerated, but because of the high value placed on mental as opposed to physical activity in the Platonic worldview, no one considers that in paying a professional, like a doctor, that he becomes your employee and must obey your orders. You compensate him for his creative initiative on your behalf. That should be the paradigm for all labor output from all human beings.

(3) Wage slavery is culturally conditioned by two things: the mythic significance of money and the perennial existence of officially approved master-slave relationships in our western “Christian” societies.


The fundamental division of labor is between masters and slaves. Slavery in western society originated in pre-Christian Mediterranean culture, which in turn inherited it from the earlier civilizations of the fertile crescent, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Modern wage slavery is grounded in the ownership of labor. It is the recapitulation in commercial, contractual terms of the slavery characteristic of the ancient world and its Christianized continuation in mediaeval serfdom, indentured servitude, penal and other forms of impressed service.

The oldest form of slavery was ethnic; it was maintained by the conquest and control of people identified as “alien” and, since one’s own tribe, culture and language was assumed to be the only fully human version of humanity, conquered aliens were necessarily considered less than human and therefore similar to the animals that humans used for work, sport or pleasure.

Ancient slavery shed its ethnic roots and was given a universal and specifically spiritual justification by Platonism as the care and guidance of the less-than-human. From the time of the ascendancy of Christianity in the Mediterranean world beginning in the third century, all cultural entities, including the institution of slavery, so essential to the ancient economies, came to be evaluated and universally justified under the aegis of Platonic categories which Christianity embraced, “baptized” and carried forward. It is important to realize that, like imperial autocratic power itself to which slavery is the categorical counterpart, slavery was never repudiated by Christianity in the ancient world.

The principal Platonic tenet that was used to justify slavery was also embraced by Christianity and placed at the center of its world-view, despite the fact that Jesus never endorsed it. It was the concept of the “spiritual soul,” defined as a rational mind, separable from the body, believed to be the person itself, naturally immortal, destined to be judged at death. The soul was an immaterial substance opposed to matter and the material body’s fundamental nature as “animal,” or “carnal” and mortal.

Body and soul, constructed of diametrically opposed “substances,” matter and spirit, were mutually inimical. The spiritual soul, and by extension “spiritual people” (whose lives were relatively free of bodily domination), were considered fully human. Professors, teachers, landowners, administrators, magistrates, senators, merchants and bankers, religious elite, military commanders, etc., people who lived by the work of others and confined their activity to labor of the mind, were in this class. Slaves who lived by the work of their hands and body were deemed less than fully human — their souls were crippled by bodies which were physically controlled by others when not dehumanized by their own animal urges and survival needs. Slaves required having a master to control them, guide their daily activities and determine what they should accomplish with their lives. Slaves, women and children were the first constituents of the primary division of labor: between master and slave. Platonism gave it philosophical form: it said the division was between the fully human and the sub-human — those that worked with their mind, and those that worked with their hands.

Platonism attributed a spiritual dimension to the male body and an excess of material density to the female which supposedly accounted for what men called “women’s erratic behavior.” Thus the domination of the husband over his wife — already well-established as a function of paternal ownership — was re-presented under Platonic Christianity as a replay of the need for the mind to control the body … for spirit to dominate the flesh.

The father/owner/slave master, far from being identified as oppressor in this view, was re-conceived as protector, and it was as protectors that Christianity imposed moral obligations on the slaveholders: they were not to mistreat their slaves. But at no point did Christianity condemn slavery as an institution, or insist on the parity of the partners in marriage, or defend the full humanity of slaves, or require that masters refrain from disciplining them in any way they saw fit. These norms and standards were also applied to the father’s control of his family.

This same thinking was used to justify mediaeval serfdom and the 16th century conquest and enslavement of primitive peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas.   The supporters of slavery quoted Aristotle directly. It was all done under the aegis of a slavery-tolerant Christianity.  Christians have universally tolerated or justified slavery in one form or another in every epoch and in every place they gained ascendancy. There is evidence that even the monasteries used slave labor.

The paternal family in the west is an integral part of this picture and is both the source and the result of the Platonic-justified master-slave relationship. That an adult gives commands, and children obey, is a necessary and unavoidable practicality because adults are more knowledgeable than children. But that the right and obligation to command whether the authority has superior knowledge or not, and the moral duty to obey even though the subject knows more than the authority, claimed as justification for coercing obedience to the proprietary male from women, children and servants, deemed carnal, inferior and needing control, is an arbitrary cultural value choice, imposed for the internalization of the master-slave system. Fathers were owners of their wives and children, every bit as much as of their slaves. That convention has been justified by Platonic Christianity as a spiritual function since its birth in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Based on the value placed on mental as opposed to bodily energies in the Platonic system, the educational patterns in western society imitate and in turn reinforce the master-slave relationship by preparing students to accept the primacy of rational thought over any other human activity. Educational practices and goals are dominated by the values prioritized under the Platonic paradigm: respect for and obedience to the spiritual superior. Rationality, exemplified as mental operations ruled by logic and mathematics, was the standard of highest value set for the student. Feelings — internally experienced forces that have been traditionally ascribed to the body — were excluded as less-than-human; manual work, it goes without saying, was demeaned as subhuman; they were all to be eliminated, or at least suppressed and controlled. Historic movements of awakening — 12th century humanism, 15th century renaissance, 19th century romanticism, 20th century post-modernism — were all attempts to reassert the rights of the integral human organism against the tyranny of the Platonic exaltation of the mind over the body

Professionals in our culture are those who live by mental activity, not physical. Students are taught that professionals are a “higher” version of human being. Education prepares the educated to accept the “natural right” of mental over physical labor and therefore the control of the commanding manager who thinks, over the toiling worker who supposedly does not. In reality, it is a fiction that disguises the fundamental myths: the myths of the disembodied mind and its ownership of all things material, including “material” people..

In Plato’s world, the body does not think, only the soul thinks. The Platonic prejudice is so powerful that despite the fact that the ideal of pure rational cerebration is almost never realized, giving clear indication of the delusional nature of the belief, it has not mitigated in the least the supreme value placed on it in our dualist culture. It has justified the existence of a master class as superior thinking human beings. It encourages its devotees to denigrate and dismiss contributions to human discourse and decision-making that fall short of that ideal. It means that the uneducated, i.e., those who by definition have never been thoroughly indoctrinated in the cerebral illusion by certified “masters” during an extended period of mental submission, are pre-emptively excluded from the gatherings where directions are chosen and the means of achieving goals determined. It means the worker has no input. It divides society along educational-intellectual lines and consigns the uneducated to lives of obedient physical reflex, either entirely devoid of a rational dimension or where the rational element, which has already been determined by the educated elite, is to be applied without revision or deviation.

From this short description it should be clear that most “jobs” — what people mistakenly call work — fall into this category. Jobs, for the most part, are slave labor based on the Platonic scheme of values. From society’s perspective wage slavery is not only arbitrary and unnecessary but it is inefficient and wasteful of the creativity of those who are employed. Moreover, it risks generating sociopathic blowback for, from the worker’s perspective, it is dehumanizing.

Wage slavery tends to reduce “owned” labor to a mechanical reflex, and thus has encouraged the adoption of the “assembly-line” factory system, operational world-wide at this point in time, premised on the mind-numbing repetition of some minor procedure, as the ideal (most efficient) form of labor. But workers also think and can plan the desired outcome of community endeavors; such is their predisposition as living organisms. Their exclusion from that process is a profound injustice endorsed by the Platonic delusion. Money cannot compensate for the loss of participatory autonomy. Work is a survival function of the human organism; we are innately determined by it.

The key valence and infallible indicator of the presence of the master-slave relationship is absolute obedience on the part of the isolated individual worker whose instinct to collaborate creatively with companions in the work effort is totally frustrated. The worker is under orders to make no input of his own into the task at hand. For the successful completion of a project he is to relate to the employer alone, not to his work companions.

The ancient monks saw very clearly the power of obedience to stifle the self — in their case what they believed was a false self — and replace it with what they believed to be their “true self.” The slaveholder is equally intent on suppressing any self in the worker that would compete with his own goals. Hence he requires absolute obedience from individuals isolated from their natural community because he has bought and thinks he owns their labor. The monk used obedience as a tool to achieve his own chosen goals, one of which was the formation of a brotherhood. The isolated jobholder, however, knows very well that the only goals of his own or of his community that he will ever achieve through his job will be those he wrests from his employer by force.


Money prevents workers from exercising control on two counts. The first is the myth that a private person can actually own (with the right of annihilation) the means of production of goods and services that are used and needed by the whole community. This is patently impossible.  At most the community may consign management to a private entity, but it cannot allow its survival to be held hostage to private concerns. It is a logical tautology because the “private” person survives only in and through the survival of the community.

The second myth is that employers can buy and therefore own the labor of their individual workers. Both myths are based on the more fundamental belief that money gives ownership with divine rights over what is owned.

The Latin language, which has been the source of so many helpful distinctions in our thinking, in this case does not distinguish between owner and master: the same word, dominus, is used for both. Similarly, ownership and political power have only one word: dominium.

Historians surmise that trade began with barter: the use of equivalent values for items that each trader needed. Then it seems likely that some highly desirable object became the standard of calculation. Precious metals lent themselves to being such a standard because of their association with the gods and immortality. In Egypt, gold, which was associated with the sun god, Ra, because of its yellow brilliance, was calculated at 12 times the value of silver which was thought to capture the pale light of the moon. To participate in such divine power was everyone’s desire.[1]

Money is believed to give ownership to the buyer. Even the customer momentarily becomes “master” over the corporate giant that sells the product in question because money has exchanged hands. The “customer is always right” is the acknowledgement of the supreme power that money is given in our culture.

Survival in a complex society requires money. When money is the exclusive form of compensation for every kind of labor, even the most meaningless (or dehumanizing) task can earn one his living. “Jobs” that are paid for with money pretend to own the energy immanent in the artificially individualized worker. Employment pretends to redirect that energy toward ends that may have nothing whatsoever to do with the survival needs of the worker and his community and claim that the deflection is fully justified by money.

There are no differences in the recognition provided by money except through quantity. Hence the volume of money alone becomes an index of value. This equation is so ironclad that even those who are aware of its falsifying potential are unable to extricate themselves from its illusions: everyone defers to those who have a lot of money. Many silently harbor beliefs that the rich are superior: smarter, more disciplined, more moral and “blessed” by God. The myth is reinforced by traditional religion that ascribes to divine providence the actual state of affairs in human society. If someone is wealthy, it’s because “God” willed it. The fact that this is obviously preposterous should be enough to put an end to these illusions. There is no such providence.

This blurring is especially damaging to the economic programming that these reflections are suggesting: that we can re-structure the division of labor and remuneration in such a way as to guarantee that each individual is included in the collaborative effort to survive and through that participation achieves survival and a place in society.

The first element in any analysis of how work and reward should be distributed is clarifying the distinction between survival work and other human endeavors that are directed toward the quest for life that transcends the moment, many of which are of dubious value. The second is to insure that the worker’s efforts are respected for their double significance: work achieves organismic survival in a community that acknowledges the human instinct to transcendence through social membership. The collaborative participation of the worker expresses the communitarian character that matter’s energy has used as a survival tool over and over again during the course of 14 billion years of evolutionary development. The natural human instinct is to work with known companions as part of a collaborative endeavor.

Worker Justice

From all that has been said it should clear that the exclusive focus on “bread and butter” issues (salaries, benefits and working conditions) when addressing the question of justice for working people, omits the most important: collaboration and worker control. It assumes that the worker is an isolated individual whose labor can be redirected by the master who owns it. In a material universe that is committed to eliminating the toxic residue of the Platonic paradigm, the primary injustice is identified as the isolation of the individual worker and his alienation from his work — the claim to own the labor of another human being. The fundamental injury is the institutionalized frustration of the need of the human organism, embedded in its community of survival, to express its intrinsic and constitutive existential bearing in its work. It is the refusal to permit the collaborative, intelligent, autonomous participation of socialized human organisms in the communal decisions and collective labor that determine not only what work will be done but also all the associated conditions that impact the project and the workers.

Wages and benefits are not the be all and end all for working people that many labor organizations claim. In their haste to be part of the prevailing economic system and to avoid alternatives prejudicially labeled “socialist,” labor unions end up collaborating with management in the maintenance of the mindlessness and isolation of wage slavery. Worker collaboration, input and control is never part of any contract package, and it is not even part of labor unions’ declared mission statement. Workers who become union members do not join a brotherhood; each isolated individual worker performs only one collective action: he votes with other isolated individuals to hire a corporate lawyer who will defend his rights as an individual worker.

Justice for working people will never be secured until the issue of collaborative human participation is acknowledged as an essential part of any and all human endeavors, including the jobs protected by labor unions.   Human work must be the act of fully engaged human organisms, body and soul, mind and spirit. None of this can be “owned” by another.


The enormous gap between these principles of practice and the actual state of affairs in our economic system is so great that many will dismiss this vision as quixotic. But don’t be fooled. These proposals are not some new utopian innovation. They address a massive historical deformity that we have inherited from our dualist tradition: the human organism has been trapped in an ongoing cultural fiction that has destroyed its integrity in the service of exploitation by the master class. We have been living with wage slavery for more than two centuries. The consequences for working people have been catastrophic. It’s time we put an end to this mockery of the human being.

We fail to implement the reform of this system at our peril as humans. That doesn’t mean that society faces imminent collapse or that armed insurrection is inevitable. Things may very well go on just the way they are. But the human destruction to working class individuals and to community at the level of family and neighborhood will continue unabated and even intensified. It will continue the propagation of individual and social pathologies of genocidal proportions, an effect that we have been living with among the working class in our cities since the early 19th century. To change the situation a transition from the patterns that now dominate wage slavery will require a complete overhaul of the way work is planned from the very beginning.

Such a change would be a “revolution.”

[1] Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death, Wesleyan U. Press, 1959, p. 234 ff.


Reflections on the Wisconsin recall

Unions are not unions

I have at times been a labor activist, but I am not a professional and I generally don’t offer commentary on the strategies and policies adopted by unions.   However, the significance of the defeat in Wisconsin impelled me to try to understand what happened there, and what that calls for going forward.   The following are my reflections.

I start with what I read.  Economics Professor Emeritus Richard Wolff’s short article in Truthout titled Lost Elections’ Strategic Lessons[1] acknowledges that one of the principle reasons for the failure of the Wisconsin recall was that working people are not particu­larly sympathe­tic to unions.  His point caught my attention because it referred to some­thing that all my working life — and I am 73 — I felt was missing from the American Labor movement: in my terms, a sense of community. The historic workers’ word for commun­ity is union.  To put it tersely, I believe the reason why working people do not perceive the be­ne­­fits of labor unions, is that they are not unions … and they have not been for 75 years.

The sense of community

 Dr Wolff claims that in the ‘30’s, the socialist and communist parties, wedded to the CIO-type industrial unions, provided the sense of community that the unions did not:

 Unions are less vulnerable to criticism as narrowly caring only for their own members when they are continuously and clearly allied with organizations struggling for a better society for everyone. Socialists and communists built the community contacts and consciousness that undermined and defeated pro-business arguments against the CIO union drives and against the programs Roosevelt developed.

He seems to feel that the “Occupy” movement could offer the same service today.  History, he says, teaches us that success for workers …

 … requires building a robust alliance between labor unions and movements or political parties (or both) seriously committed to an anti-capitalist agenda for social change. The historic significance of the Occupy Wall Street movement lies in its taking a big first step toward rebuilding such an alliance.

Without disputing his historical claims, his analysis raises two questions, which are really the same question: exactly why were the unions not capable of providing a sense of community on their own in the “30’s? … and, what prevents them from providing it now?  What is it about unions that explains why they can’t seem to do this?

I believe Wolff’s theory and solution needs further elaboration.  But at least he has identified the area where the problem lies: the absence of the sense of community, “labor unions narrow­ly care for their own mem­bers.”  That in itself, in my opinion, would be enough to explain the debacle in Wisconsin.  People in general, the majority of whom are people with jobs — working people — are not sympa­thetic to unions. They don’t see them as on their side.

 Other observers concur.  In a June 15th discussion sponsored by the Nation magazine evaluating the Wisconsin recall failure, a number of the participants voiced similar feelings.  Here’s Doug Henwood:

 … unions aren’t all that popular with the broad public.  In my original piece [6/6][2] I cited a number of Gallup polls showing that people thought that unions had too much power, were too interested in themselves and not the broader public and ranked toward the bottom of the list (rivaling banks and HMOs) in Gallup’s annual survey on confidence in major institutions.

But the astonishing thing is that the Wisconsin vote showed that the unpopularity exten­ded even to union members.  25% of union members and a whopping 38% of union households suppor­ted Scott Walker.  What explains that?  I am convinced the “narrowness” identified by Dr. Wolff runs deeper than he seems to discern.  I think that labor unions have not only failed to connect with the broad public, they have failed their own people because they are not unions at all they are  law firms.  They are corporate entities that repre­sent workers; they are not them­selves a “brother­hood,” an organization of working people, even when the organizers and union reps they hire used to be working people.  Even unions’ “narrow interest in their own members” somehow misses the very thing that their people are are most in need of … the thing that will guarantee everyone’s security and well-being:  people power — real human community — true union.

 The american dream

 Let’s look at this phenomenon in perspective.  Take a few steps back.  Politicians loudly pro­claim that the American people are enamored of something called “The American Dream.”  The “dream” is that in America, not just some, but every hard working individual can achieve “hap­pi­­ness” in the form of a secure and adequate living.  “Dream,” in my opinion, is the proper word for it; for I believe it is an individualist fairy tale.  Individuals can do nothing.  Human survival and well-being is a community achievement.  If the “dream” seems convincing it’s only because people have let themselves be convinced by those invested in keeping the indi­vi­­­­du­al­ist myth afloat. 

The American Dream originated with European immigrants fleeing traditional ethnic and national tyrannies in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Today it is propagated by a com­mer­cial over-class that lives on the exploi­ta­tion of individual consumerism.  When America was an 85% rural nation, freedom and independence meant “owning your own land” or small business.  When capitalist industrialization made America 85% urban, it came to be applied to whoever holds down a “job” and thus can “buy” the items of happiness provided by the ruling corporations.  “Free­dom” evolved to mean the power of the individual to earn … and buy.

American Labor Unions bought into that individualist fantasy and used it to promote their project.  They decided the road to success for the “union” was to “go with the flow.”  The stan­ding contradic­tion to the very meaning of “union” didn’t occur to them or was ignored.  So instead of provi­ding the only alter­native to a dysfunc­tional economic system built on the fan­tasy that financial inde­pen­dence was available to the isolated jobholder, they claimed to be the one secure route to the “American Dream.”  They called it “sticking to the bread and butter issues.”  It meant “forget uniting with others to change the system, and take care of the dues-paying members in a contract-protected shop.”  They re-defined “union” and in so doing re-inforced the individual­ism, the isolation and the power­less­­ness of wage-earning workers. People found that when they did join a labor Union (or were forced to by contract) they didn’t get a “union,” a brotherhood, a mutual assis­tance commu­nity, but rather a firm of well-paid para-legal semi-profes­sionals who would de­fend the indivi­dual jobholder’s rights to the full extent that an anemic law and a dilute contract would allow, so long as the job­holder worked under that contract.

So?  Unions are being realistic.  What’s wrong with that?

Besides the impotence of the law and the deficiency of the contract, it’s not communirty, it’s not UNION.  The power of a community to identify and defend itself, and from there to provide the social supports that went beyond the narrow confines of legal protection for the isolated individual became a supererogatory activity that the Union was unlikely to engage in.  I’m talking about things like help for the un­em­ployed with job training and employment search … help with housing, … avoiding foreclosures, … securing day-care, medical, food, clothing and education needs … helping to organize the unorganized … taking on issues in the community where the union was located.  As Fletcher and MacAlevey say in the same Nation discussion:

 There are plenty of important structural issues that the rank and file could be engaging, including the on-going housing, credit, climate, public transportation, and child care crises. And there’s the matter of bringing the worker’s sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters home from unwinnable wars of aggression.

The Union was not grounded in people, but in the contract.  There was no “membership” for those who did not hold a job under contract.  And most cer­tainly there was no concern for those people and those “industries” that were unorganized.  Shops, workplaces, industries were strategically targeted for organizing drives because of the benefits that would accrue in dues and clout to the union corporation.  People are not blind.  They saw what was happening.  Unions had turned themselves into a “service-for-sale” industry and reduced the services they sold to the bare minimum necessary.  People’s apathy and antipathy grew in pro­portion.

A fourth of July picnic doth not a union make.  Many people are disappointed with the “nar­row­ness” of the Unions, but many others go even further and see them as just another “business” dedicated to its own success and profits, leaving working people defense­less as always, isolated and powerless in an inhuman system.  After the Union enters the picture, there is no more human community — no more collective muscle and no more brotherhood — than before.

The labor corporation

The big labor corporation selling the “American Dream” is fully integrated into the American Capi­ta­l­­ist system.  It exploits the “individual-happiness-through-consumption” mentality so neces­sary for the current economic machinery to work.  They call it “bread and butter.”  Any sugges­tion that “happiness” can only be found in true human community — that the super­fluous consump­tion urged by corporate advertizing is a scam and a rip-off — has the door slammed in its face as new age woo-woo.   The ability of the individual to earn and consume has been identified as “the American Dream.”  “Independence” has been redefined by the corpora­tions.

Besides, the big Union is itself a corporate enterprise with a service to sell and thus part of the com­mer­cial ruling elite.  Workers “shop” among labor Unions the way any individual client shops for a lawyer or an insurance company, and for the same reasons.  The big Union may actually do its job quite well, but there is no community … there is no human union, no power for people.  There is a corporate commercial enter­prise with a product to sell, and there are individual consu­mers who are forced by law to do their shopping with others from the same work­place.  But there is no neces­sary connec­tion among them.  “Union certifica­tion” is no differ­ent from any other commercial transaction except for the fact that the individual consu­mers must do their buying together.  But they buy as individ­uals, for their individ­u­al benefit, and only for the duration of this indivi­dual “job,” with this indiv­idual company, under this particular contract.  Should they get laid off, or change employ­ment even in the same field, their connection to the “union” dis­solves, because the basis of the connection was the individual workplace contract, not the commu­nity of the workers.  The “labor corpora­tion” does not exist to increase human social depth and empow­er­ment.  It exists to provide its individual dues payers with the minimum services neces­sary to maintain worker willingness to not “de-certify” … i.e., to keep on paying dues. 

It’s a question of who you think you are, i.e., how you define yourself.  Once you identify yourself as a commercial enterprise, all kinds of things tend to occur.  Consider … the greatest obstacle to the Union’s comfortable uninterrupted dues collection (usually witheld by the Company on payday) would be a hostile uncooperative attitude on the part of management.  The Union does not want that.  But neither does the Company.  It’s to the advantage of management to maintain good relations with the Union; it means they can shunt shop-floor grievances to the friendly Union rep and leave wage questions until contract time.  The arrangement has all the potential of a “sweetheart deal” between the Union and the Company.   And that is exactly what has happened in many cases.  As long as the union does not make life uncom­fortable for man­age­ment, management cooperates with the Union as much as it can.  And as long as the workers are quiet, the Union has no reason to demand higher wages, more bene­fits or greater job security and safety.  Given the nature of the relation­ships invol­ved it is not in the interest of the Union to press for im­prove­ments, despite the wide­spread belief that it does.  It’s a myth.  Think about it.   The reality is that under the current self-defini­tion of Union as provider of profes­sion­al services, the Union tends to  move only when the workers push it.  Worker-manage­ment co­op­er­ation was the explicit intention of American Labor law, set in stone by the big Unions’ acquiescence in the 1940’s, and we should not be surprised that that’s what we got.

Here’s a concrete example that I am familiar with.  A recent high profile drive for certification at a Southern pork plant was embar­rassed by the glaring presence of a nearby chicken processing facility — repre­sented by the very same Union — where wages were barely above the legal minimum.  “Why should we want the union,” asked the pork plant workers, “what did it get those people”?  Workers soon learn: if they want their “Union” to work for them, they have to make noise … the kind of adver­sar­­ial noise we all used to think was reserved for man­age­ment alone.  That doesn’t sound like union to me.  After the victory at the pork plant, wages re­mained what they were.  What the workers got was job security, including protection against arbitrary firing and harassment by line supervisors, a grievance procedure and better reponse to injury claims … not unimportant achievements to be sure, but there was no “up to 30% increase” in wages as touted during the organi­zing campaign.  I am not saying the Union negoti­a­tors who agreed to that contract should have or even could have done better under the cir­cum­stances; I am just pointing out the way things are.  The pork plant workers have a union, but they are still extremely poor disconnected people.

 Moreover, the fact that in this particular case the “victory” was achieved primarily through a “corpor­ate cam­paign”[3] and not through sustained shop-floor agitation, meant that the wor­kers didn’t “bring in” the union, the boss did.   The Big Union’s corporate campaign had persua­ded management that it was better to have a contract than suffer the kind of damage at the corporate level that another big corporation can inflict.  The boss permitted elec­tions to proceed unim­pe­ded.  Earlier attempts during the previous 15 years based on employee organi­zing alone had failed under the intimidating tactics of a management known to resort to violence in its interests. There was no “true union” among the 5,000 workers of this immense plant (and the surrounding community) strong enough to withstand the company’s onslaught and override the negative impact of a toothless labor law.  The cohesion need­ed for a shop-floor victory had not been achieved.  The “corpo­rate campaign” resulted in an agree­ment between big corporations ratified by an election, but it did not result in a human union — a community that had tasted and appropriated its own power. 

 As this is being written, ongoing organizing and worker education by a commit­ted local plant union committee may succeed in creating a “true union” that did not exist at the time of certi­fication.  Will the Big Union help them do it?  Or will it advise them to “stick to the bread and butter issues,” cooperate with management, and reject any thought of expan­ding the reach of the union beyond the the plant and contract to empower the lives of the workers and the community in which they live?  It remains to be seen.


 This essay was an attempt to understand what happened in Wiscon­sin on the 5th of June, but it was done in the interest of a much wider analysis.  Unions are perceived as selfish and spoiled.  If I point this out and try to fathom why, am I anti-union?  Not on your life!  What I am against is that unions, like so many of us, have bought into this economic system built on the corporate exploita­tion of the isolated indi­vidual both for labor and super­fluous consump­tion.  The Ameri­can individualist Dream is a con-game.  It’s purpose is to rip us off.  The obesity epi­dem­ic is symbo­lic.  The commercial propa­ganda that has us eating things we don’t need comes from the same sources that convince us that the key to the American Dream is to keep working as isolated pawns of the corporations.  It’s a Kafka-esque formula for suicide that the big Unions’ “bread and butter” goals do not challenge.   When was the last time you heard a Union thunder­­­ing against superfluous consumption and its advertizing?

It’s one thing to be forced to function within a retrograde system, it’s another thing to join it, run with it and seek to succeed in it on its own terms.  What I am against is the distortion of unionism that bought into the culture of individualism and individual consumption — the so-called American Dream — that is now suffo­ca­ting us.  It encourages union members to think narrowly about themselves and not about their brother and sister workers who share their destiny nor about the community where they live.  There is only one antidote to that toxic combination, and that is TRUE UNIONS.  We need unions that stand proudly for what they are and what they have to offer: the power of human com­mu­nity — a power that can change the world.   

 Union is not just a tool or a tactic, it is the answer to life.  Human community is the real American Dream.

Tony Equale