America—& What Unions Are About
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we conclude our serialization of Shame Is in How You Do Things, by Eli Siegel. Given on May 28, 1971, it is one of his great Goodbye Profit System lectures. In these, week after week, beginning in 1970, he explained that the world has reached the point at which economics based on contempt could no longer flourish; it had failed, and was showing its failure. An economy motivated by profit, by “How much money can I, the employer, get out of that guy and his work while paying him as little as possible?” “How much money can I, the seller, force that woman to pay for something she needs?”: this is what we’re used to. It has gone on for centuries, but was always ugly and cruel. In the 1970s, however, Mr. Siegel described a new situation—which exists even more intensely now:
The old motive in economics is not working well any longer....Good will in its full, deep, wide, keen meaning [must now be] the chief thing present as man produces, distributes, sells, works, is paid. [TRO 213]
Earlier in the lecture we’re serializing, Mr. Siegel discussed an article in Fortune magazine: “Don’t We Know Enough to Make Better Public Policies?” by Max Ways. On the pages of that bastion of profit economics, Ways says there is a “crisis of confidence” in our nation, a mistrust and sense of failure about American economic life in its various aspects. Mr. Siegel explains why—and what success would be.
It Became Clearer
As I write, something tremendous and beautiful is taking place in the state of Wisconsin: day after day, thousands of men and women are rallying in support of unions and the dignified lives they have made possible for working people. The lecture we’ve been serializing has much to do with the meaning of those demonstrations. So I’ll comment, not about the particular legislation proposed by the Wisconsin governor, but on a certain greater clarity that has come to be in the feelings, thoughts, and also actions of ever so many Americans.
That greater clarity began after Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, encouraged by billionaire business owners, put forth a measure that would do away with most collective bargaining rights of public unions—would undo their ability to negotiate contracts. The ability to negotiate is central to what a union is. Unions negotiate on behalf of their members not only wages, but grievance procedures, so a worker can’t be punished or fired on the mere whim of the employer; sick pay; overtime; working conditions and rules, and more.
There will be this month the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Fire. On March 25, 1911, a conflagration broke out at a shirtwaist (or blouse) factory in New York City. The exit doors had been locked to keep employees from leaving anytime during the long workday. So 146 garment workers, mostly young women, were killed: either burnt to death in the fire, or smashed to death on the sidewalk when they leapt from windows. That is a historic example of why unions are necessary: everything that’s fair to a worker cuts in on a boss’s profit—from a living wage; to good ventilation; to bathroom breaks; to safety rules so working conditions won’t cause disease, maiming, and death. All these instances of increased fairness came chiefly from one cause: unions fought for them.
Without unions, a boss, impelled by the profit motive, will sacrifice the well-being, even the very lives, of workers in order to make as much money as he can. Also—without real unions, a right-wing state legislature could annul regulations protecting workers—regulations that exist because of the courage of unions.
In recent years, unions had been making concessions, largely about wages and benefits. But when Walker and the Wisconsin Republican legislators said they would undo so much of what unions are—something became vivid to many people. What they saw is part of what Aesthetic Realism has been explaining these years: that the aim of those desiring huge profits for the wealthy is to destroy unions altogether, make them not exist at all. What still needs to be seen is this, described by Mr. Siegel:
If unions are honest, if they cannot be beaten down, and also if they will increase in power, the profit system...—which is the ability to employ labor on terms...presented by ownership—the profit system will not be able to go on. [TRO 1358]
It’s one or the other: either unions—which mean decent lives for Americans—or an economy based on using people for profit.
The Meaning of Wisconsin
While unions (whether wisely or not) made many concessions these years—no real union leader or member could consent to give away what a union is. This fact was not grasped adequately by those with a national strategy to kill unions. Various right-wing moneyed-ones, and the politicians they’ve funded, thought that since unions had given away so much they wouldn’t put up a real fight to keep their right to negotiate. The plotters did not understand what is really in a union person. They didn’t understand that—with all one can criticize—those who care for unions have a feeling that’s deep about what a human being is and deserves. At the threat to annul the right to negotiate in behalf of justice to workers—a right that men and women fought, bled, and died for—that feeling deep within people showed as the passion it really is.
What the American people need to be told clearly is who, or what, is really to blame for America’s economic suffering, job losses, government deficits. They’re being told unions are to blame, because unions have been able to negotiate for their members some of what all people deserve, including pensions and health care. If unions thrive, all Americans can have these, and more. Unions stand for all of us. The cause of our economic trouble is 1) the persons who are using, and want to continue using, America and her workforce for their own private profits; and 2) governments’ funding those persons and their businesses, with the people’s money—through tax breaks, subsidies, and outsourcing public work to private companies.
What is happening in Wisconsin stands for all unions, but it is immediately about public sector unions, workers employed by government. In the lecture we’ve been serializing, Mr. Siegel says the purpose of government has not been seen clearly enough. Is the purpose of government “to promote the general welfare,” as the Constitution says, or to subsidize private businesses and the individuals who profit from them?
In the part of the lecture published here, Mr. Siegel speaks about the need for a nation and its economy to be aesthetic: to put opposites together, as art does. We’ve reached a time when America cannot prosper and be proud until our economy is a oneness of the opposites he speaks of: freedom and accuracy or justice. He wrote in a note to a poem of his: “Perhaps...we should change a well-known term to Free-and-Accurate Enterprise; or, perhaps, Free-and-Just Enterprise; or, even, Free-and- Beautiful Enterprise.” That is what unions are about.