Unions, America, & William Cullen Bryant
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 4 of Eli Siegel’s lecture Shame Goes with It All—one of the historic Goodbye Profit System talks he gave beginning in 1970. In them is the means to understand the economic tribulation of America now: for example, the huge debt, including student debt, burdening millions of people; the feeling you may lose your job at any moment—if you have one at all; the being paid much less than once; the fact that millions of people who considered themselves middle class no longer are; the fact that hunger is real and widespread—over a fifth of America’s children are “food-insecure.”
As I have described in these TROs: Eli Siegel explained in 1970 that a way of economics which was always cruel, and which is based on an ugly motive, no longer works. The profit motive is the motive, not to see a person justly, but to get as much money for yourself as possible from his labor or needs while giving him as little as you can. Economics impelled by it, Mr. Siegel showed, has failed and will never recover. To succeed now an economy needs to be based on ethics: the oneness of individual expression and justice to all people.
The lecture we’re serializing is about the fact that shame has always accompanied profit economics. That is because the profit way is fundamentally against the purpose of our lives. There are, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, two desires fighting in us. One is the desire to like the world, see big meaning in it, and add to that meaning. This is our deepest desire; it’s what our lives are for. Our other, completely opposed desire is to have contempt: get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” The profit system arises from contempt, and this economic way brings out the contempt, and shame, of those involved in it.
In the section published here, Mr. Siegel refers to unions. One of the biggest campaigns of our time is the gigantic effort to annihilate unions. It is run and massively funded by persons who think the wealth of America should belong to only a few. I have written about it in other issues of this journal. For now, in order to place it, I am going to quote from the journalistic writing of a person eminent in American literature and history: William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878).
He is one of this nation’s true poets. And from 1828 to the year he died, he was editor of the New York Evening Post. He changed it from a conservative paper to a progressive paper—though he certainly could not be called a radical. In 1836, some of the very earliest attempts to form unions were going on, and Bryant wrote on the subject in editorials. To understand the effort to kill unions now, we have to see why employers fiercely wanted them rendered illegal when they were just beginning—and why judges attached to those employers’ interests encouraged juries to convict union members.
The Journeymen Tailors
In June 1836, Bryant comments on a court case. A trade union, the Society of Journeymen Tailors, had just been formed in New York—and on May 30, 1836, twenty-one of its members were convicted of “conspiring injurious to trade and commerce.” In his June 1st editorial, in some of the good prose of America, Bryant presents this court decision as utterly unjust. How ludicrous, he says, for a judge to convince a jury
that the laws of the free State of New York have made it criminal for the working classes to settle among themselves the price of their own property [their labor], and to promise each other that they will not part with it for less than they believe it to be worth!
He writes that if unions were permitted,
What would become of the men of the money bags? Poor souls! they would have to pay for labour what labour was worth.
Why were the bosses of 1836 and their friends in the judiciary so against unions? In the lecture we’re publishing, Mr. Siegel says the big matter in relation to how work and production go on in America is: What is it all for? Should it be for the benefit of the people who live in America, the people who do the work, all the children? Or should it be to have the wealth produced in this land go mainly to a few bosses and corporate owners (in 1836 lingo, “masters”) and their friends, including political friends? The “masters” of 1836 saw that if unions were permitted to exist, they, the “masters,” would be forced to pay higher wages—wages that would enable workers’ families to live with less misery. And as a result, the “masters’” profits would be less! They tried to stamp out the damned thing—unionization. They tried for many decades. They did not succeed. Their way of mind continues in those trying to kill unions now.
I am quoting from Power for Sanity: Selected Editorials of William Cullen Bryant, 1829-1861, edited by W.C. Bryant II (1994). In his editorial of June 13, 1836, after the Journeymen Tailors were sentenced, Bryant writes about them. And he has, at that very early time, a feeling for what the kindness and power of a union is:
What was their offence? They had committed the crime of unanimously declining to go to work at the wages offered to them by their masters. They had said to one another, “Let us come out from the meanness and misery of our caste….By the means which we believe to be the best let us raise ourselves and our families above the humbleness of our condition….We cannot help believing that we might do much if we were true brothers to each other, and would resolve not to sell the only thing which is our own, the cunning of our hands, for less than it is worth.” [P. 37]
In the same editorial Bryant says: criminalizing unions and their ability to strike, really amounts to slavery. He says those who want to suppress unions and stop workers from collectively withholding their labor, are trying to use people in the horrible way they’re used in the South:
[The tailors] were condemned because they had determined not to work for the wages that were offered them!…If this is not SLAVERY, we have forgotten its definition. Strike the right of associating for the sale of labour from the privileges of a freeman, and you may as well at once bind him to a master….If it be not in the… poor franchise of naming his own terms in a contract for his work, what advantage has the labourer of the north over the bondman of the south? Punish by human laws a “determination not to work”…and it matters little whether the task-masters be one or many,…the hateful scheme of slavery will have gained a foothold in the land. [P. 38]
A Century & More Later
By 1970, organized labor had become very strong. As unions themselves have truly pointed out, they, the unions, created the middle class. All the laws in behalf of safety, dignity, and justice in the workplace exist because people in unions fought for them, sometimes died for them. And there are right now persons who are trying to undo those very laws—because those laws, in their justice, interfere with private profits. In 1970 Mr. Siegel explained:
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.
That is why there is the carefully mapped strategy—financed with billions of dollars—to wipe out unions. The desire is to bring America back to conditions like those of the 1830s, because that’s when the profit system was humming along, on the backs of impoverished workers and their families. I’ll mention two of the propaganda techniques that these strategists are using on the American people:
1) Try to make people in unions feel that what they have gotten through their union would have come from the boss anyway—so why spend money on union dues? This wild lie appeals to one of the filthiest and most eager of human emotions: ingratitude. And ingratitude makes people act very foolishly.
2) Get people not in unions to be angry at unionized workers for having what they, the non-union workers, lack: for instance, pensions and decent wages. This technique has been quite effective against public sector unions. Citizens are encouraged to feel: “My tax money is being used to give them what I myself don’t get!” (All the while, these citizens are diverted from seeing that their tax money is being used by the state and municipality to fund private businesses.) This technique appeals to a narrow and unintelligent selfishness in people, as a means of stopping them from being truly and kindly selfish—from saying, “If we join together in unions, we all can get what we deserve.”
Inseparable from both the techniques I described is the underlying strategy: Stop unions from being able to sustain themselves adequately through dues. Render them financially unable to fight for justice to workers. That way an employer can deal with workers however he chooses—and extract the largest possible profit for himself from their labor.
In 1836—and 1936—the joining of workers together was seen as a threat to profits. However, as Mr. Siegel pointed out, there has come to be another force also corroding the profit way. He said, nearly 45 years ago:
America is not the only country now with industrial know-how….Industry is going on elsewhere….So there is more competition with the American product.
This foreign competition has been undermining the profit-making ability of various Americans, and there is nothing they can do about it. So they’re determined that economics run for private profit be made to continue the only way it now can: through the impoverishment of the working people of America. And needed for that is the undoing of unions.
In 1836, the nomenclature around unions was unclear. In an editorial, Bryant uses a capitalized phrase that means organized labor. The phrase is awkward, yet I conclude with the passage containing it because we feel his respect. Bryant writes that he himself could never “be tempted…to play foul the noble cause of the Liberty of Associated Effort.”