Here is something that has been quoted many times before, but it deserves being quoted many times more.
First They came… – Pastor Martin Niemöller
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
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If only people understood those words, we wouldn’t have all these problems that continue to plague us.
People look around the world and think other people’s problems aren’t their problems. Who cares about the poor who are exploited and oppressed in other countries? Who cares about the working class and the unions? Most people see those who are different as the enemy. To business owners, the workers are the enemy. To non-union workers, union workers are the enemy. To well off whites, poor minorities are the enemy. To poor Americans, immigrants are the enemy. To fundamentalists, social gospel Christians are the enemy. Et Cetera. And history just keeps on repeating.
I was reminded of what Niemhöller wrote because of the recent attacks on unions by Republicans and corporations. Unions have been greatly disempowered since the Taft-Hartley Act and since the Reagan administration, but still even in weakened form they are the only defense the working and middle classes have left in fighting against the ever growing corporatism in America. Of the top 10 campaign contributors, all are corporate PACs besides 3 which are unions. With the unjust elimination of ACORN, the poor and working class need the unions more than ever. Organizations like unions and the former ACORN help inform the public about important issues and help to encourage the poor get to the voting booths.
There is one very important thing to note from the Niemöller quote. The Nazis didn’t go after Jews right from the start. No, they first went after the Communists and unions. The Nazis had to first eliminate the groups that represent average people, the groups that are the pillars of grassroots democracy. Once they are eliminated, any other group can be freely attacked without the possibility of organized resistance. Just look at Wisconsin right now. Besides unions, there is no other group that could organize average Americans to such an extent. Unions are the very last defense. Unions don’t just defend their own workers. Unions, in defending the working class, defend the rights of all.
I was recently reminded of a fact most people don’t know. Check out these maps:
Party Affiliation (2009) & From ’08 to ’10
Many states (such as in the South) that people think of as solidly Republican in reality aren’t that solid at all. In conservative states, a divide exists that doesn’t isn’t found in liberal states. Poor people in conservative states tend to vote Democratic whereas the rich tend to vote Republican (however, both the poor and the rich in liberal states tend to vote Democratic). So, how do Republicans maintain control of states that have populations mixed between the two parties? It’s rather simple. The rich Republicans control the politics, control the media, control the corporate contributions. The organizations that represent the poor are few and getting fewer.
Here is an article about 2006 voting data and a map of unionization:
Want to know why Democrats won the election? Because union members and their families voted for them.
Here’s the breakdown – non union members split evenly according to the CNN exit polls 49% to each party. Union members went 64% Democratic, and 34% Republican.
This actually underestimates the case, because unions are more than half of the Democratic ground game. It’s not just that union members vote Democratic – it’s that union members work for Democratic candidates and against Republican ones. They knock on doors, they organize, they phone pool. Any decent union has a hardened corps of organizers from their day to day work, and around election time those guys fan out. They are tough, experienced, don’t fear rejection and are mostly solidly working class.
If you look at a map of the US by union membership, like the one above, what you’ll see is that it looks awfully familiar – where unions are strong, Dems win. Where they aren’t, they lose or struggle.
The South, in particular, has a long history of disenfranchising the poor and the minorities (both of whom vote Democratic, of course). Most Americans don’t vote because most Americans feel disenfranchised from the entire political process. This perception is partly true and partly false, but the corporate media wants people to believe it because the continued dominance of the rich is dependent on this perception. If this perception of disenfranchisement falters even for a moment, protests and revolutions (or, at least, political upsets) can happen.
I’ve often heard conservatives (including democratically elected politicians) criticize democracy calling it mobocracy (two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner). Let me break down this criticism. So, who is this ‘mob’? It’s the masses, the general public, the average American, the majority of adults who feel so disenfranchised that they don’t vote. Conservatives are afraid of the majority because they know the majority doesn’t support their views and policies (see: US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism). Conservatives are afraid of grassroots democracy like unions because they know grassroots democracy won’t benefit corporations.
One argument conservatives give is that unions have already served their purpose. Conservatives will initially try to deny what unions have accomplished, but when that fails they’ll argue that there is nothing left for unions to accomplish. However, from my liberal perspective, unions are the only thing stopping our society from returning to 19th century capitalism. So, what exactly was 19th century capitalism like? There are some positive examples like the Shakers (which is a socialist model of capitalism that conservatives don’t like) and there are many negative examples like the following (from my post Anarcho-Capitalism & Stateless Society):
[The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913-14, pp. 9-11]
I personally don’t want to return to a society where such capitalist systems existed. I’m fairly sure most Americans wouldn’t want to return to this either. And it’s good to keep in mind that this kind of capitalism (or similar variations) still exists in other parts of the world where unions don’t exist or don’t have as much political influence. So, I think it would be unwise to dismiss the role unions play in our society. Our grandparents and great grandparents fought and died for the rights we take for granted.
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Ignoring history (which is never a wise thing to do), what can we say about unions in our present society? For example, does allowing teachers unions to have collective bargaining lead to negative impact on the public education system?
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Anyway, how much power do unions actually have? A picture is worth a thousand words. Totals by Sector from OpenSecrets.org:
If money talks, politicians are listening to louder voices than unions.
Even so, unions are more likely to get heard by Democrats.
Top Democratic and Republican Donors in 2010
Top Overall Donors to Republicans:
Elliott Management (a Hedge fund company)
Koch Industries (note: the billioaire who is the main financier of the Teabaggers)
Every Republican is Crucial PAC
Associated Builders & Contractors
(so-called) “Freedom” Project (a Republican PAC)
NOTES: Top Republican supporters are billionaires, contractors, and hedge funds…and keep in mind this applies to the Teabagger movement as well. They are supported by the same billionaires, contractors, and hedge funds.
Top Overall Donors to Democrats:
ActBlue (composite of many, many small, grassroots donations)
Intl Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
Machinists/Aerospace Workers Union
EMILY’s List (composite of many, many small grassroots donations)
National Assn of Letter Carriers
United Auto Workers
United Transportation Union
American Postal Workers Union
AmeriPAC: The Fund for a Greater America
NOTES: Top Democratic supporters are unions and grassroots donors.
Seems to me the contrast is really quite sharp: Billionaires vs. working and middle class.
Where unions are strong, do they make a society better or worse? Here is from a post I wrote comparing the US and Germany:
In this video, there was one particular point about Germany that stood out. Germany is 1/5 the size of the US and yet has the second highest trade surplus in the world (after China). They’ve accomplished this while having higher rate of unionization and higher pay. Interestingly, the US economy was also doing better when unionization and pay was higher in the US.
Unions in the US are considered socialists even though they represent the working class. In Germany, it’s required for worker representation to be half of board members of companies. In Germany, the industrial and financial sectors are highly regulated keeping jobs from being outsourced and ensuring main street benefits rather than just wall street. According to conservative ideology, this kind of socialist practices and union power should destroy the economy and destroy innovation and yet the complete opposite is the result.
This seems to support Noam Chomsky’s arguments. Chomsky thinks the world would be a better place if workers had more power to influence the companies they work for and influence the economy they are a part of. As a socialist liberal, Chomsky genuinely believes it’s good to empower the average person. It would appear Germany has done exactly this and has become immensely successful by doing so.
A major factor I discussed in that US and Germany post was about income inequality. Here is a graph showing both the data of union coverage and inequality:
For what it’s worth, here is a study about unions in three comparable countries:
In particular, unions tend to systematically reduce wage inequality among men, but have little impact on wage inequality for women. We conclude that unionization helps explain a sizable share of cross-country differences in male wage inequality among the three countries. We also conclude that de-unionization explains a substantial part of the growth in male wage inequality in the U.K. and the U.S. since the early 1980s.
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I just responded to some comments from one of my previous blog posts (Liberal Trust vs Conservative Mistrust) which touch upon a central issue in American politics. Here are my two responses:
I agree with you about the misleading notions of American “conservatives”. It would make life easier if they used a different term to label themselves. Looking at the history of Western conservatism, American conservatives don’t seem all that conservative. In Britain, the conservatives are the Tories. In early America, Tories defended Britain against the radical revolutionaries. I find it odd that American conservatives worship the founders who were radicals. Thomas Paine inspired the entire revolution and his writings were as liberal as they get.
I was reading Henry Fairlie’s view on Toryism. I realized that traditional conservatism more closely describes Democrats than Republicans. Democrats are the ones interested in conserving our present system. On the other hand, Republicans attack our present system. And, as you note, their fantasies about the past are actually radical visions that would entirely remake American society. They don’t want to conserve anything. If American conservatives actually wanted to conserve the past, they’d first have to read something other than revisionist history.
My suspicion is that the idiosyncrasy of American conservatism makes a bit more sense when taking into consideration the psychological research done on ideologies. Brain scans show that conservatives tend to have a larger part of the brain that deals with fear. Other research shows that conservatives have a stronger disgust response toward anything unusual or improper (such as rotting fruit).
America is unusual in that the status quo of our society isn’t the power of a particular church or of a royal lineage or of a specific ethnicity. The only status quo we have in this country is that of change. Ever since the first Europeans came here, it has been endless change. At a fundamental level, conservatives hate change and so American conservatives hate the status quo of the society they were raised in. They would like to create a status quo that never changes which, oddly, would require radically changing the present status quo. Conservatives seem like hypocrites because they are conflicted by their own psychological predispositions. In the US, they can’t win for losing. The country was founded on a radical liberal vision and has continued to radically change ever since. To be an American conservative is to hate the founding status quo of America.
(note: I admit ‘hate’ is a strong word. Let us just say conservatives are strongly conflicted by the founding status quo of America.)
I’ve just started a book titled Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye. It’s very fascinating. It’s odd that I don’t recall having learned much about Paine in my public education or even in various documentaries I’ve watched about early America.
There seems to be a love/hate relationship with Paine. His writings were what inspired the American Revolution and probably what kept it from failing, but his vision was so radically democratic that he fell out of favor with many of the others in the founding generation who just wanted to create a new ruling elite (which essentially is what they did).
It’s very interesting that this radical vision is at the heart of what defines America. Paine wanted to end slavery, wanted Native Americans to keep their land, wanted women, blacks, and the poor to have as much power as rich white men. He wanted America to become an example of genuine freedom that would inspire revolution all over the world. Paine was a bad ass. His vision is radical even by today’s standards.
America would not exist without Paine’s far left democratic vision. He inspired the revolution, inspired people to keep fighting, inspired people to support the fight for independence in all ways. The American people, especially the lower classes, were fighting for Paine’s vision of America. Paine dedicated his whole life to the cause of liberty. He never made any profit from any of his writings. He risked his life many times and even fought hand-to-hand combat. He was a hardcore revolutionary. He didn’t grow up with privilege. Unlike the most of the Founding Fathers, he was born working class and was an immigrant. Paine believed in the American Dream before there was a country called America.
Paine is the reason conservatives are endlessly outraged in America. Like many in the founding generation, conservatives are scared shitless about the vision that Paine proposed and that vision still exists as a seed waiting to sprout. Paine failed because the rich white males of the time were too afraid to embrace a truly free society. The Populists in the late 19th century attempted again to achieve that vision, but once again the ruling elite coopted the revolutionary energy for the purposes of the corporate elite. Now, we once again face the potential of Paine’s vision. People once again begin to remember what inspired the founding of this country in the first place. Those in power and those on the right will do everything they can to squash democracy. Everyone understands that democracy is the most dangerous vision that any human has ever conceived.
Maybe you’re right about liberals tending to focus on freedom from. When considering radical freedom, we can only know the past from which we are trying to free ourselves from. We can’t know where radical freedom will lead. It’s an experiment. Paine explicitly thought of America as an experiment. If you want safety and security, then you can’t have freedom. That is the hypocrisy of what America has become. Paine realized that even the ruling elite could only have as much freedom as everyone was allowed. Paine knew that the only way to have democracy was to have an educated public and the ruling elite knew the only way to control the masses was to keep them ignorant. But control can never lead to freedom.
Even the data proves this. In societies with high economic inequality, there are more social problems (see: ‘Capitalist’ US vs ‘Socialist’ Germany). The rich may be relatively better off than the poor in such a society, but the rich in such a society are relatively worse off than the rich in a society that has more equality. The rich people in an unequal society have, for example, more health problems (probably from the stress of living surrounded by poverty, crime, and social conflict).
Paine understood this centuries ago. The ruling elite at the time dismissed his radical vision. And the ruling elite today continue to dismiss his radical vision. Yet his radical vision remains. The potential of America continues to be wasted because of those who have power don’t have vision and those who have vision don’t have power. Paine began the revolution and the revolution is still happening. The reason America has never stopped changing is because a large segment of American society has always refused to give up on the vision Paine first described.
Many might consider Paine to have been naive for actually believing in freedom. But dammit I wish there were more idealists. The only thing that makes ideals unrealistic is the cynical ruling elite that always stands in the way. Why is democracy considered naive? Why is freedom seen as a threat?
To this day, the conservatives still fear the masses of the poor and minorities. If you look at the demographics of the Southern states, they actually aren’t solidly Republican by a long stretch. If all the poor and minorities voted, Democrats would win by a landslide in the South and all across the coutnry. Conservatives know this and that is why they do what they can to destroy organizations like Acorn and unions that represent the poor and disenfranchised. Most Americans don’t vote because the entire history of America has been about the ruling elite disenfranchising the masses. Even when they do vote, their votes might simply not be counted as happened in Florida. It’s fucked up.
If Paine was here, he’d start a new revolution. Paine was a Marxist revolutionary before there was a Marx. He realized that the fundamental issue is always class war. It was so when immigrants first came to America, many of whom were political dissidents, oppressed poor people, and indentured servants. And it’s still true.
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Let me finish by pointing out a couple of things related to those comments.
First, here is a passage from the book I mentioned above (Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye, Kindle location 1129):
“in all countries where the freedom of the poor has been taken away, in whole or in part, that the freedom of the rich lost its defence,” he insisted that “freedom must have all or none, and she must have them equally.” Paine was not naïve. He knew freedom could be dangerous, but he pointed out that “if dangerous in the hands of the poor from ignorance, it is at least equally dangerous in the hands of the rich from influence.” Dismissing neither possibility, he suggested ways of addressing them. To prevent ignorance he recommended education. And to prevent political corruption he again demanded democracy: “numerous electors, composed as they naturally will be, of men of all conditions, from rich to poor.”
When people fear mobocracy, what exactly do they fear? Is it fear of the possibility of radical freedom that democracy envisions? Or is it fear that one’s vested interests would be undermined if everyone had equal education and equal opportunity? It’s true that ignorant masses are easier control, but a society can’t simultaneously serve both the realpolitik of control and the ideal of freedom. More importantly, Paine understood that to try to control others meant endangering one’s own freedom. A person can only have what they are willing to offer to others.
Second, the comments above (right before the quote from Kaye’s book) are from a blog post of mine (Liberal Trust vs Conservative Mistrust) that touches upon this same issue of fear and mistrust of democracy. My point in that post is that this conservative response is based on an attitude of not having faith in the average American and not having faith in the strength of democracy. As such, conservatives don’t have faith in the fundamental vision of the American experiment. Here is how I ended that post (and with it I’ll also end this post):
The unions did manage to win in certain ways, but the liberal vision of the working class was integrated into the Federal government. Eventually, the Democrats became the party for unions and for the poor. This altered the dynamic causing the class wars to be less clear, especially as class has been mixed up with race and culture. The Democratic party has done some good things for the working class and so that is why the poor working class is loyal to the Democrats to this very day. The vision of Democrats is that the average person can actually be served by his representatives in Washington. The vision of liberalism is that democracy is strong and not easily destroyed.
Conservatives are less confident. They see democracy as constantly threatened and that is why they are much more partisan in their support of big government. It’s also why conservatives support big military despite claiming to be against big government. Conservatives live in fear of democracy being destroyed. Enemies are everywhere. The enemy threatens both from outside (Russia, Islamic terrorists) and from within (Communist witchhunts, social programs, gun rights). Conservatives don’t trust any governments. They only trust our own state government to the extent it might protect us from foreign state governments, but idealy they’d love to live in a world where state governments didn’t exist at all or else had very little power which means they wish they lived in early America.
My above commentary was inspired by this comment:
It is fascinating to me to have “The Naked Communist” resurface, even as a second work of fiction by a newly rediscovered author. When I was in high school (1960 to 1963) I listened to a series of radio lectures by (apparently) W. Cleon Skousen which culminated in a pitch for his book, The Naked Communist, which was going to expose the evil plans of the terrifying international communist conspiracy. I bought the book and read it and found myself nagged by one question that stayed with me for years. The core presumption of Soviet communism was that people would work hard for the well-being of the state, even with no personal payoff. That always seemed unlikely to me–in fact so unlikely that I always believed that Soviet communism was destined to fall of its own weight. The communist conspiracies were inconsequential because the system was certain to fail. I was then struck by the odd perception that the people most paranoid about the rise of this doomed ideology were the conservatives who should have been the most confident of the ultimate success of the American economic experiment. They were instead the least confident and the most fearful of being overwhelmed by the Soviet system.
When communism fell at last I was not surprised because it seemed to me always destined to fall. Why was my liberal mind more confident of our system than the conservatives that constantly pronounced us doomed to fall to the evil Soviets?
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Conservatives don’t seem to have much faith in the American people or the American experiment. I understand having doubts and I even understand being pessimistic. But, faith or not, do conservatives care more about their ideology or about real people? I know many conservatives do actually care. So, why do they keep voting for Republican politicians who again and again implement policies that hurt average Americans? What is to be gained by attacking unions that protect the working class, social services that help the needy, and public schools that educate the next generation?
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