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Never cross a picket line

| Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It’s not that uncommon. It might be outside a factory or an office or a store. You might be a customer or another employee. You will have to know what to do — so never cross a picket line.

It is the strongest action workers can take in an economy that is otherwise stacked against them. By going on strike, employees shut down the jobsite by refusing to work. Even if it doesn’t seem like you have a stake in their fight, you probably do.

The labor movement is not what it used to be. Union membership in the U.S. is down to 11.2 percent, from a high of 35 percent in the 1950s. Many people wonder why they should care. Unions may have once been necessary, opponents claim, but they’re not important now. They’re corrupt and greedy, run by “union bosses” who are ruining the economy. The underlying assumptions of these accusations are telling.

There is no hope in claiming that unions never did anything good for working people. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, union members fought and sometimes died for livable wages, decent working conditions, child labor laws, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, social security and the civil rights movement. The only hope of bosses seeking to break the might of the labor movement has been to claim that unions are now unnecessary.

Solidarity, however, is not something that goes out of style. Now, as always before, labor unions bring up wages not only for union workers but for all workers in their industries. They set standards for working conditions and act as a mechanism to enforce fair treatment for workers. Anything a boss gives workers can be taken away just as easily. Organizing gives workers a seat at the table to negotiate and make their demands heard.

The union, at its best, is an injection of economic democracy. It is run by its rank-and-file members with elected union leaders beholden to recall and the will of the membership. Different unions have achieved varying levels of success. No human organization is perfect, and whenever imperfections occur, bosses and owners are quick to jump on them in an attempt to show how corrupt and anti-democratic these unions actually are. In reality, the owners are just projecting.

“The union bosses are greedy.” When the owners making this claim are operating vast financial machines designed to extract every bit of value from the labor of millions of people, the accusation falls a bit flat. Owners fight to maximize profits, unions fight to maximize wages. What does it tell you that the worst slur they can hurl at union leaders is to call them “bosses”?

“The union is anti-democratic.” At their worst, unions are imperfect democracies that bicker amongst themselves. At their best, they are solidarity incarnate. Is there anything less democratic than the economic dictatorship of the boss over the workplace? Those who labor to produce all things have little control over the conditions or the fruits of their labor. The union is there to help them push for a bit more.

If one accepts that the unions are good for the working-class, there is one last hurdle — am I a worker? From the lowest paid employees being told that they are “associates” or “contractors” to the highest paid employees being told that they are “professionals,” much effort has been put into obscuring one simple fact. Everyone who labors for a wage has the same economic interests — a greater share of the fruits of their own labor and more employee control over working conditions. For this vast working-class, any union anywhere is in their interest, as unions drive up wages and working conditions throughout the whole economy.

A strike reveals something fundamental about the world — that the working-class makes the wheels turn. We have lesson after lesson showing us that workers can run industry in the absence of owners: the syndicalist revolution in Spain in the 1930s, mass factory take-overs in Argentina, the MONDRAGON Corporation run cooperatively by its 74,000 employees. On the other hand, those whose only claim to wealth is an abstract concept of property ownership enforced by state power need the workers. Without a host, the parasite withers.

So if you make your living by capital ownership and investment, disregard what I say. But if by the force of your brain and muscle you sell your labor for a wage, know where your interests lie. They may be waiters or steelworkers or physicians, but when union members are on strike, know that they are fighting for you too. When you see them, remember — never cross a picket line.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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