Magazine | June 23, 2014, Issue

A Long Way from Harlan County

One man’s reflections on labor unions in our time

In May, the Oslo Freedom Forum takes place. It is the premier human-rights conference, held in the Norwegian capital. This year, it was canceled, or postponed. The reason: a hotel-workers strike. Conference organizers could not find a way around it. Hundreds of people from all over the world were set to fly to Oslo. But, at the eleventh hour, they were called off.

They had something important to do. Many of them are former political prisoners or otherwise victims of gross persecution. They were going to give their testimonies to an international audience, including the press. But the hotel workers, in a sense, decided that the conference would not take place. So it didn’t.

I thought, “We all have grievances at work, from time to time. But most of us, on account of our grievances, don’t stop life for others.”

I further thought back to October, and the opening night of Carnegie Hall in New York. Actually, Opening Night did not come off. There was to be a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra. But the stagehands union had a grievance. And they decided that Opening Night would not take place. So it didn’t.

The orchestra had no say. The conductor and soloists had no say. Neither did the thousands of ticket-buyers or anyone else. Only the five guys who belong to the union. They were like an emperor who can give thumbs up or thumbs down. They could stop life for others, and did.

These are not horny-handed sons of toil: The head guy makes $530,000 a year. The other four make over 400. There are millions of long-term unemployed in our country. I imagine some of them would be willing to put out chairs and stands for a mere $350K. Some of them might be willing to go as low as 295.

I once wanted to be a supporter of labor unions and their efforts, but I found that, in my time and place, it was impossible. When I was quite young, I got the idea that unions were noble, standing up for the rights of people who were relatively powerless. They were little people, being exploited by big people. To be on the side of the unions was to be on the side of the angels, or certainly of humanity.

In my part of the country — southeastern Michigan — we learned about Walter Reuther and the Battle of the Overpass. This was the day in 1937 when the United Auto Workers took a stand, and were smashed by the goons of Ford Motor. They rose again, however, stronger than before. There was something romantic about the Battle of the Overpass, and about unionism generally.

Countless TV shows and movies had businessmen as the villain and labor as the hero. In 1976, when I was twelve, there was a celebrated documentary about the Harlan County coalminers: black-lunged sufferers who merely wanted their simple rights. Three years after that, there was a big Hollywood movie, Norma Rae, about textile workers. Adorable Sally Field held up a sign that said “Union.” Hearts and consciences swooned.

That same year, 1979, there was a truckers strike. I was 15 and becoming ever more interested in politics. The striking truckers were shooting at scabs (or “replacement workers,” to use the hated euphemism). I mean, shooting bullets at them. They killed a driver, in Alabama. (His name was Robert Tate.) This shook me up a little: Strikers weren’t supposed to be black hats. They weren’t supposed to be murderers.

In my town, Ann Arbor, the teachers went on strike from time to time. They weren’t murderers (well, one was), but it sure seemed they were working fewer and fewer hours, at greater and greater pay and benefits. There was a time when teachers were almost like missionaries. They took virtual vows of poverty, to serve the community. In the summer, they had to take odd jobs, such as painting houses, to make ends meet until September. I wouldn’t have wanted a return to that. But weren’t current demands a little excessive?   

We had a neighbor, Mr. Southwick, who took walks around the block. One day, I asked him what he thought of the teachers strike, then under way. He said, “Well, first, I don’t think professional people should strike.” I was shocked at the answer. It wasn’t that I disagreed with it. It’s that I never knew anyone had that opinion.

In 1981, when I was going into my senior year, the new president, Reagan, fired the air-traffic controllers. (“I didn’t fire them, they quit,” he would say — because they broke a law that he was merely enforcing.) I heard a family friend say to his brother, “Say what you will about Reagan, but at least someone stood up to labor.” These words were so foreign and interesting to me: Labor was something to stand up to? But didn’t they exist to do the standing up? Like, to the Man? Was labor the Man?

A union, or union movement, I could admire without reservation was Solidarity in Poland. They were led by Lech Walesa, the stirring electrician. Solidarity was standing up to the Man of dictatorship. The movement was strongly supported by President Reagan, and also by the president of the AFL-CIO, Lane Kirkland — who was a dedicated anti-Communist. (He and the founder of National Review, William F. Buckley Jr., had a warm, teasing relationship. WFB would greet him with, “How’s socialism?” Kirkland would answer, “How’s Wall Street?”)

I could pause at many points along the way — the Hormel meatpacking strike in 1985, for example — but let’s go to Wisconsin, in 2011. The scenes there were among the most sickening I have ever seen in America. Teachers and other public employees descended on the capitol, to protest reforms by Governor Scott Walker. Fine. But how did they protest? By screaming, beating drums, littering, equating Walker with Hitler, etc.

These are people we want teaching children?

Worse, they and other public employees went to the homes of lawmakers they opposed to rally on their lawns and intimidate families inside. There was a whiff of actos de repudio about this. These “acts of repudiation” are routine in Cuba, where Communist mobs go to the homes of dissenters for the purpose of screaming, denouncing, and cowing. There is physical violence, too, of course.

By the way, Fidel Castro holds the key to the City of Madison (the Wisconsin capital). It was given to him by Mayor Paul Soglin in the 1970s. That man, Soglin, is mayor today. And his friend Castro is still boss of a one-party dictatorship with a gulag.

I long ago reached the point where I can barely stand to read about unions and their tactics. Harry Bennett (Ford Motor’s notorious head of security in the time of the Battle of the Overpass) had nothing on them. At the end of 2012, my NR colleague Jillian Kay Melchior had a piece called “Unions Defend the Worst of the Worst.” It began with a report of nursing-home workers in Connecticut, who had a grievance. Before they walked off the job, they sabotaged their workplaces, endangering the health of their patients. For instance, they monkeyed with equipment.

Jillian talked to a man whose wife lives in one of the homes (or at least did at the time). He refused to have his name disclosed, though, because union members had threatened him, and her. “I don’t want to get involved,” he told Jillian. “My wife is helpless.”

The nursing-home workers belong to the Service Employees International Union, famous for their purple T-shirts. In fact, the union boasts of forming a “purple ocean,” in order to get their way. When I see these shirts, and the mob mentality that goes with them, I can’t help thinking they seem a little brown.

On the sidewalks of New York, there is often a huge inflatable rat parked in front of a building, blocking your way. A union has put it there, to shame the people within. They are non-union. It is not a cute, cuddly rat, but a giant nasty one. Non-union workers are supposed to be “rats,” you see. Didn’t Nazis equate their opponents with vile animals? Last October, before the opening night that never occurred, the stagehands placed this rat in front of Carnegie Hall. That tells you even more about their character.

I hate this rat. I hate the word “scab.” I hate the idea that you can’t cross a picket line — some holy cordon. I hate the whole bullying, ugly, greedy, undemocratic nature of unions.

To a degree, I am stunned and abashed to be anti-union and pro-management. I would not have planned or wished it. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s first U.N. ambassador, became a Republican at age 59. She had always been a Democrat, and not just any Democrat, but a member of Hubert Humphrey’s inner circle. When she switched her registration, she said, “I would rather be a liberal.”

I know just what she means. But you have to adapt to the atmosphere and politics around you. And what have American unions been in my lifetime? From the Harlan County coalminers to the purple-shirted saboteurs, or the plutocrats of Carnegie Hall, it’s a “fur piece,” to use Faulkner language. It is a long way. Underdogs have become appalling overdogs. David is Goliath.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” I believe that (I guess). But I also believe in temperance. With every passing year, I see that a bane of our existence is extremism — extremism of Right or Left. The taking of something good and pushing it too far, into destructiveness. One definition of conservatism, I suppose, is anti-extremism.

In the previous issue of NR, I ended a piece with the admonition attributed to Talleyrand, and often quoted by Bill Buckley: Surtout pas trop de zèle. Above all, not too much zeal. This maxim may be square or boring, but it’s not unwise.

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