The Ongoing Triumph of Radical Individualism

Scott Walker's victory in the Wisconsin recall has been gleefully hailed on the right as a death knell for American unions, and while that may be an exaggeration, there's no doubt that the labor movement is in a long and perhaps inexorable decline. How did it happen? One answer is that conservatives have of late found increasing success in a tactic they've used for decades: getting non-unionized workers to resent unionized workers for the better pay, benefits, and working conditions that unionized workers have used collective bargaining to obtain. This is only possible if you convince people to see everyone around them as not potential allies but as competitors in a zero-sum contest. Rich Yeselson offers a story about watching William Winpisinger, the head of the machinists' union, on television 30 years ago:

As always, the conflict formula for talk shows eventually took hold, and Winpisinger received a barrage of hostile questions from Donahue's audience. So, he stood up—a big, bald headed guy—and went to the front of the stage to take the attacks head on. It was great television, and "Wimpy," as he was known in the movement, was anything but. One guy stood up and said something like, "Why should I care about your membership? They're making more money than I am, they have better benefits than I do. Who needs you or them?"

Wimpy's response was to turn on the guy—again, this is from memory, but it's of a piece with his career—and bellow, "What are you yelling at me for, you jerk. Rather than attack workers who have organized themselves into a union and are doing better than you because of it, why don't you organize a union yourself?! Then you can get better pay and benefits, too!" Somewhere in West Philadelphia, a lazy grad student cheered.

Yes, why don't people organize their own unions, despite all the risks, rather than resent those who are union members? That was the question then, and that is the question now. But, mostly people aren't even angry enough to ask it anymore. In his great and enduring work, The Making of the English Working Class of 1963, the British historian, E.P. Thompson, wrote of the emergence of early 19th century British working class consciousness. Thompson showed how each generation of British workers of that period passed along to their sons and neighbors a broad world- view that asserted class and national pride. It is an American form of that historical memory that we have forgotten. There is now only a very thinly described transmission of working class solidarity and the role unions play in inculcating it.

I'd add a corollary to the point about class. Conservatives have succeeded in convincing working- and middle-class people not just that they shouldn't feel solidarity with other members of their class, but that they shouldn't feel solidarity with anyone at all. It required a lot of work, particularly when you consider how much they rely on encouraging feelings of tribalism in other realms, like nationhood, religion, and region. But the conservative message on economics has always been brutally individualistic, essentially arguing that in the economic realm, no one is meaningfully connected to anyone in any way. Institutions don't matter, power imbalances don't matter, and every individual is solely responsible for every single thing that happens to him or her. Your co-worker got fired when she had to leave early because her kid got sick? Just be thankful it wasn't you, and keep working. Your employer is paying women less than men for doing the same job? Maybe they aren't working hard enough. There should be no systemic remedies for things like that, because anything that happens to anyone is their own fault. We're all out for ourselves, we're all on our own, and that's how it should be.

Once you've had that message drummed into your head thousands of times, when you see union members who enjoy good wages, good benefits, and some measure of job security, your response isn't "Why shouldn't I have that? Why shouldn't we all have that?" It's "Screw them." And the notion that people like Scott Walker and the Koch brothers might not actually have the best interests of working people in mind when they set out to crush unions is barely relevant. There's no such thing as "working people," there's just me. And if it's not my rights that are being taken away today, then who cares?

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