Why would a UU not be up in arms supporting the public sector union workers of Wisconsin — and by extension, the rest of the country — as they rally, demonstrate, shut down and shout out in support of collective bargaining? Who could be against the rights of workers to band together in support of benefits like health care and pensions?
In my heart of hearts, as a former union member myself, I’m right there with them. Those jobs were by far the best I ever had — including ministry — and if I had stuck with them through thick and thin, my coffers and my future would be much better appointed than they ever have hope of being. My public sector job took specialized education and skill, although no sacrifice. Wisconsin’s unions and their allies seem to be making a last stand on behalf of middle class comfort for all of us, and for that, I give them applause.
But historically, American unions have been the largest single enemy of that very dream of middle class comfort for all. Unlike European unions, who organized to vest legal rights (for citizens) at the government level, American unions set up labor cartels. The dream might have been the same, but the mechanism, the access, the justification were anything but universal. Hoping to give their children and extended kin the comfort for which they had immigrated here, American unions accepted and exploited racism and sexism way beyond what my young UU years would tolerate. Hoping to justify their selfishness, they played into anti-taxation greediness with their insistence that benefits were earned — not entitled — by workers who showed up for work. Yes, they had great support for the disabled — but only THEIR disabled. Whatever my Unitarian egalitarianism may have liked about their uplift of so many struggling immigrants, my Universalist philosophy completely rejects about their language, their philosophy of rights.
In a sense, we are in the same boat as Egypt right now. Unions — and I thank them for this, I honor their martyrs for this — lifted up the dignity of jobs which are nor glamorous. Martin Luther King, Jr, for instance, died while supporting a strike of garbage collectors, whose slogan was “I Am a Man.” And anyone who wants the whole list need only check the archives — many dates — of Patrick Murfin’s wonderful blog, “A Heretic, A Rebel, A Thing to Flout.” There is no question that the idea of work as a cause for wealth is a step up from the inherited greediness of the Gilded Age, in which began the martyrdoms.
But it’s time to think of how we can help progress our public philosophy of worthiness again. American employers who lobby furiously against universal, single-payer health care in this country will tell you right up front that such a policy draws their investment, for instance into Canada, where corporate earnings don’t need to keep balancing household budgets for the retired and the ill. It is not “business” as a whole which objects to this policy, but the many businesses which now form what might be referred to as the “insurance medical complex.” No wonder more and more doctors are going to Congress (or K Street) and pouring their souls into this battle. No wonder the national assortments Chambers of Congress are concealing a split in their ranks on this issue — and the big bucks of the insurance medical complex” were the winners. It’s not that they were more right — they were richer. And anyone who doubts they are ripping us off need only look how much they are willing to invest to protect their substantial profits.
Unions lost their public support — and I hate to say this — because more and more people found themselves on the outside looking in. It was easier to gut them than to join them, even if you were a worker. But now those workers discover there was a baby in all that bilge-water. The baby was the universal right of the post-born to ennoy secure, uplifting, covenant-enriched lives. To know security that outlasts any paycheck, even a job.
Yep, I’m preaching Universalism here, pure, unmitigated entitlement given by God. What some Unitarian — what was his name — in one of his more universalist moments, said thusly:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men (whoops!), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
So yes, we need to remember that unionization, at its best, uplifted the dignity of work which is done before you shower, not after. The folks who clean up vomit, chip out coal, set out meals, spin out fabrics, ground electric outlets. Not always college work (and not always not college work!), but also not the kind of thing you’d want to live without.
Middle class comfort — that rapidly waning memory from the middle of the twentieth century — offered us both: government to provide what we could not do for ourselves, and unions to insist we have the right to do as much for ourselves and our families as we can. Ironic that this latter part of their creed has resettled as justification for the greed of the international kleptocrats (including the insurance medical complex, with its exploitation of poor immigrants to do their dirtiest jobs for inadequate wages), while the former — that it is the dignity of work which justifies the benefits and wages — has been used to cut off the very disabled, aged, and dependent the unions fought so hard to protect.