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Noam Chomsky: America Is a Terrified Country

Noam Chomsky discusses American terror abroad, dire income inequality at home, and what to do next.

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CK: Why are they so rare in the United States?

NC: Strikes of any kind are very rare, especially since Reagan, who kind of broke the mandate against using scabs. That’s outlawed everywhere in the world. I think maybe apartheid South Africa allowed it. But when Reagan broke the flight-controllers’ strike, he set the tone, and maybe ten years later there was a strike at a major Caterpillar manufacturing plant. I think it was in Peoria, and management broke it by bringing in scabs. Now that’s illegal everywhere in the world. As I said, apartheid South Africa I think allowed it, but it passed.

It’s kind of interesting what happened. The Chicago Tribune, which is a conservative newspaper but covered labor affairs pretty well, had a lot of coverage about Peoria and the scandal of bringing in scabs. Well, that was maybe twenty years ago. When President Obama—who was in Chicago at the time, so he couldn’t have missed it—decided to show his solidarity with workers, he went to that plant and nobody commented on it. It’s effaced from memory. And the labor movement, as you know, has been decimated. It developed enormously in the 1930s and it’s responsible for most of the progressive legislation that took place. There was an immediate backlash, even by the late 1930s. That’s when management initiated what are now called scientific methods of strike breaking, sophisticated strike-breaking techniques.

CK: What are some of those?

NC: Some of them are called the Mohawk Valley formula. Say there is some town in Pennsylvania where there’s a strike going on. The idea is to saturate the town with propaganda whose basic theme is Americanism: We’re all Americans, we all work together, we all love each other. We’re all helping the friendly boss who works to the bone eighty hours a day for the service of the workers, the banker who loves to give you money to buy a car, and the workman with his pail going to work and his wife who’s making dinner at home. They’re all one big happy family living in harmony. And then these outsiders come in, the union organizers, and there’s a hint as well that they’re probably communists, and they’re trying to disrupt the harmony and prevent everyone from living the good American dream. That’s basically the theme, and the idea is to saturate everything with propaganda: the schools, the churches, everything. And it sometimes has an effect. That’s one technique. There are others.

These developed substantially under Reagan, who was very anti-labor. In fact, he hated poor people with a passion. So, for example, during the lettuce strike, Reagan was governor of California. He very ostentatiously appeared on television happily eating lettuce just to show what he thought about the striking workers, the poorest of the poor. If he can kick them in the face, great. He loved that. Just like his “welfare queen” business, which demonized welfare and portrayed rich black women being driven in their Cadillacs to the welfare offices and stealing your money, and that sort of thing. In fact, he made it very clear. You couldn’t miss it.

Reagan opened his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a little town which is probably unknown except for one thing: There was a massacre of civil rights workers there. And that’s where he very ostentatiously opened his campaign—telling people: Don’t worry, I’m a racist thug. And then came the strike. But his administration also informed the business world that the government essentially wasn’t going to apply the laws. There are laws about illegal interference with union organizing and they’re obviously supposed to implement them. But he made it quite clear that you can do what you like. Illegal measures, like firing of union organizers, went way up during the Reagan years. I think it might have tripled, and it continued.

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