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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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Then came Clinton, who had a different technique for undermining unions. It was called NAFTA. There have been studies on the effect of NAFTA on strike breaking in the United States, and it’s substantial. It’s illegal, but if you have a criminal state, you can do what you like—you don’t enforce the laws. So a standard technique would be, say, if there’s an organizing campaign somewhere, for management to tell workers, “You guys can go and strike if you want, but if you win, it’s all going to Mexico.” That’s a very effective technique. In the absence of solidarity, real solidarity, in fact international solidarity, it’s a pretty effective technique of strike breaking, and the number of illegal strike-breaking efforts, I think, went up by about 50 percent after NAFTA.

All this started right after the Second World War with Taft-Hartley, the huge anti-labor campaigns and so on. Now there are companies which just do strike breaking. There are scientific and sophisticated techniques, and there’s plenty of clout behind it, a huge amount of corporate money, and the government supports it. And there isn’t much popular support. You could see it in the passage of the right-to-work law in Michigan, which was pretty shocking. That’s a labor state, and it turned that out a lot of union members voted for it. If you look at the propaganda, you can see why. First of the all, the very phrase “right to work”: It’s actually not right to work; it’s right to scrounge. What it means is a person can work in a factory and refuse to join the union so he doesn’t have to pay dues, and he’ll get all the protection that the union offers to others, the grievances and so on. He gets the protection, but doesn’t pay. That’s all that right-to-work means.

It’s a technique for destroying labor. But the propaganda has been effective, and it’s best against public workers, librarians, firefighters, teachers or even workers in a unionized plant. They have jobs, they get pensions, they get health care. You are unemployed, you can’t a job. And if you get one, it’s part-time and you don’t get a pension. So they’re stealing from you, especially the public service workers who are leaning on taxes. They’re underpaid, relative to their skill level, and the reason they get pensions is because they take lower pay. It’s a trade-off. They say, okay, we’ll take lower wages, but you guarantee us our pension. But the propaganda works, and the administrations supported it.

When Obama declares a freeze on pay for federal workers, he’s saying that we’re not going to raise taxes on the rich but that we are going to raise taxes on you, because a freeze on public workers is identical to a tax increase. The whole technique of demonizing labor and “corrupt union leaders”—I mean, this goes way back.

In the early 1950s there were two movies that came out about the same time. One was Salt of the Earth, a marvelous low-budget movie. It was about a strike that was eventually won. I think a Mexican woman was leading it. It was a very well-done movie, but nobody ever heard of it. There was another movie that came out at the same time called On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando, and it was about a corrupt union leader and the good, honest workman, you know, Joe with his pail and stuff. They finally got together. Marlon Brando kind of organized them, and the thing ends up with Marlon Brando throwing the union organizer into the ocean or something like that. Now that was a big hit. Incidentally, it was directed by Elia Kazan, who was supposedly a rather progressive director. But the point was to get people to hate the unions because they’re all a bunch of corrupt gangsters and they’re just stealing from you honest workmen and so on. And this is just one piece of an enormous campaign. By the time some of the scholarship came out on it, I was shocked by the scale. I had been following it, but had no idea. And it’s had an effect.

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