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The American Dream As We Know It Is Obsolete

Why progressives need to think beyond the mantra of creating a "middle class America."

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The “commodity” of union representation is made up of services like negotiating for better wages, healthcare, retirement plans and grievances. Because the legal and economic structure of unions is to deliver services in exchange for dues, workers expect the best possible commodity for their money, contends Annunziato. In this way, workers become consumers not just in society but within the union. Consciousness as a social agent in opposition to capital is considered superfluous or even counter-productive by union leaders and staff who appropriate the dues.

One result is that over decades, many unions have shrank or eliminated internal education and downsized the number and role of shop stewards, who are on the front line fighting against arbitrary management practices, conducting political education among the rank and file, and mobilizing them for various campaigns from elections to strikes.

One union that critics say has adopted the form and function of a corporate enterprise is the 2.2-million-member Service Employees International Union, for which the notion of a working class appears passé. In 2007,  then SEIU President Andy Stern told the Wall Street Journal “we try to be partners with our employers … and understand their competitive issues and try to add value, not create problems .”And, “ We want to find a 21st century new model … that is less focused on individual grievances, more focused on industry needs.  

A few years ago, SEIU embarked on an expensive and so far disastrous effort to use call centers where “grievance representatives” replaced much of the work of stewards. It is part of SEIU’s strategy of creating huge centralized locals that can pool resources and cut costs, but which is also aimed at suppressing rank-and-file democracy. Combined with its tendency to cooperate with employers, SEIU has become hard to distinguish from a corporation. (An excellent account of the SEIU strategy, turmoil within the labor movement and other paths for organizing is Steve Early’s book,  The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor.)

One final note. Labor long ago abandoned the poor. In today’s political discourse the poor are largely invisible. If labor is not acting out of real solidarity by fighting vigorously for everyone who is dispossessed, then different social groups will be demonized and pushed into low-wage work that can supplant union jobs. This happened with “welfare reform” under President Bill Clinton, with thousands of welfare recipients forced to take low-wage jobs that were previously decent-paying union jobs with benefits. And this is a major factor behind the vanishing private and now public sector unionism, particularly the betrayal of international solidarity starting with the Cold War.

In Wisconsin, many labor leaders framed the struggle as about collective bargaining for public servants – the path to the middle class – rather than trying to build an alliance of single mothers, the poor, immigrants, the elderly and the wide range of groups on the chopping block.

After decades of being battered, it’s tempting to say our options are limited by historical forces. Except the electrifying revolutions and uprisings in the Middle East, North Africa, Wisconsin and elsewhere shows that we have historical agency. That means making carefully thought-out political choices, and a good place to start is by rejecting the middle-class opiate of consumption for the human ideal of liberation.


Arun Gupta is a founding editor of The Indypendent newspaper. He is writing a book on the decline of American Empire for Haymarket Books.

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