Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis (III)

This is the third in a series of four blogs – all to be posted during this week – each of which falls under the heading of “Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis.”

III.  Followers – Proletariats, Workers, Employees

About a month ago some 50,000 General Motors workers went on strike for the first time in twelve years. The effects of the strike are becoming punishing, particularly in the Midwest where the stoppage is having a significant impact. This raises the question, why walk out now?

It is conventional wisdom that American unions have become weak. Since the 1960s they suffered repeated blows to the head, including globalization and changing technologies such as automation and digitalization. Each of these hits threatened their members’ livelihoods becoming, therefore, ironically, existential threats to precisely those organizations formed to protect them.

Moreover, recently, the specifics of union workers’ complaints have been exacerbated by the same free-floating angers and anxieties that plague Americans more generally. I refer, for example, to deadening wage stagnation even as corporate profits have soared, and to the drumbeat of income inequity, a relentless reminder that the inordinately rich are getting still richer while even the middle-class struggles now to pay for increasingly expensive staples such as housing and education.  

This combination – the emasculation of the American labor movement along with the more general American malaise – explains why now the auto workers’ strike. It explains why early in this decade the “Fight for $15” movement was born, leading within a few years to huge rallies and fast-food walkouts across the country. It explains why last year 8,000 Marriott workers went similarly on strike. It explains why earlier this year 31,000 supermarket workers also went out on strike. It explains why in the last year even tens of thousands of teachers went on strike. It explains why some 80,000 Kaiser Permanente worker are threatening right about now to go on strike. It explains why last year nearly a half a million workers took part in strikes and work stoppages – the most in over a decade. It explains why a recent Gallup poll found that public approval for unions has climbed to 64 percent, up from 48 percent a decade ago, and near its highest level in a half century. And, it also explains why non-unionized workers have started to join hands! To cite one example from a recent New York Times article titled “Uniting Workers, Without a Union,” last fall some 20,000 Google workers left their desks to protest the company’s handling of complaints related to sexual harassment.

Still, I want to be careful. I do not want to exaggerate the significance of what’s happening. The United Auto Workers union has shrunk from its all-time high of 1.5 million members to less than half a million. And only about ten and a half percent of the nation’s workforce is currently unionized, at or near an all-time low. Moreover, the auto strike continues as I write, so how it comes out in the end remains uncertain.

Nevertheless, attention should be paid. This is a struggle between those who have much, much more and those who have much, much, less. Of course, the divide between them is not as enormous as it was in the middle of the 19th century. To an extent American capitalism has compensated for deficiencies resulting from inequities. In fact, it was precisely in consequence of the hay day of the union movement that the gaping gap between capitalists and proletariats was modified.

But to tamp down a struggle between two groups is not to snuff it out. The class conflict to which the Communist Manifesto famously referred lives on. Moreover, unless employees get some satisfaction from their employers, it is likely, in the third decade of the 21st century, to be exacerbated. What does this have to do with leadership and followership? Everything.

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