DIVIDING AND CONQUERING OURSELVES
I was in the express line at Dominick’s today, waiting to buy some bananas, an Odwalla, and a bottle of water. It was a typical midday wait at this Dominick’s, apparently (you know, the kind of wait that belies the word “express”), according to the two people behind me in line. The man and woman seemed to know each other, and I gathered the woman frequented this store. Judging from the context of her part of the discussion, she was either a former employee, or was well acquainted with some current employees.
The long wait in line annoyed her to the point of striking up a conversation with her acquaintance about an apparent Dominick’s plan to offer long-time union employees early retirement. Her perception was that the store chain’s management wanted to cut the high salaries and expensive benefits in favor of hiring younger employees at a lower wage scale without benefits. Her acquaintance agreed, as did I (silently). Sadly, there was nothing original about that plan, I thought.
It was at that point that their conversation took an ugly turn. I had wondered if they’d launch into a general cursing of corporate greed and the oppression of the working class, but the woman disappointed me by fingering “illegal immigrants” as the source of the problem. Her reasoning, as I can recall and paraphrase, was that the flood of immigrants across the border– I gathered she wasn’t referring to Canadians– was driving the labor price down. She suggested that the government close the border completely, and her acquaintance agreed, but said that “you can’t expect the Republicans to do anything about that.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but the tone and context suggested to me that he assumed it went without saying that the Democrats wouldn’t do anything about the ‘problem.’ The man continued with something about how the building trades were affected by ‘the problem’ as well.
Anyway, I closed my ears to them when the woman launched onto a weird tangent about how some of “their race” (Mexicans) were “okay.” It dawned on me as I walked away that neither of them had mentioned any specific immigrants except for Mexicans, not even when the man alluded to scab labor in the construction industry (among others, many Polish immigrants in Chicago have earned a reputation for working for something less than union scale).
Ethnic specificity aside, I was disappointed to hear two apparently working class people looking at a serious problem of capitalist excess and pointing the finger of blame at people who have it worse off than they do. As I reflected on this anecdote, it made me think of how the bloody labor struggles of the late 19th and early 20th century resulted in the lows of the Wilson administration’s red-baiting, anti-labor totalitarianism, and in the highs of the New Deal (the latter being a compromise made by a capitalist class scared shitless that a pissed-off and desperate working and poor majority might once and for all forget about the smoke screens of racism and jingoism and finally go for the appropriate, blue-blooded jugular. But I digress). Have we learned nothing from that history?
It is true that unions have been on the decline since their heyday in the post-war economic boom of the 1950s. That decline has sharpened, I believe, since the early 1980s, when the Reaganites found a way to turn 60s counterculture and 70s Vietnam fatigue on their head. The Reaganites didn’t invent imperialism, racism or jingoism, but refurbished and modernized them into palatable and ‘mainstream’ forms. Now the Bushies have kicked it all into high gear. The most depressing thing, though, if my experience today is any small indication, is that we are going along with it as we almost always have.