[Autoworkers] Paulks and Roys represent a common story that can be told by millions of Americans of their generation. It's the story of our country's "social contract" -- an implicit agreement between working stiffs like them and corporations like GM. This is a remarkable success story, embodying our nation's egalitarian ideals and our commitment to the common good. In practice, America's historic social contract has established within our huge, diverse and fragile society something essential: a stable middle class. While the Constitution and Bill of Rights are the legal glue of our nation, this contract is the social glue -- it binds us as one people, giving tangible evidence that "we're all in this together." Those who produced this democratic advance were not the founders back in 1776, but our parents and grandparents -- and doing so did not come easily for them.
In the 1920s and '30s, working families in industry after industry openly rebelled against the rampant corporate greed, workplace abuses and political corruption of the day. As they organized, marched, and held sit-ins and strikes, they were bludgeoned, shot and often killed by corporate bosses, Pinkerton goons, police and even the National Guard. It was a hellacious period of bloody labor war, deep social unrest and spreading political upheaval. Finally, fearing for the very survival of capitalism, corporate chieftains began to signal to union leaders that they were ready to negotiate for labor peace and a new social order.
The ensuing bargain was straightforward: Corporations would get labor, loyalty and productivity in exchange for assuring job and retirement security. From the New Deal until the mid-1980s, unions, corporations and government hammered out a series of explicit agreements, rules and laws that gave legal structure to this implicit contract. The result was a new balance of power that made ordinary people like autoworkers the first decently paid, decently treated working class in the world.
Work was still hard and demanding, but the development of our social contract meant that, for the first time, tens of millions could find the American dream within their reach. By no means would you be a millionaire, but you could buy a modest home, have health care for your family, take a vacation and not have to fear retirement -- in other words, have the work ethic fairly rewarded. Such a contract also enabled working folks like Paulk and Roy to feel positive about America's commitment to the common good, to pride themselves as being a valued part of the economy and the larger community, and to have hope for the next generation. Such feelings are more than touchy-feely niceties -- they determine whether people support the social order. This is why the feelings of workaday folks like Paulk and Roy are a crucial baromenter of America's well-being, and why today's corporate and political elite had better begin tuning in to them. "We're all worried. Everybody is worried," Paulk says of GM's workers. "There are a lot of people that are really mad. They think this is the thing that revolutions are made of." ...
Today's corporate leadership is playing with fire. The elites are so focused on enriching themselves -- knocking down the workaday majority's wages and benefits in order to grab more of the nation's wealth, for example, and getting Bush to keep piling on the tax giveaways for the rich at the expense of everyone else -- that they have become blind to the looming threat that their avarice poses to the social order and to their own well-being. Until recently, the Wal-Mart model has been taking advantage of low-skilled, low-income workers, but moving that model upward to autos, steel, high-tech, and other industries ensnares highly skilled middle-income workers. There's a big difference between holding people down and knocking them down. Middle-class working families are people who've had a slice of the American pie -- and for them to be told now that their slice will be taken from them and their children is not merely to shred the social contract and throw it in their faces, but to dissolve the social glue that holds our big, sprawling, brawling country together. It's the betrayal of the middle class. And, as Robert Paulk put it, "This is the thing that revolutions are made of." The elites who are so smugly dismissing middle-class wages and benefits as "excessive" will not be able to build walls and gates high enough to stem the tide of anger coming at them.
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Jim Hightower has an outstanding commentary on what is unfolding across the country today for millions of workers. Hightower believes "what has the majority of America's working families worried, angry and in a mood to revolt is that the Powers That Be have unilaterally decided to walk away from the social contract, and in so doing, to kiss off our country's middle class." I'll post part of the rather lengthy article here, but if you read nothing else today, PLEASE click over and read the entire article. Hightower is preaching to the middle class choir with this one.