Saturday, December 13, 2008

Irresistible Force vs. Immovable Object

My old pal Tom Cain sent me an opinion piece this a.m. assessing the Obama labor strategy and it set me to thinking about my own confused and contradictory feelings about the labor movement in the United States. It is a movement whose demise has helped decrease the number of people living in the middle class, but whose power over the years helped create a monster that's biting back in Detroit.

Like so many movements involving political power, labor got out of hand in the 1950s and 1960s and the backlash has all but destroyed both it and the good it did in bringing American workers out of indentured servitude and into the mainstream of our country's promise.

If you're familiar at all with the coal mining organizational efforts of the early part of the 20th Century, you know the pain and suffering those laborers endured for 30 years of attempts to organize (including a real shooting war with the U.S. government) before Roosevelt was elected president and recognized the movement. Then followed the overt corruption of the Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa's rise and fall, unreasonable hourly rates for barely educated workers, pensions out of proportion, health care allowances that at first led the way, then became grotesque in their impact on what products cost.

Americans are a compassionate people who want workers to be treated not just fairly, but generously. I think that's a good approach. Generosity, however, can be taken out of proper proportion and when a gun is put to the giver's head, the generosity is less real, more resented. On the flip side of that are the capitalists whose entire raison d'etre is money/power, each amplifying the other, with no regard to how it is achieved.

Irresistible force vs. immovable object. On steroids. Both lose.

And that's what we're left with. Detroit is collapsing under the weight of its irresistible forces and immovable objects, neither of which wants to change. Neither of which has any teeth left in order to bite back. And congress--that body with the 13 percent approval rating--is working with a lame duck in the White House whose approval rating is one of the lowest in American history, to solve the dilemma. Sounds promising, huh?

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