Back in 1980, I covered the steel industry – along the Ohio River Valley between Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia – for Wheeling’s morning newspaper. These were interesting times. Unionized steel workers had good houses, drove new American-made cars and pickups, and often had money left over for toys such as speed boats. Up until then, the unions routinely expected, and received, significant pay and benefit increases each time one of their employment contracts ran out, was renegotiated and renewed.
But the unions went too far.
The Japanese made a play for the U.S. market, and began exporting subsidized steel. The American steel companies had to find ways to lower their cost of production if they were to be able to compete for customers with the Japanes – and by far the highest costs involved labor. But union members were used to having their way, and they wouldn’t budge.
By way of illustration, I recall when Wheeling-Pittsbugh Steel asked its union employees for concessions – cuts in benefits, no wage increases – because the company was facing severe financial problems. By way of reply, dozens and perhaps hundreds of union members went to Mellon Bank – where Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel banked – and rented safety deposit boxes. The next day, each union member concealed a dead fish and brought it to the bank’s downtown Pittsburgh office, then placed the fish in their lock boxes. You can imagine what transpired a few hours later.
This made for good headlines, but did not prove useful as a bargaining tactic. One high-ranking district official on the steelworkers union’s negotiating team told me that for the first time ever, they’d been able to convince the steel company to produce company books so that the union’s accountants could independently verify the company’s financial condition. The union’s own analysis showed that unless they accepted contract concessions, Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel would soon face bankruptcy. We ran that story in the paper for every union member to see.
It didn’t matter. Rank-and-file union members didn’t want to hear what their own leadership had to say. They were angry union officials would even suggest concessions, and believed they were so important that the company would have to find some extraordinary method of coughing up more cash, even though the union’s own accountants showed the company wasn’t bluffing. The rank and file voted down contract concessions. A few weeks later, Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel went bankrupt, and a large share of the U.S. industry went with it.
I’m not saying that was the exact point at which the pendulum stopped its leftward arc and then slowly began swinging the other way, but it was one of many almost simultaneous events that put the change in motion. The next year, Ronald Reagan brought his message of conservatism to the White House, and the rest is history.
More than 30 years later, I’m beginning to wonder if I haven’t witnessed the beginning of a new pendulum swing. Over the past three-plus decades, the unions have been all but crushed. Middle-class real incomes have been on the decline, along with the number of people covered by health insurance. Manufacturing has been on the decline while low-wage “service” jobs have been on the rise.
For millions of Americans, income and health insurance are controlled by big corporations. If your family is tied to one of these corporations through a so-called white-collar job, you’re surviving. If not, you’re fighting to survive. But while the incomes of white-collar workers continue to stagnate or decline, those at the top of the corporate management chain continue to see their incomes rocket. Annual incomes in the millions of dollars are not uncommon for the CEO and his ilk, even as the proletariat sits in homes whose value was eroded recently by 40%-50% through manipulation of the “free” market.
The circumstances and methods are far different, but current conditions (which brought about the likes of the 99% movement) remind me of a little Ohio River Valley town a few dozen miles downstream from the old steel mills. In the 1920s, this had been what was called a company town. The houses and the single store in it had been built by a coal company. In order to land a coal mining job, you had to agree to live in one of the company houses (the cost of which was subtracted from your pay) and you had to shop at the company store. To make sure you shopped at the company store, you were not paid in U.S. dollars. You were paid in company script. You worked long, dangerous hours. You were essentially a company slave. Until the pendulum began swinging toward the left in the aftermatch of the Great Depression, which marked the rise of the unions.
So it has gone.
I think that the tremendous income and opportunity inequality Americans now face, and the excesses of the very rich – such as their recent attempts to actually purchase national election results – represent a new pendulum swing. My thought is that a lot of people decided this upper-class, lower-class bullshit being imposed on us by the likes of the puppet masters pulling the strings at the Republican Party had to stop.
And so, on Tuesday, they put an end to it.
I think there’s plenty of evidence from around the country that Republicans recognize the just-past national election for the game-changer it is. David Frum, former speech-writer for President George W. Bush and a current writer at The Daily Beast, for instance:
Political work is collaborative work, and although we all have our 10-point plans, the immediate need is for a plan with just this one goal: we must emancipate ourselves from prior mistakes and adapt to contemporary realities. To be a patriot is to love your country as it is. Those who seem to despise half of America will never be trusted to govern any of it. Those who cherish only the country’s past will not be entrusted with its future.
The question is, can rank-and-file Republicans recognize the truth in Frum’s words, or will they respond like the steelworkers union members did back at the rise of the conservative movement, by killing their own messenger and cooking their own gooses?