Column on Amereican Labor, Sensible not Docile

American Labor, Sensible not Docile?

Tibor R. Machan

Some are comparing American workers to European ones quite unfavorably
because in the face of the marked economic downturn many workers in Europe
are throwing a major fit, while American workers, on the whole, remain
calm and try to solver their problems like adults.

This counts as “docility” on the part of the Americans, at least for
Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times. He reports, in his essay in the
Week in Review section of The Sunday Times titled “In America, Labor Has
An Unusually Long Fuse” (4/5/09, p. 3) that “in the United States, where
G.M. plans its biggest layoffs, union members have seemed passive in
comparison [to workers in France and elsewhere in Europe]…” How is this to
be explained?

Mr. Greenhouse’s proposes that “American workers have increasingly steered
clear of such militancy,” the kind shown earlier by “Mother Jones, John L.
Lewis and Walther Reuther…for reasons that range from fear of having
their jobs shipped overseas to their self-image as full-fledged members of
the middle class, with all its trappings and aspirations.” According to
David Kennedy “taken together, guilt, shame and individualism undercut any
impulse to collective action….”

Well, maybe. But perhaps the good sense of most American workers explains
it all much better. Perhaps most American workers know well and good not
to look for some scapegoat and rail against it in the street. Maybe they
realize that while some people surely bear responsibility for what has
transpired in the American economy that has left them jobless for now,
this wasn’t a conspiracy by their employers. Maybe they even suspect that
the responsible party was America’s federal government, what with all its
artificial methods of making everyone a homeowner, even those unable to
afford a home, and the ensuing fiasco in the financial markets. Or they
may even adopt the principle that one should find the actual culprit, if
there is one, before one goes on a rampage breaking windows, burning cars,
and risking death and destruction just to vent.

Ah, but that would fail to be misanthropic for the likes of Mr. Greenhouse
and Professor Kennedy. Nor would it portray American workers as a bunch of
helpless pawns being pushed around by forces they are unable to cope with.
While there may be some such workers, my experience indicates that many
do not fit this caricature. For example, back in 1957 American
experienced a recession, if memory serves me right. I was a young man
working as a draftsman at Carrier Air Conditioning Corporation in
Cleveland, Ohio, and got laid off. The “demand” for my work disappeared
very suddenly because the company got fewer and fewer contracts for its
services. I knew well and good that it wasn’t some ill will on the part
of my boss that brought this about so it didn’t even occur to me to throw
a fit, to go after the firm with some kind of hostile action, to gather
with others who were let go and perpetrate some form of revenge.

Instead I decided to take a few weeks of unemployment benefits and prepare
to move someplace where I could find work. This happened to be a small
town in Pennsylvania where friends of mine informed me that work was
available. No, it wouldn’t be drafting but something less interesting yet
sufficiently income generating for me—namely, working at an Army Depot
unloading boxes from freight trains—so as to justify making the move. I
had to leave my girlfriend behind, as well as friends and some family, but
I need to earn a living and collecting unemployment payments rubbed me the
wrong way even back then. And there were others in my situation who
dispersed around the country so as to find new work. The idea of getting
bailed out, as it were, just didn’t occur to most of those I knew who
faced what I did, namely, need for new work.

I am willing to bet that many workers in America meet the challenge of
needing a new job, line or work, even career, without thinking immediately
of resorting either to protest marches or to docility. No, they are
probably doing the sensible thing of looking for some alternative to the
familiar and preferred work they can no longer count on by which to earned
their living.

But it looks like the prominent commentators and analysts, regarding how
people are supposed to cope with economic adversity, are oblivious to the
approach taken by all those who make the requisite changes in their lives
instead of venting their frustration and disappointment on the streets.
That would be to give other than our politicians credit for doing
something, anything, about the economic downturn we are experiencing.
Maybe not everyone in dire straits is looking to be bailed out by
President Obama & Co.

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