“Unions had their place,” a woman named Jerri told me soon after I arrived in Wisconsin last week. “They did their part back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and then they got too big, and are abusing their power.” Jerri and her husband Tim (both declined to give last names) were eating at a bar in Wauwatosa, the purple Milwaukee suburb that’s home to Scott Walker. They both work in sales: she’s in retail at the mall; he’s in wholesale, selling caskets. Tim said Walker’s union “reforms” were necessary because local politicians had been “looking out for the union” instead of “people like me.” He said unions are for people who don’t “feel they should have to work very hard.” Jerri complained that unions “are sucking off my teat.” Public workers’ benefits, she said, “should be the same as anybody in any kind of private job.”
That last statement is most telling. While resentment towards unions has grown since the 1950s, it’s not because they got too big. It’s because they got too small.
There is something about people’s psychology where they see people of their own social class who have better pay and workplace protections and, rather than strive to create those conditions at their own workplaces, feel bitter resentment and try to tear others down. That in 2012 the workers with representation work for the government and the workers without labor for private companies only adds to the divide, what with Americans’ traditional mistrust of the government.
In my darkest hours, I read quotes like this and I really wonder whether the long-term future of unions only sees success after several decades. The decline of working-class solidarity and identification, which has too long and complex a history to explore here, helps fuel this desire to tear other workers down. Since modern Americans believe so strongly in individualism, the free market, and the destruction of the parts of the safety net they don’t personally benefit from, will it take decades of struggle, poverty, dead workers, malnourished children, and extreme income inequality for the American working class to begin seeing solidarity with each other again? How do we get back to 1880 or 1910 or 1945, when a big chunk of working-class Americans saw the world in this way?