The Political Heart of the Working Class
By Ryan Boyd, Day Ramp Steward
With the US presidential election around the corner it’s probably worth saying a few words about where workers' rights fit into the political equation. First, it’s undeniable that unions are political. The beginnings of the modern union movement can be traced back to a time when people had virtually no rights in the workplace, and the gradual attainment of rights was only possible through struggle.
None of the safety standards or workplace rules that protect employees came about because employers wanted to spend money on them — just the opposite. In an economic environment that puts profit and market share before other concerns, the well-being of the people doing the work of an enterprise is seen as a cost to be managed, not a “goal” in itself.
OCT. 19, 2020: Ryan Boyd walks the picket to protest split wages.
The most useful way I’ve found to think about union politics is not to get hung up on conflicts within our two-party system — liberal vs. conservative, etc. The fundamental conflict is between employers and employees: Employers, a small minority, control the productive decisions within society, while the overwhelming majority of people, employees, are dependent on this minority for survival. Anytime someone is dependent on someone else for their survival, this represents a highly unequal power relationship. Historically, unions have helped counter this inequality — as when they created the basis for the American middle class. But as corporate power has grown over recent decades, and unionism has declined, so we see a corresponding harm to the majority of people. It comes in the form of joblessness, underemployment, the absence of a livable wage, and job insecurity — going to bed at night and not having a job in the morning. I’m sure there are veteran employees of the UPS Human Resources Department, now eliminated, that could tell us about it.
The perspective I am outlining here is a traditional class analysis. It doesn’t really fit into the Democrat vs. Republican model. If there is a class that controls production and owns resources, and a class that does the work and creates the wealth, then it follows that members of either class may identify with one political party or the other. So I don’t get hung up on political labels when it comes to the people I work with. For me, the Republican Party has always been the party of business, and the Democratic Party has traditionally been aligned with unions. But I also understand how the Republican Party has gotten a lot better at appealing to the concerns of white working class voters, for example. And I know that the Democratic Party has been captured by corporate money, filling the vacuum that
unions, once influential, have left behind. I can see how the average person might be attracted or opposed to either option depending on their perspective. But seen through the lens of class, partisanship mostly reflects differences between elite groups — disagreements within a single class. Most working people know instinctively that they are not part of the conversation.
Voting is important but it should be understood as only one part of a strategy to advance your own interests. People get turned off from voting because they perceive, correctly, that the political parties don’t care about them until they need their votes. But this doesn’t change the fact that political outcomes matter. For example, under the Trump administration, important rights for shop stewards were thrown out, after decades of being accepted law. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency responsible for mediating conflicts between employers and unions, issued a series of rulings, every one of which favors employers. This is a direct result of the NLRB’s board being dominated by three Trump appointees, two with ties to pro-employer law firms. Increasingly, unions are operating in a hostile political environment — something that a Biden presidency would likely reverse.
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