I may not remember the jokes, but I do remember their key element: an ethnic slur about Polish Americans. The jokes themselves aren’t very interesting, but in 1970s Wisconsin they were what passed for humor in the pre-teen set. The slur was easily bandied about to denigrate a minority community (although at the time I didn’t know what the word actually meant). But I’m fairly certain that at least a good portion of the kids telling these jokes hadn’t only heard them from other kids.
I don’t think this was a phenomenon unique to the Midwest. But I think it is less widely practiced than it once was for the simple reason that people generally have objected to such insulting and degrading forms of humor—as I once screwed up the courage to do when some fellow rowers in my novice crew team likened their female teammates in a different boat to kitchen maids pushing brooms. “Political correctness” has accomplished a change in the culture, for all the negative baggage with which the term has been freighted.
I raise this issue because it seems that an equally easy rhetorical dismissal of organized labor has been gaining momentum. Some talk radio hosts present warped and distorted characterizations of what a union is and does, and these go unchallenged. Political leaders have reaped great electoral success from ‘taking on the unions’. One of them even suggested that his successful confrontation with the public sector unions in his state indicated his fitness for the foreign policy demands of the presidency, implicitly comparing union members peacefully participating in the democratic process with fundamentalists prone to beheading innocents in front of a video camera. Even among friends and family I have heard anti-union prejudices as safely expressed as those anti-Polish jokes of my childhood: “I just came back from Michigan, and nothing really works there because of all the unions.”
The subtleties of language carry great subliminal power, as the words used to frame the debate have great impact on its outcome. What was widely accepted as a fair way to raise revenue under the rubric of “Estate taxes” became an example of hideous government overreach as “Death taxes”, although the policy itself did not change. And the shibboleths of “death panels” and “socialized medicine” were both successfully used to first thwart and then minimize health care reform. It’s why references to “union thugs” enter the public discourse (to discredit the labor movement), and sly references to the “New York-based musicians union” exist in local media coverage of recent orchestral labor disputes (to make the dispute seem like the fault of carpet-baggers from out of town).
The greatest example of this is the so-called “Right to Work” law, some version of which has been passed in 25 states, including, within the last four years, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. These statutes, which could more accurately be labeled “Right to Freeload”, have crept into the former stronghold of unionism in the Midwest in part because of changing attitudes towards organized labor. It is uncertain what the motives of the makers of this legislation are. It is possible that they do not intend to weaken unions, and merely intend to free workers from the obligation to contribute to them, but the effect of such laws is evident. The discourse is framed in a way that is prejudicial against unionism and the playing field is tilted, making unions indeed less effective and thereby less popular.
Some of this fall in popularity is undoubtedly self-inflicted. The Landrum-Griffin act was passed in 1959 after congressional investigations into allegations of corruption and the infiltration of organized crime into the labor movement. And other, more local, examples exist, such as the former Washington Teachers Union president, who embezzled more than $2 million from her union. But these examples should not be taken as evidence that unions are inherently wrong. The right to bargain collectively is not enshrined in the constitution, but only in federal statute, true. But when someone says stupid things (example: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”) no one suggests that the first amendment should be curtailed.
We’ve all seen the bumper sticker: “Unions. The folks who brought you the weekend.” Glib it may be, but it is also accurate and bears repeating. And the other accomplishments of unionism should also not be forgotten—the eight-hour day, sick leave, breaks during work, etc. etc. And we should not let them be minimized by the declaration that having solved those problems, unions are no longer relevant, any more than we should believe the claim that the Black Lives Matter movement is irrelevant because racism is no more.
Just as Chairperson Ridge has long urged us to be positive advocates for our art form in the face of the prevailing winds of doom and gloom, so we must also advocate for union principles and speak out against false and deceptive anti-union rhetoric. For if we do not, then the joke will really be on us.