04 April 2011

Against organized labor: the Maine front

A little item in Time magazine alerted me to a symbolic struggle over the principle of organized labor taking place far from the midwestern ground zero of Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. Maine has a Republican governor, Paul Lepage, who barely beat an independent candidate in last year's election. He won with a plurality of approximately 38% of the vote. Lepage, predictably, is pro-business and believes that Maine has to eliminate much of its regulatory apparatus in order to attract new businesses. He's concerned that the state's Department of Labor gives an impression of hostility toward business, especially through a conference-room mural portraying what Lepage regards as a biased account of the state's labor history. Late last month, he ordered the mural, which was installed just a few years ago, removed from the conference room. He has also reportedly asked that some Labor Department offices have their names changed, lest the current labels honoring labor leaders and pro-labor politicians alarm or alienate businessmen.

This local account includes a picture of the mural, which doesn't exactly look like a Diego Rivera. I don't notice any tuxedoed fatcats stomping on the workers, nor do I detect Marx or Lenin lurking in the margins. I admit that there is no panel showing workers kneeling in gratitude at the feet of their employers, so perhaps there is bias, but I also assumed that the Department of Labor was meant to look after workers' interests, not flatter bosses. Governor Lepage has reportedly compared the mural to a North Korean propaganda painting, but that may be as much an aesthetic as an ideological critique. Lepage claims to believe in balance between labor and capital, which sounds good on paper. An earlier Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, believed in much the same thing. Roosevelt based his position on the understanding that neither labor nor capital was always right when their interests conflicted. I don't know if Lepage feels that way about capital.

If one thing has been consistent about the Republican party since the time of Lincoln it's been a certain aloofness toward the idea of an American working class. That might seem strange for a party founded in defense of "free labor," but Republicans have never been comfortable with the idea of a proletariat. They were on the defensive from the beginning, in the face of slaveholders' charge that northern workers were "wage slaves" who didn't even enjoy the paternal concern masters allegedly showed their chattel slaves. Lincoln and others answered the charge by asserting that, under a "free labor" system, no one need be a "wage slave" for life. Lincoln's ideal was that a worker learned a trade as an employee, saved until he achieved self-employment, and if successful became an employer himself. I think that many Republicans still think the system works this way; hence their assumption that someone who fails to achieve self-employment, or slips into unemployment, is guilty of some personal failure. For such people then to demand rights as a class can only seem contemptible to some observers; it must seem as if workers are settling for some inferior position, yet demand to be treated better than such lack of ambition deserves. This Republican sensibility hasn't been relevant to reality for some time now. Lincoln's ideal was arguably going obsolete in his own lifetime, and there are obviously many economic sectors now in which a beginning factory worker cannot expect to open his own factory someday. Without exceptional genius or luck, most Americans will remain working-class all their lives, as will their children. If there's any democracy in America, then business must be accountable on some level to the working majority and their elected representatives. The working class is a permanent, legitimate constituency of American politics whether Republicans like it or not, and it's been made clear this year, in ways profound and petty, that after more than 150 years of Grand Old Partisanship, that they still don't like it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

They never learn. A hallmark of conservatism in general, I think. The more unions they try to crush, the more pissed off working class will slip through their fingers.