During the height of this fall’s government shutdown, Obama spoke to factory workers about Republican intransigence in Congress. He asked them: If they wanted a raise and more vacation time, would they just shut down the plant and walk off the job?
Telling the story to reporters, the president recalled, “I said, ‘How do you think that would go?’ They all thought they’d be fired. And I think most of us think that. You know, there’s nothing wrong with asking for a raise or asking for more time off. But you can’t burn down the plant or your office if you don’t get your way. Well, the same thing is true here. [ . . . ] The American people do not get to demand a ransom for doing their jobs.”
The thing is: They once did exactly that. Workers never got anything by asking nicely. They got it by striking, picketing, and yes, occasionally dynamiting their employers. But in an era of declining industrial action, when few are inculcated in the traditions of union solidarity and the strike, those memories have faded. Obama wants to see them completely forgotten.
During the height of New Deal–era militancy, nearly all of General Motors’ 150,000 production workers were involved in a workplace shutdown or factory occupation. “Every time a dispute came up,” one UAW member remembered, “the fellows would have a tendency to sit down and just stop working.”
This wasn’t the same kind of inchoate indignation that fuels the Tea Party politicians whom Obama was rebuking — it was a response from the victims of wage cuts, unemployment, police batons and poverty. Both upsurges, however, are testament to what force and organization can accomplish.
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