Though it only ended a week ago, the writers’ strike probably now feels like ancient history. Everyone is so wrapped up in the presidential primaries that even this week’s monumental election in Pakistan seemed like a miniscule event. As students in a city that remains a regular site of labor struggle, largely centered around this university and its teaching hospital, we should pause to reflect on what the writers’ strike means for all of us.
Part of what made the writers’ strike so transformative was its very public nature. Worsening conditions for labor in the United States — outdated labor laws, hostile organizing environments, massive employer intimidation and the ravages of free trade and globalization — have meant a sharp decline in both union density and the visibility of labor struggle in our daily lives. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were a mere 21 work stoppages of 1,000 or more workers in 2007. Thirty years ago, for instance, hundreds of strikes took place every year. Employers have not magically gotten nicer, nor have we entered an era of labor peace.
In contrast, we’re currently experiencing the worst environment for organized labor since the passage of the 1935 Wagner Act, which gave all workers the right to collectively bargain. This has meant that the presence of organized labor in the daily spaces we inhabit has been reduced to the point where our only perceptions of labor are formed by the occasional very public strike (or trumped-up racketeering case).
Thus, very rarely in America today are people forced to make the choice of whether to cross a picket line. Yet in this writers’ strike, which brought the picket line into American homes every night, those choices had to be made by major public figures. In general, we witnessed a high level of public solidarity with the writers – particularly on the late night talk shows. Most of the A-list Hollywood talent would not appear, nor did any major Democratic presidential candidate. There were exceptions to this public solidarity, of course, from some to-be-expected places, like Mike Huckabee, who appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Jan. 2.
But there were also exceptions that surprised and disappointed many of us. One of our Yale alders – Greg Morehead of Ward 22 – broke the picket line by appearing on Jay Leno with his band, the very same night Huckabee was featured. It was a sad thing to see Morehead, who even skipped his inauguration as alder to cross the picket line. It makes me wonder what his priorities toward New Haven’s workers will be when he’s forced to make similar choices between what he wants and what is right.
The writers’ strike certainly challenged our traditional perceptions of what constitutes work, reminding us that intellectual labor deserves the same dignity and respect as all other forms. At a university where we’re told that the teaching and research undertaken by graduate student-teachers trying to unionize does not constitute “real work,” and where adjunct faculty are paid low wages and have no job security, we would all do well to take this lesson to heart the next time we step into our classrooms and discussion sections.
One of the great promises of this country has been that with a good education anyone can have a more than fair shot at the American dream. The reality of the middle class today, however, is the opposite. It’s not just people who work at factories who are losing their jobs or having their wages depressed, but highly educated people are also increasingly adrift in our new post-industrial economy. Good jobs are scarce for everyone, educated or not.
The strike put this very troubling trend — one that John Edwards spoke of in his influential and moving campaign — on display, exposing the very real implications it has for all of us. That some of the country’s most profitable companies greedily insisted on denying fair compensation to writers for their work, and were willing to put so much on the line to get their way, should make anyone who’s counting on his or her education to help him or her get a well-paying, secure job very worried.
There’s so much more to be done for working people — especially right now in an economy that is in recession and headed for worse. We must not let the excuse of “tough economic times” or “budget constraints” be wielded by multi-billion-dollar corporations to deny working people the good wages, health care and pensions that they deserve. Now that the writers have shown us workers can and do win, let’s not lose sight of the big picture – and our own responsibilities within it.
Hugh Baran is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.