The market, unions, and gliding past stop signs

Guest Post by Author and Labor Scholar John Brueggemann, PhD

The logic of the market – that everything is for sale and we should strive to get as much as we can – has pushed beyond the economic sphere into other parts of our lives. Americans rush to work, gliding past stop signs, talking and texting on the phone, incrementally compromising public safety because our busy schedules feel more important. Once we get there, we stay, longer and longer, while simultaneously regretting the neglect of our loved ones. As a result, many of us have no network of social support, a trend that has worsened significantly over the last two decades. And despite this commitment to hard work and all the resources it yields – the highest Gross Domestic Product in the world – most Americans report not being able to afford what they need. I believe this mess is the result of a moral crisis brought about by market culture, which has led to a deteriorating capacity for meaningful relationships.

There are increasingly few places in American life where market logic does not prevail.  Institutions like unions, religion, education, the media, and government have historically provided a buffer against the influence of corporate power in our lives. Such countervailing institutions have at times helped people to care about things other than profit and to nurture relations with one another. Unions have provided a focal point in communities around which people can learn to relate to one other as human beings. Negotiating fair wages and safe working conditions are fundamental. But community events, dances, picnics, sports teams, educational opportunities, responsible economic development, environmental sensitivity, and attending to social welfare in general are also part of the labor movement’s noble tradition.

The weakened role of unions in a lot of communities hurts working people, especially those at the bottom of the social ladder. Many multinational firms will not voluntarily take care of people who do not stand up for their own rights. But in diminishing the buffer from market culture that promotes narrow self-interest, the effects of weakened unions are much more broad and damaging. The loss of such buffers affects those situated on the middle and higher rungs of the social ladder as well. Without any filter, too many Americans succumb to the temptations advertisers offer for short-term gratification and self-flagellation. You too can be more handsome, more beautiful, smarter, and more loved…if you buy this product.

However, that is not the end of the story. Just as a diminished labor movement hurts many, a revitalized movement could have a broadly favorable impact. And not just for those who would gain improved working conditions. More voices would have input in the big decisions of our time and in resolving all the specific challenges of communities across the country. And communities that had a strong union presence might develop different ways to think about production, consumption, and sustainability. As much as greed permeates our culture, as little space as there is for true reflection, most people know that in the long run we need one another.

John Brueggemann is a Professor of Sociology at Skidmore College and author of the new book, Rich, Free and Miserable: The Fauilure of “Success” in America

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 9th, 2011 at 12:07 pm and is filed under General, Jobs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “The market, unions, and gliding past stop signs”

  1. Mike Kay says:

    We’ve created a workers’ rally song “Down On The Line” in support of the hardworking middle class brothers & sisters nationwide. You can listen & download it free here:

    Fight on! The Joe Hill Heartlanders

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