Cracks in the American Way, as Labor Stands Strong in Europe

The idea of American Exceptionalism has loomed large over the last
half century, creating an air of national impunity while spreading a
neoliberal capitalist model to every corner of the globe. Now the Great
Recession has revealed American workers to be exceptional in the worst
possible way: facing exceptional pain and exceptional weakness in the
labor movement.

A report published by the International Trade Union Confederation
(submitted, ironically, to that pillar of the postwar American
hegemony, the World Trade Organization) takes a critical view of the
U.S. workforce in the context of global human and labor rights. The
ITUC's findings expose many of the cracks in the American Way, from a
persistent gender wage gap to a failure to uphold child labor
protections to a disturbing prevalence of human trafficking. One of the
key systemic problems is the institutional weakness of the labor

U.S. law excludes large groups of workers from the right to organise.
These include agricultural workers, many public sector workers,
domestic workers, supervisors and independent contractors. Moreover, for
most private sector workers forming trade unions is extremely difficult
and anti-union pressure from employers is frequent. The report notes
that there is a $4 billion union-busting industry which aims at
undermining trade union organising.

The U.S. worker certainly stands apart from her compatriots across
the Atlantic. They're the ones in the news, mobilizing against the harsh
austerity plans governments are imposing in respose to an exceptional
American export: the global economic crisis.

This week, worker demonstrations
in France, England, Greece and other besieged economies rocked the
continent with an old-school militancy seldom seen in the "developed"
world and virtually unheard of in American communities.

In France, transit workers paralyzed the country's railways to show aggressive opposition to a proposed increase in the standard retirement age by two years. London's Tube went into a deep freeze on Tuesday, part of a timed-release chaos plan to strike at numerous points during the fall.

Greek truck drivers stopped traffic too, feeding into several days of protest
in opposition to proposed anti-labor reforms. Workers countered a wash
of teargas by lobbing stones, bottles and tomatoes at police. A
day-long strike by healthcare workers left hospitals in disarray. Much
of the rage was directed at the potential dismantling of the closed-shop
system, which would undermine traditional labor protections and
licensing regulations in trades like truck driving.

With plans for a major industrial action by public workers on October 7, the civil-service union ADEDY, Reuters reports,
has called on workers to "massively participate in the rallies and
demand the termination of all agreements that did away with rights to
work and pensions."

Spain, another blight on the EU's books, erupted in its first general strike
in years this week. Protesters hoped the strike would force the
government to confront the political costs of austerity policies.
Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, head of the Workers Commissions union, told
the Associated Press: "The strike was not called to topple the
government but it's up to the government if it wants to stay there."

Activists in Brussels, meanwhile, stood their ground
against riot police and smoke canisters, marching toward the buildings
of the European Union as officials contemplated new penalties to impose
on member states with swollen deficits.

Depending on how the public reacts to the chaos, the actions could
either inspire solidarity or further polarize labor and the political
establishment. Either way, unions have upped the ante in the battle
against the austerity frenzy.

The U.S. labor movement's fight for relevancy

Labor on this side of the ocean, however, continues to grapple with
its message and mission, barely keeping pace with American-style
austerity in the form of the anti-spending, anti-government agenda of
Washington's deficit hawks.

Unions hope to regain some relevance with this weekend's "One Nation Working Together"
rally, which labor is coordinating alongside civil rights, antiwar and
environmental groups, among others. The broad, and accordingly vague,
agenda centers on "jobs, justice and education." As Art Levine reports,
organizers aspiring to Tea-Party caliber charisma may find that the
biggest hurdle at this point is just getting people to show up.

The greater challenge looming over the One Nation campaign isn't
just the optics--it's defining a weakened movement in an increasingly
unstable political arena. And it's tapping into the public outrage that
the right has shrewdly exploited in galvanizing new constituencies. So
the groups carrying the "One Nation" banner might want to focus a bit
less on projecting an aura of middle-class liberal harmony, and instead
learn from the mass appeal of European union militancy.

We're running into one of the most dangerous aspects of the myth of American Exceptionalism:
the concept that American workers somehow operate outside historical
class antagoisms. Folks are lulled into the belief that deep social
crisis can and should be resolved by individual upward mobility and by
negotiating within establishment institutions (like Election Day or
corporate-controlled collective bargaining).

But as the ITUC's new report starkly reveals, America's labor crises
often put its people in the same quagmire as their peers in other
economies. So when workers around the world are roused to
action--organized, passionate, and not afraid to get a little dirty--why
should American labor be any exception?

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