We vs. Me in the Days of Lean and Mean

In early August I had the good fortune to attend the 2007 Postal Press Association National Editors’ Conference in Reno, Nevada.  I presented a workshop on “Linking the Past to the Present,” a way to think about what we can learn from the labor movement of the past and how editors can incorporate such insight and information in their newsletters.  As is typically my experience in such settings, I learned more than I taught.

The high point for me came outside of my workshop.  One night, about twenty of us went into downtown Reno to see Michael Moore’s important new film, Sicko.  After the film, we sat down together in one of the classrooms and engaged in a prolonged, intense discussion.  I found it eye-opening.

As most of you probably know, Sicko examines the American healthcare system from the experience of people with health insurance but who have been denied the care they need.  Moore places the American system in a comparative framework, taking his viewers to Canada, England, France, and Cuba.  In all of these places healthcare is universal, provided free of charge by the government, which relies on taxes for funding.  Moore demonstrates that these systems are anything but “bureaucratic” or “impersonal,” as U.S. critics have suggested.  The French system even includes free house calls and nanny assistance for new mothers!

This much seemed so obvious to my APWU editor colleagues that little more than five minutes of discussion was necessary to declare ourselves convinced by Moore’s case for universal health care.  That’s when our conversation got really interesting.

Underlying Moore’s argument is a deep, deep question: Why have we become a society in which “me” is valued so much more than “we”?  Time and again, his interview subjects in other countries justify their system in terms such as: “Well, of course we take care of each other.  What else would people do?”   But the American system seems grounded in a welter of selfishness and individualism, where we think about “Number One” and, as they used to say, let the devil catch the hindmost.  This was the issue that grabbed my APWU sisters and brothers.

Our conversation carried me quickly back to labor history.  In the late 19th century, when the ideology of “the self-made man” was sweeping the United States, propagated by the dime novels of Horatio Alger and the “rags-to-riches” biographies of the likes of Andrew Carnegie, the labor movement put forward a vision of “the group-made man,” the worker whose job description, working conditions, hours and wages were the results of collective struggles and collective bargaining.  Rare was the worker, even the most skilled, who imagined that he had the strength to make a favorable deal with the boss on his own.

At the heart of my workshop presentation this summer was the story of the building of the City Hall in Richmond, Virginia, in 1886.  The Knights of Labor had petitioned the conservative-dominated City Council that the new hall be built of local materials with local labor, that workers be paid union scale and employed on the eight hour day, and that African American workers be given access to skilled as well as unskilled jobs.  When the City Council rebuffed their request, the local Knights organized themselves into the Workingmen’s Reform Party, ran in the spring 1886 municipal elections, and swept to control of the city government.  They then oversaw the building of that new City Hall just as they had imagined it.  For me, the icing on the cake was the hand-carved gargoyles which adorned each corner of that handsome building.  The stone cutters, Black as well as white, who carved those symbolic faces, who left their handiwork for generations of citizens to appreciate, got their jobs because they had participated in a collective movement.  Their opportunity rested on a group effort.

We have been living for more than 25 years now in an era in which the ideology of individualism, of looking out for me, has dominated our culture.  “Lean and mean” has been the order of the day, from reductions in workforces with greater pressure on the surviving workers to cuts in government spending on infrastructure.  When I made my travel arrangements to Reno, I chose to fly anyone but Northwest Airlines, where reductions in their pilot and flight attendant workforces led to the canceling of thousands of flights at the end of June and July.  And while I was in Reno the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis over the Mississippi River collapsed, killing more than a dozen people and injuring more than 100.  The chickens hatched by decades of “lean and mean” were coming home to roost.

My APWU colleagues and I discussed the costs of the “me” response to the “lean and mean” agenda.  It turned us and our fellow workers into shoppers at Wal-Mart, seeking the cheapest goods (and getting what we paid for), into critics of government spending and the taxes on which it relies (thereby undermining our schools, our bridges, and the rationale for our own jobs with the Postal Service), into overtime hogs (desperate to take home more wages even at the expense of our excessed brothers and sisters), into men and women with inadequate time for our children, our families, our communities, and our unions.

The PPA National Editors’ Conference gave me a great opportunity to reflect on these issues.  Frankly, we all must confront them if we are to turn our society out of this “lean and mean” framework.  It’s not only no way to run a health care system, it’s no way to work and live.

Peter Rachleff

Peter Rachleff is Professor of History at Macalester College and President of the Working Class Studies Association.

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