America in Midst of Class Warfare

Ben Master

To the Editors:

Pete Sabo correctly connects the dots between wealth stratification, the Republican-capital alliance and the recent attacks on public-sector unions (“America Approaching Class Warfare,” The Oberlin Review, March 11). But some further analysis and contextualization is necessary.

America is not “approaching class warfare.” We have been in the midst of class warfare, or better put, a lopsided class drubbing, for the last 35 years. As Doug Fraser, former president of the United Auto Workers (’77–’83), wrote in 1978: “I believe leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war today in this country — a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society.” No words could better describe business and the Republican Party today.

Labor’s rapid decline since the mid-1970s is inseparable from the larger trends of yawning economic inequality, increased poverty and a shrinking middle class. Sabo’s statistics on inequality provide a clear picture of America in 2011 — although the shift towards regressive tax policies is actually starker than his statistics show. During the Truman and Eisenhower years, the top marginal tax rate was mostly around 90 percent. The top rate stayed right near 70 percent until 1980, when it took Reagan a mere eight years to slash it to 28 percent. Part and parcel of this pro-business trend is the concomitant eclipse of private-sector union membership from a third in 1950 to 6.9 percent today.

The fight to preserve collective bargaining rights in Ohio and Wisconsin is not “the breaking point,” as Sabo writes, where American workers stand to lose everything they gained since the New Deal. Since the 1970s, the neoliberal onslaught has successfully stripped workers of most progressive gains achieved in the Ford era (1945–1973). A loss in this battle will roll workers further down the side of the mountain, in America’s long tumble towards a banana republic. A victory will enable workers to find refuge in a cleft, where the labor movement will either wait until the next Republican fusillade, or regroup and mobilize for an arduous climb back uphill.

The current conflict is so important because even in their weakened state, unions still constitute the most potent counterweight to corporate power. For this reason, Republicans have taken aim at public-sector workers. Unlike their bruised private-sector brethren, a steady 35 percent of government employees have belonged to unions since the mid-1970s. Their sustained strength has helped keep the American labor movement from falling into complete irrelevance. And just like Reagan’s dismissal of 11,000 PATCO workers in 1981 conveyed to employers that it was open hunting season on union workers, the elimination of long-held collective bargaining rights will send a clear message that attacks on organized labor can be ramped up even further. Walker and Kasich are Reagan’s true heirs.

Hopefully, the large protests here and in Wisconsin will embolden workers to unite against the business class’s collective bullying and change the discourse on who should shoulder the burden of deficits caused by Wall Street’s folly. But before we see qualitative progressive change in American politics, many millions of Americans will need to be shaken out of their deep slumber and mobilized against the right-wing agenda. Besides Ohio and Wisconsin, ten other states have filed “right-to-work” legislation, and 22 other states have already established such laws.

Students should certainly heed Sabo’s call for action, but we should keep in mind all of the difficult steps that lay ahead. Antonio Gramsci’s old dictum is always necessary when facing the American Right: “Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will.”

-Ben Master
College senior