On this Labor Day, I would like everyone, in this climate of union villification and increasing deregulation, to stop and think about what unions have done for this country and why they are still relevant. To remind everyone as to the extent of union membership in the United States, I have created the two maps below that show 1) The total number of union members per state, and 2) the percentage of workers that are represented by a union. California, Michigan, New York, Washington State and Alaska (!) top the list in percentages. Nearly a quarter of all workers in those state are represented by unions. Arkansas and Mississippi… not so much.
Our unions are something to be proud of. Problems may be easier to report on than successes, but that doesn’t mean that the successes aren’t there. The power of collective action and worker representation is essential to a healthy democracy. Without it, business runs wild, eroding working conditions, fair wages and insured employment, but mostly taking advantage of a climate where individual workers have no represenation when things go wrong (and they do).
The University of Michigan is officially starting the school year tomorrow, though on this Labor Day holiday, the cafe where I do most of my work is filled with students and academics. I spend most of my life in an isolated bubble, plodding through books, working on data projects, occasionally writing on this blog and, when time permits, slogging through the mass of trash and nonsense left to me by four generations of relatives, a endless, massive burden that crushes ever fiber of my soul.
When people die, they should take all their crap with them.
However, this closed and silent world I live in often keeps me from remembering that humans do exist in a non-virtual world, sometimes they connect with one another, sometimes they even have conversations, some of which I happen to overhear from the neighboring tables.
These kids at this University are incredible. Their English is characterized by a total lack of regional character, the spaces between the words punctuated to crush ambiguity, and to project an image of standardization that allows them to safely maneuver a maze of job and business prospects, waving a bleached white flag that says “I will not embarrass you when I have dinner with your colleagues/parents/friends/whatever.”
It’s an English I have yet to master. In 42 years I still haven’t managed to expel the wash of obscenity and regional taint that occupy the vast battery of cultural symbols that betray any attempts to conceal my low-class upbringing.
Mostly, what impresses me about students here is their incredible ability to project an image of themselves. What they lack in worldly awareness they make up for in the power of self-definition. They sell and market themselves unabashedly, dressing themselves as a commodity, though a self=-interested one, on the open market, available to the highest bidder. Though the University of Michigan flows deep in my blood, I am constantly amazed of people who possess this skill of the defining, packaging and selling of the self, simple because I don’t possess it. I live and have always lived an ambiguous existence, never sure quite who I am and what I’m supposed to project, in character, language, academics and expression.
The defining of the self always seemed overly restrictive to me. Once one labels something as what it “is,” then, by definition, one also isolates it from what is “is not.” To me, this seems a waste of possibilities, though the precise definition of what one “is” is absolutely necessary for success in today’s com-modified, consumerist culture.
What strikes me, though, is the sincerity to which these people sell themselves. They play the parts without question, as if it never occurs to them that these motions which they go through are defined and standardized by an even more self-interested set of social actors, those who define the nature of language, dress and social codes. In this case, they are akin to Sarte’s waiter who acts in bad faith, but who’s motions insure his success in maintaining his function in society.
I must, however, get back to work.