Plouffed…(3) (Retracing our steps)
As you probably guessed, the work here is usually the first take on a hypothesis. We tend to write with firm convictions, but, in reality, we are trying to make sense of this shit as much as you are. We struggle with the same question you do: How the fuck did that happen? Unlike many of you, however, we don’t believe in the explanatory power of accidents, fools, or God! If shit happens, then the conditions of society must make it both possible and, to some extent, historically necessary.
So, as we really began to think about how you were left defenseless by the absence of your own organizations a question immediately came to mind: Why does this matter? Certainly, workers at Wal-Mart seem quite satisfied with their jobs and lives – at least as satisfied as the rest of us – and, appear to believe they are not harmed in any fundamentally important way by the lack of a union.
Further up the employment food chain there is little dissent with this view.
You may argue that this view is wrong, but any hypothesis which seeks to explain why the lack of a union at Wal-Mart has been the single most important expression of the dire predicament you now face must also explain why the indifference of Wal-Mart workers to the union movement is a embedded in that predicament without relying on such external devices as misinformation, bribery, propaganda, stupidity, or tricks.
Our explanation would be that a union itself provides the necessary (but, apparently, not sufficient) condition for the development among its members of thoughts and actions consistent with their position as members of a distinct class.
To understand why consider that, separately, each Wal-Mart worker is actually in the same business as Wal-Mart: They sell commodites – goods. And, taken individually, workers have the same concerns as Wal-Mart in this regard: How much can I get for what I have to sell? Wal-Mart sells badly made shoes from China. Wal-Mart’s workers sell their physical selves for a certain period of time. There is, in theory, no difference between Wal-Mart’s view of the world and the view of the world held by its employees, insofar as they are considered only as someone with something to sell. Although both Wal-Mart and its employees are, in reality, far more complex than this simple picture of their interests would suggest, they share a common concern: If either Wal-Mart or its employees are unable to sell their goods, they die or go bankrupt.
However, the circumstance each faces is actually unequal in this regard: If the employee is unable to sell her good – her physical self – she will die, but Wal-Mart probably will continue. The reverse case does not hold: If Wal-Mart is no longer able to sell its good, the employee will be unable to sell hers – and, thus, she will die anyway. The sale of her good is dependent on the sale of Wal-Mart’s goods, but the sale of Wal-Mart’s goods is not dependent on the sale of her good. Strictly considered only from the standpoint of Wal-Mart and its employee as simple sellers of a commodity, the interest of the employee is that Wal-Mart flourishes so that she might be able to continue selling her commodity to it. The initial premise of her thought and action is not, therefore, rooted in her definite social position as a worker, but in her position as a commodity seller.
Should she, or a co-worker, get into their head that a union might make things a little less intolerable at Wal-Mart, the first thought that comes to mind is the possibility she might lose the opportunity to sell her commodity as a result. The most important function a union provides is not that of an instrument to engage capital in the struggle over wages and working conditions, but to make it possible for the worker to develop an independent consciousness of herself as a member of a class through those struggles. Without it, that consciousness cannot easily develop.
What you saw on the chart we produced – the decline in union membership since 1948 – is, most importantly, a decline in the capacity of an entire class to think for itself, act on its own behalf and in its own interest, even as a relentless war was being waged against it.
(As an aside: If we wanted to stunt the growth of unions among service sector workers in this country, we would probably pick and capitalize a small retailer in a backward right-to-work state like Arkansas to take nation wide. We would also deliberately expand it, first, in places marked by lower wages and income and minimal unionization. Just a thought.)