I’m second-generation IA. My dad was a Local 695 member … a proud union man … for more than fifty years, working as the Sound Mixer on Gunsmoke, A Christmas Story, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and many others. The “factories” my dad went to work in every day were the film and television studios of Los Angeles. What he wanted for his family … for my mom, my sister, my brother, and me … was to bring home the American Dream. And he found a way to do that working on stage in Hollywood’s Dream Factory.
At factories across the country, it’s been a similar story for seventy-five years, with Moms and Dads working union jobs and taking care of their families all the while reaching for their own personal American Dream. Decent pay, job safety, a path toward advancement, quality healthcare, and a pension to retire on … these were the hallmarks of good American union jobs which for many prosperous decades built a middle class that made the country strong.
But things have changed. Families are losing their foothold in a changing world economy where income inequality is sharply rising at the expense of a shrinking middle class. Working Americans are getting squeezed by corporations on one side, and by legislation paid for by corporations on the other. These are complex issues with many moving parts, some of which are on display in a newly released Netflix documentary featured as the first episode of Michelle and Barack Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, called American Factory. It tells the story of a shuttered Dayton, Ohio, automobile parts factory that comes back to life as the production facility for a Chinese automotive glass manufacturer. We watch as they turn the factory lights back on and gear up to become a modern, high-tech competitor. And we watch as some of the same automobile workers who were laid off eight years earlier are now being re-hired … except eight years ago, they were members of the United Auto Workers union and were getting $28 an hour, and now there’s no union and they’ll get $14.
The filmmakers ultimately witness an event they weren’t anticipating when shooting began two years earlier. A clash of Chinese and American cultures, along with conflicts between labor and management, eventually push some of the workers to request a federally protected election run by the National Labor Relations Board on whether to bring in representation from UAW Local 696.
The company was staunchly anti-union from the very beginning and in the run-up to the election, they spend more than $1 million for a “union avoidance” company to come in and mount a campaign against the union. Workers are required to sit through hours of “mandatory training” from hired union-busters brought in to spread fear and doubt. To win over the workers, the company quickly offers a $2 raise but fails to mention that if the union is turned away, $16 an hour is here to stay and the chances of finding the American Dream in this American factory would vanish. Those workers in the Dayton glass factory were force-fed a bucket load of disinformation and pressured toward acting against their own best self-interest. This has happened in other factories and in fact, all across the country we’ve seen the same cynical tactics used in public elections, as well.
But we are not helpless to stop this. With hard work, we really can get this right. The antidote is information, education, and engagement … activism. We need to devote ourselves to making sure that working women and men know the facts whenever they cast their ballots, whether on the factory floor or on their election ballot for local, state, and federal office holders. Labor-friendly civic leaders create labor-friendly legislation. And under the protection of law, the middle class can grow once again toward the prosperity we knew.
We’re only twelve months away from an election that may be more important than any other in our lifetimes. When it’s over, we may find ourselves with representatives who work for our best interest or representatives who work against them. We may end up with leaders who support the rights of working women and men or ones who want to crush those rights even further. Leaders to build an environmentally sustainable future or ones who would destroy it. Leaders who champion healthcare and human rights for everyone or ones who turn their backs on all but the rich. The choice will be made by American voters.
We can’t afford to sit back and watch to see how it all turns out. The next time you’re handed a ballot, vote like your future depends on it. But don’t stop there. Convince ten friends to vote, and when they do the same, you’ve just leveraged that one vote by a factor of a hundred. But don’t stop there. Engage, participate, volunteer in every way you can. But don’t stop there. Through our activism, we have the opportunity to give our kids what our parents worked so hard to give us … a better, safer, healthier world to live in. But don’t even stop there because there’s more that needs to be done. Nothing less than the American Dream is at stake.
Scott Bernard and Laurence Abrams