Freedom is participation in power. If we are unable to influence the social forces that affect our lives, we are not free.
But here’s the hard part: one cannot easily participate in power alone. Sustained participation — the seed of sustained freedom — requires solidarity: folks who are different being in it together.
Where solidarity erodes, participation withers and freedom dims. You can see it across the country today. Where there isn’t solidarity among neighbors, their public problems fester unchallenged, and erupt around town in the silent suffering of “personal” issues. Where there isn’t solidarity among citizens, their governments become distant and corrupted, and a tyranny of inertia leads to perpetual disappointment and popular cynicism. And where there isn’t solidarity among workers, the profit machine hums along maniacally indifferent to important human needs, and the labor and dignity of the humans who maintain it are routinely disrespected. Less solidarity means less participation means less freedom.
Ralph Nader often explains that political rights are worth nothing without remedies, which in turn are worth nothing without facilities. By the first half of this dictum, he means that a right does not mean much if you do not have a venue in which to claim that your right was breached and the possibility of a formal remedy to that breach. For example, the right to free speech means nothing if you do not have a court system in which you can claim your right to speak was breached and have a chance at the force of the courts coming to the defense of your speech.
By the second half, he means that remedies will go unused unless there are institutions organized to facilitate their use. For example, if public interest legal groups do not exist to bring free speech cases for those without the time and money to seek remedies when their free speech rights are breached, the remedy of the courts and the right to free speech might as well not exist.
A similar principle applies to solidarity and participation in power. Democratic freedom is worth nothing without venues for participation, which in turn are worth nothing without facilities for solidarity. Being a democracy does not mean much unless you have venues — like routine elections, accessible representatives, comment periods, court systems, referenda, newspapers, open markets, access to capital, a public culture, and public places — through which opportunities for participation are available. But in turn, these venues for participation will go unused unless there are facilities to foster and channel the solidarity of people.
For neighborhood solidarity, that facility is the civic group: the local organization that brings neighbors together in cheer and concern to develop and realize their public sentiments. It’s the PTA and the Lion’s Club, the Girl Scouts and the church committee.
For citizen solidarity, that facility is the grassroots political party: the federated organization that, at its best, engages its members in crafting and advancing a national vision. It’s the district captain that welcomes newly naturalized immigrants into the election process and the state platform committee that puts an exciting new idea to paper.
For worker solidarity, that facility is the union: the workplace organization that brings together workers so as to turn allegedly personal issues — your isolated wage, your isolated injury, your isolated wrongful termination, your isolated incident of sexual harassment, your isolated gripe with the boss for stealing your overtime pay — into communal issues that elicit the respect and response of the whole. It’s the groups of workers who brought us the weekend and compensation for workplace injury, health and safety standards and sexual harassment remedies, sick pay and an end to child labor, parental leave and the eight hour day.
We can see what happens when these facilities are in decline.
With no civic groups, the media takes over and we begin to understand our neighborhood problems only through the lens of abstract fights staged on screens composed by those far away.
With no grassroots political parties, the insiders take over and American party politics becomes a mix of endless visionless fundraising and cynical voter mobilization every other year.
And with no unions, the corporatists take over and the perspectives of workers are erased from public discourse: the value of entrepreneurs pushes out the value of maintainers, the needs of consumers pushes out the needs of producers, and the imperative of more jobs pushes out the imperative of better jobs.
So the next time you hear someone decry the state of the nation — the next time you hear them list off how the media and the politicians and the businessmen have ruined this place — remember two things: that the way we got into this mess is that we stopped supporting and improving the facilities designed to foster solidarity; and that the way we will get out is to revive and reinvigorate them again.
Today, on this Labor Day, let us recommit to worker solidarity, the seed of worker participation, which itself is the seed of worker freedom. And let us be grateful to the unions that have fostered it, and the Americans — like my grandfather, Joe Gubbins, a labor lawyer from Chicago — that worked for and alongside them as they won for us much of the freedom we have today.
In the words of the old labor song:
We have laid the wide foundations, built it skyward stone by stone
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own
While the union makes us strong.