An Untold History of Organized Labor’s Inconvenient Truths

Jacqueline S. Homan - Feminine Defiance

On the progressive site, a seemingly sincere union organizer from Canada, Blaine Donais, asked me some thought-provoking questions that have deep and complex answers — painful, but truthful ones. In response to my article on classism, he asked me:

” I am curious to know, since it is your view that unions have been co-opted, what you think of unionized employees? I ask this because I have a theory of my own on this matter. I believe that unionism in North America has in essence created a new class of employees whom many see as privileged – that is the unionized employee. This is the only employee left with defined benefits pension plans, pay for overtime work, and rights in the workplace. Other employees (especially in the US it seems) regard unionized employees as privileged and thus the subject of derision.

It always surprises me to see read or hear from non-unionized employees, that unions are just thugs and bullies and only protect themselves – that they have no care for the work or lives of others – that in essence they are acting like a privileged class lording it over the unionized masses. Yet when I go to union functions, it seems the primary desire of many is to improve the lot of unionized employees either through minimum standards legislation or by organizing them. UFCW for example took a run at the Ontario Government over the exclusion of farm workers from the right to unionize. At least in my view, they improved the lot of farm workers immeasurably by doing so.

It is hard to deny that there is a considerable difference between the lives of most unionized employees and those who are not unionized. Does this make unionized employees a privileged class?”

And here is my well-detailed answer to Blaine’s very valid questions.

What I think and what I have to say to answer your question is a lot of inconvenient truths that those who are comfortably off and securely employed as well-paid union workers don’t want to hear.

A lot of union workers who are middle class white males never gave a damn about those of us who are hungry, who are/have been homeless, who lost all our natural teeth before age 35 due to lack of access to medical and dental care, who never got a chance to have anything at all in this country — a nation whose bedrock was rooted in racial and gender inferiority, economic oppression (colonialism), and the exploitation of poor women who are at the bottom of every pile.

They refuse to acknowledge how their unearned privileges (male privilege, white privilege, and class privilege) work against someone like me — a very poor woman from the Underclass. For the most part, union workers are overwhelmingly white middle class men who got into their good jobs by virtue of race privilege, gender privilege, and having an “in” — i.e., knowing the “right” person willing to help them get a union card.

Meanwhile, these same middle class white men railed against Affirmative Action — the only measure that ensured that a meager 2% of all the good-paying union jobs went to women while 10% went to non-whites. Those who automatically got 90% of all the good jobs and opportunities in this country cried victim if those of us on the receiving end of discrimination and exclusion got very, very little.

I find it ironic that those who’ve benefited unfairly at the expense of poor women and minorities from an entire matrix of unearned privileges and nepotism — the “White Guys’ Affirmative Action program” — which ensured that the favored, dominant group got the lions’ share of all the good jobs and vocational choices, complained about poor women and minorities getting a miserly inadequate slice of the pie.

Given that women comprise over half of the population, it is beyond grossly unfair for us to be begrudged and denied proportional opportunities for the good jobs — especially since we don’t get to pay less for the things we need to be able to live than men. And it’s not like those white men with the good-paying jobs were lining up to marry and economically support poor women (and our kids) to lift us out of poverty and utter misery and hopelessness.

Instead, they frequently exploited us as sex trophies and told us that we should be “grateful” if they bought us a cheap meal, or put a five dollar bill in our G-strings.

Based on my experiences and observations, I’ve found that an overwhelming number of union workers getting middle class wages are white males with a sense of entitlement — they’re the only ones deserving of anything while it’s perfectly okay for poor women to starve, be homeless, be without utilities, be without medical and dental care, exploited and abused, cheated out of paltry child support, and then deprived of even the miserly safety net that AFDC once was before that got eliminated by the Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

There isn’t much difference between middle class white collar professionals and the overwhelmingly white male blue collar middle class union workers. Both have taken food and other economic needs away from the poor. , 84% whom are women, because both are self-important middle class greeds who only care about themselves and they both identify with the bourgeois. So long as they’re comfortable and their own seat is secure within the socio-economic hierarchy of our capitalist system, they could care less and they grow increasingly intellectually lazy. They don’t want to know about injustices faced by other people. All is fine in their own little world.

The unemployed union workers getting far more in unemployment benefits than poor women who work two minimum wage jobs with no health benefits got their middle class unemployment benefits extension paid for with cuts and slated future elimination of food stamps for destitute women, children, the disabled, and the low-income elderly. They get to live a nice life, but they cry poverty with two loaves of bread under their arms while we get to suffer and starve — and unlike them, we don’t have a lifetime worth of middle class doo-dads bought on middle class union wages to sell on eBay to get money to live until someone maybe feels like giving us chances for jobs so we don’t have to go hungry.

Unions, especially the skilled trades and manufacturing unions, are just as responsible as the rich for creating a destitute Underclass by oppressing poor women because they discriminated against us for union memberships and for getting a chance in life for living wage jobs with dignity that didn’t entail having to dance naked or trade sexual favors just to get money to eat and a place to live.

They’re the ones who helped create all those poor welfare mothers whom they despise — poor women who have been denied equal opportunities for decent paying blue-collar jobs, after being abandoned while pregnant without medical care and then left with children to raise while rarely getting enough money in child support.

They complain about their “hard-earned money” being taxed to support “welfare queens” and “able-bodied SSI cheats.”

They voted for racist, sexist and misogynistic Congressmen and US presidents like Reagan, Bush Sr., and the Shrub who won elections by cutting social programs for the poor and dismantling any measures that tried to provide equal opportunities for poor women and minorities. Union workers’ votes raised lawmakers and presidents to office who promised them an array of middle class goodies and tax cuts at the expense of the “undeserving” poor. Of course, those same pro-capitalist leaders then turned around and began the assault on organized labor after greasing the skids for organized labor’s middle class white male majority to throw those of us at the very bottom — poor women and children on welfare and poor disabled people on SSI — to the sharks in exchange for their “lentil soup.”

"Classism For Dimwits" by Jacqueline S. Homan

They sacrificed us because they identified with the bourgeoisie and sided with them out of personal greed and hatred for the poor who have been economically excluded by discrimination and a real lack of enough living wage jobs to go around for everybody who needed a job. So these union workers who had their nice life didn’t give a shit about those of us with absolutely nothing, and no chances to ever get anything either.

Their votes for presidents and lawmakers, who made their pile by hurting the poor, brought us 30 years of abusive social and economic policies that are called “Benign Neglect” in polite circles. But make no mistake about it, those policies were not “benign.”

Union workers with economic security who comprised part of the economic middle class were no different than the rest of the middle class — everything was all about “ME ME ME.” Middle class voters whose votes resulted in this nation’s poorest and most downtrodden being thrown under the bus with the elimination of CETA and other social programs that were the poor’s only economic lifeline, overwhelmingly supported and cheered the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. This was not the result of a momentary absence of mind.

Good-paying white male dominated union jobs, in addition to all the other good jobs this nation enjoyed during the Clinton administration, largely did not go to poor women being booted off of welfare who faced the “gender penalty” in addition to significant barriers to decent jobs due to classism — the most deeply entrenched but least challenged bigotry in the US.

The overwhelming majority of workers with middle class wages and benefits never wanted poor women to be able to climb out of grueling poverty and join their ranks because they viewed us as competition for “their” jobs. If they hadn’t felt this way, the Equal Rights Amendment would have been passed (among other things).

Union organizers, leaders, and membership bodies begrudged us welfare, voted for Congressmen and presidents who cut our throats, while denying us a chance for the good life as union workers. All the rules about joining the unions were set up to favor white middle class males who hadn’t been excluded by a legacy of discrimination for training and employment opportunities. Unreasonable prior work experience requirements, heavy lifting requirements for job descriptions where such activities are not a BFOQ, and countless other requirements that had little to do with whether or not someone was qualified for a chance for a job and union membership were contrived to deliberately exclude poor women from opportunities.

Unions, their leaders, members, et al, were part of the middle class problem. The good life erased their memory. The middle class — unionized or not — who were Reagan’s electoral foot soldiers begrudged miserly inadequate AFDC benefits for the poor, but demanded that the poor be thrown off the dole and get jobs. The middle class were/are overwhelmingly a bunch of greedy, insecure backstabbers who were only concerned with ensuring their own position was comfortable within the capitalist system — a system in which somebody always has to be at the bottom, in which there has to be “losers” in order for there to be “winners.” Typically, the “winners” were men.

The lawmakers and president who passed the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 knew it. So did unions and their members who were part of the “new” middle class.

In a capitalist society where the economic law of supply and demand does not operate in a vacuum, where markets are artificially manipulated by the rich and powerful, there exists a lot of unearned privileges for some members of society at the expense of others. Unions and their individual members don’t seek to challenge the unfairness in that reality.

Welfare Reform was a one-sided policy that put a unilateral obligation on the most socio-economically underprivileged to get jobs — any job. But there was no conciliatory gesture by unions to voluntarily welcome and include these poor single moms — or any other poor women for that matter — into the fold and let us join the ranks of middle class union workers. And there was no requirement under the Welfare Reform Act obligating the unions to do so. There was also no requirement for employers to hire poor disadvantaged women who had been on welfare for many years for lack of any appropriate or real equal opportunity for good-paying blue-collar jobs, which rapidly disappeared throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Middle class gatekeepers in union organizational structures and in employers’ human resources departments alike viewed the poor as “the Other” due in no small measure to decades of indoctrination with deficit theory ideology such as the “culture of poverty” school, which blamed the poor for their misfortune for being “morally defective”, rather than acknowledge that poverty and inequality of opportunity as the culprit.

Welfare Reform did not include a guaranteed right to a living wage job (or any job at all), but it placed a lifetime benefit limit of five years and drastically slashed benefit amounts. And the unions were silent. Neither their leaders, organizers, nor worker members uttered a peep about that. They had theirs, tough luck for those of us who never got a chance to get ours. For that, they have blood on their hands. All of them.

On the eve of the passing of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, there were 14 million AFDC recipients comprising 5 million families — almost all who were poor single mothers and children with no other means of economic support and opportunity, and no resources built into their lives. Less than 1% of AFDC recipients were able-bodied men. Eliminating paltry sub-poverty AFDC benefits was defended by comfortably off union workers along with the rest of middle class America as a way of getting “baby makers” and “leeches” off the public dole (which was never enough to live on).

Welfare was never an adequate solution to the problems inflicted on the poor by a patriarchal capitalist society. But eliminating welfare without providing other realistic opportunities and alternatives was a worse solution. Some in the poor people’s rights camp have even likened Welfare Reform to the “Final Solution” for the poor because in the US, being poor is often a death sentence just based on the lack of access to medical and dental care alone.

This society has serious issues with classism, and classism has two daughters: sexism and racism. Classism is capitalism’s greatest social and economic harm.

Capitalism is based on unearned privileges and entitlement, and as you go up the economic ladder, the attitudes of self-importance and entitlement increase. This naturally follows the rate of capital accumulation, which increases at a greater rate as one moves up the income scale. And the micro mirrors the macro. But we never talk about the culture of capitalism; the culture of greed and getting ahead at all costs that is pervasive among the middle class — including well-paid blue-collar union workers and union organizational leadership, which has a white male face — who think they have a “divine right” to always come first.

We have a culture of capitalism that promotes and maintains classism. We have a capitalist society that touts greed and self-centered entitlement as a virtue. We have an architecture of aggression in which capitalism’s biggest losers (poor women) are discarded, labeled as “the Other”, devalued, disrespected, and unacknowledged. We’re not even seen as being human enough for harm to us to matter. The culture of capitalism is centered on the notion that wealth and unearned privilege (race, gender, and class privilege) is sacrosanct, that only the “fittest” deserve anything and to hell with those of us who have been socially and economically excluded. Unions, their bodies and individual members, are content to operate under the status quo within the culture of capitalism.

Capitalism is an Architecture of Aggression

This all arose out of the “second purges” in the 1930’s and 1940’s where unions expelled anyone remotely suspect of Communist politics and socialist leanings from their ranks. Unions made a deal with the devil, and they became indifferent and even hostile to the equally valid needs and claims of others among the ranks of the poor and working classes. Unions sought to protect their own at the expense of many less fortunates, which created divisions among the working class and poor, and left very deep wounds that cannot be readily dismissed with admonitions along the lines of “just get over it and move on.”


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7 Responses to “An Untold History of Organized Labor’s Inconvenient Truths”

  1. K M Venugopalan Says:

    What you are trying to tell us about the trade union aristocracy in the US seems to be much relevant anywhere; perhaps more so in the third world, where the capitalist globalization has devastated the idea of class politics itself, contrary to what one would expect. In India, for example, the mainstream politics itself often gets reduced to violent clashes of identities. Here the very idea of class becomes anathema even to to people who claim to represent left constituencies. Rhetoric bashing religion, caste and creed are no substitutes for willfully fighting the left elitism, union aristocracy and patriarchal mindsets; unfortunately , such empty talks aggravate hate in between victim populations created by the very system and this is what the right wing often uses as the fuel to propagate hate to the point of totally obscuring class.

    • Jacqueline S. Homan Says:

      Pretty much sums it up. What’s really a shame is that the labor movement purged its ranks of those who seek class justice, the Commies. Had that not happened, organized labor might not be in the shambles that it’s in today and union workers wouldn’t be resented so much.

  2. Tweets that mention An Untold History of Organized Labor’s Inconvenient Truths « Feminism — The Other "F" Word -- Says:

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  3. Bill Penick Says:

    Absorbing blog post. I came across your site while searching for articles dealing with public welfare. I know I’m a little late in posting my comment but the blog made a lot of sense and I enjoyed it. I can’t say that I agree with all you mentioned but it was decidedly intriguing! I run a small US company that manufactures a line of collectible political gifts that commemorate the great leaders, speeches and events of American politics. I’m trying to create American jobs so I hope you don’t mind me including my link in this post. I’m always looking to promote our American made products and I still believe America just keeps getting better and better in spite of our current difficulties. I’m not sure if my earlier post was received so I’m trying again. BTW… I’m an occasional visitor to your blog and will be back soon. Thanks again for a great piece and your positive mentioning of a great leader like Reagan!

  4. matt Says:


  5. Blaine Donais Says:

    Hi Jacqueline:

    Thank you for putting so much effort into thinking through this very important topic. I can see the beginnings of a new book for you on this. I look forward to reading it. I think you have much wisdom to share. Thank you for being so generous with your thoughts.

    • Jacqueline S. Homan Says:

      Thank you Blaine. I actually am working on a fifth book (The Calculus of Evil) which delved into the ills caused by capitalism and the injustices suffered by the poor because of a legacy of discrimination.

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