In 1935 the Wagner Act was passed as part of FDR’s New Deal, a very important part because salaried workers who had suffered in the Wall Street collapse of 1929, needed some support from government in responding to unfair labor practices of employers. This “labor bill of rights” was part of FDR’s thrust toward an “economic bill of rights,” rights involving a living wage, housing, medical care, education and social security. The cultural clime then in regard to unions, government, and employers differed immeasurably from the cultural clime of the present even though both eras were blighted by similar acts of monumental financial chicanery, over-speculation and Wall Street carte blanche.
FDR connected economic insecurity of the many to the reckless profiteering and greed of the few. What he learned from the Great Depression was that the political enfranchisement guaranteed by the existing Bill of Rights could be rendered meaningless if the working class was reduced to a servitude that had plagued every society since the beginning of time. Who had looted the country and brought it to its knees remained clear throughout FDR’s days in office. And the overwhelming numbers of Americans who were deep in unemployment, homelessness, hunger, sickness and all those psychological repercussions that we mark now but had little representation then – these multitudes did not indict their fellow workers nor themselves.
It was quite clear who were the Haves and who the Have Nots. The Wall Street “player” so brazenly lauded by Gordon Gekko in both film versions of Wall Street as a heroic exemplar of greed was no such hero in the New Deal days. The wealthy kept a low profile, as did the Wall Street “player.”
The “lives of the rich and famous” make their appearance in screwball comedies – Margaret Dumont’s societal “blueblood” suffering the barbs of an antic Groucho Marx – while the tough anti-heroes of the film noir are resilient and inspiring in the face of bad luck and ruthless power. The “working class heroes,” the John Does and Tom Joads, reveal on the screen not product placements and marketing implanted desires but what the audience recognizes in their own daily struggle. Struggle, anger, revenge, laconic toughness, and the darkness of these “mean streets” clash in high Hollywood style with Busby Berkeley extravagance and insouciant farce. A reckless capitalism had no estimable image while the Pecora Commission investigated and indicted Wall Street malfeasants. A real Leftist presence that threatens the “casino” order of wealth and poverty emerges not because many were being “brainwashed” but because many were defending themselves from a system that had indeed “savaged” them.
The cultural surround changes when a variety of images change, when for instance “working class heroes” and their unions become tied to the Communist Soviet Union and its socialist solidarity replacing private ownership and “free” enterprise. The “working class hero” suddenly looked like one of those Soviet working class heroes depicted in Stalinist sponsored art. That new context enabled employers to counter the Wagner Act with Taft-Hartley, legislation which passed all manner of restrictions on the right to strike, passed “right-to-work-laws” which made unions unlawful, and darkened the image of unions as corrupted either by the Mafia or the Communists. Taft-Hartley set the whole movement up for Ronald Reagan’s coup de grace in 1981 when he threatened with termination all union members who did not return to work.
That Cold War Communist tag on American unions lingers but the connection is historical and history is not a ground the new Tea Party endorsed legislators want to visit. It’s sufficient that the “Union/Communist” link echoes in the background, just as the mention of “class” echoes in the same chamber. History displays much that could explain the dire straits of workers and those who look for work in vain but “history” in the Age of Twittering in which “New” and “Now” have truly sent all our yesterdays on the dust pile is “old, over and adios.” You could say cybertech has replaced history, the repeated and rapid monitoring of Smart phones and the minute by minute updating of one’s personal history. Multi-tasking never tasks backward.