Monday, June 3, 2013

The Debs Museum and My Ideological Shifts

On page 197 of Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist, W.A. Swanberg refers to Terre Haute, Indiana as Eugene "Debs's town and a holy place to Socialists".  I grew up close to Terre Haute, and I visited the Debs museum twice.  The first time was with one of my relatives, who was an admirer of Debs.  The second time was when I was a tutor at a public library, and I took an English-as-a-Second-Language student (from South Korea, I think) to the Debs museum.  I was a little taken aback to read Swanberg refer to Terre Haute as a holy place----it's all right, I guess, but a holy place?  But the Debs museum there is worth visiting.

Both times that I visited the Debs Museum, I was rather conservative.  The first time, I didn't quite know how to handle visiting a museum that honored a Socialist, but some of the old political cartoons at the Debs museum intrigued me, particularly their anti-Establishment tone.  The second time that I visited it, a couple that was also visiting the museum asked me if I was interested in the history of labor unions, and I replied that I generally took the side of management.  They were slightly aghast!  We started to talk about the closed shop, and I said that I did not care for how labor unions spend members' dues on Democratic candidates.  They responded that corporations also contribute money to candidates.  I'm not sure how true that is, technically-speaking, for I have read a couple of things that say that corporate donations to political campaigns are against the law.  But I recognize that special interests, which includes corporate interests, still have some way to contribute to candidates or causes, especially after the Citizens United case.

Where do I stand on Eugene Debs and labor unions now that I am more liberal?  I still don't know a whole lot about Debs, but my relative one time quoted Debs as saying that he would rather the government be in charge of the railroads than for the railroads to be in charge of the government.  There are probably pluses and minuses to both scenarios, but I feel that Debs' statement can be applied to health insurance companies, especially since (in my opinion) their influence on the government has hindered health care reform in the past.  I rather would have the government running or taking the place of health insurance companies, than for health insurance companies to exercise a profound influence over the government.

On labor unions, I'm rather mixed.  I don't like the way that unions are able to bring services that companies provide to a complete standstill if they don't get their own way.  And yet, unlike my younger self, I don't entirely trust management to consistently do the right thing in terms of their workers.  In my latest reading of Swanberg's book, Swanberg refers to a young Socialist preacher who taught sharecroppers arithmetic "so that they would know when the planters were defrauding them on the contracts" (page 180).  It's sad that there were planters in the 1930's who would defraud their very own sharecroppers.  Yet it's not surprising, for, in a number of cases, management tries to maximize profit at the expense of its workers----at least when it thinks that it can.  If management eagerly wants someone's talents and input, it will most likely pay him or her a handsome salary.  But, when it comes to work that is more menial, when there is a lot of competition for jobs, and when some of these jobs can be exported overseas, management often feels that it's in more of a position to give workers the shaft.

I think that unions played a role in the existence of a strong middle class in the 1950's, which helped the economy.  Another of my relatives said, however, that she thought that unions tend to insist upon themselves.  She said that she preferred Socialism, in which workers would actually own a share of the company.  I don't know much about this issue.  One reason that I decided to read Thomas was to learn about how Socialism differs from an economy in which unions are influential.  In what I have read, however, it seems that Socialists were rather supportive of unions and strikes, even though many within unions did not return that support!

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