working-class values personal responsibility, family, gender equality,
community and country to strike at the heart of capitalist values and
contradictions. Health insurance companies, in order to fatten the
bottom line, are known to deny health care coverage to people with
serious and expensive illnesses. Steel companies, seeking profits
from cheap labor elsewhere, laid off people like Skvara, closed their
plants here, and declared bankruptcy to get out of contractual
obligations that required them to pay for retiree health insurance for
people like Skvara.
In his moving words, Skvara claimed personal responsibility for his
family, but demanded that politicians who sought his vote fight with him
on his family's behalf against the outrages of corporations that had
abused him and his family for private gain. He also spoke as a member of
a union, a community of workers who banded together to take on the
bosses who sought to worsen exploitation in the workplace. He tied his
own predicament with working Americans as a whole; he tied the solution
to his personal problems to a broad struggle. Indeed, he seemed to be
claiming that a solution to the problems he faces, and that working
Americans as a whole face, lay in generalized, systemic solutions, such
as health care reform, workers' rights, and changed trade and economic
policies that create rather than kill jobs in working-class communities
in this country.
Right-wing media pundits and bloggers got shaken up by this revision of
the dominant ideology of personal responsibility. As might be expected,
they accused Skvara of being a communist and all kinds of other things.
Skvara's intervention was recalled in a very public way recently. At the
AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh this past month. President Obama
remembered Skvara's comment, retold his personal story, and connected it
back to the idea of community. "This isn't just about Steve," he said,
"this is about all of us." When workers like Steve Skvara are able to
work in a job that provides them the satisfaction of being able to care
adequately for their families, then the whole "middle-class" (code word
for working class) and the whole country "succeeds," Obama said.
said to thunderous applause.
Those aren't just words. They are a reflection of a conscious struggle
by the working-class to re-write the ideological script penned by
right-wing, pro-capitalist ideologues. Skvara's words and their
reflection in Obama's speech are not simple, empty sloganeering. They
represent a way of thinking and speaking forged in the heat of the
steelworkers' struggle to keep jobs, pensions, and health care in the
face of a capitalist drive for super-profits that discards human beings
Indeed, the call and the response Skvara's original defiance reflected
in President Obama's speech signal an emergent class consciousness
that moves beyond local workplace struggles or special interest
politics. They precisely reflect the concerns of the labor leaders,
quoted at the beginning of this essay, who urged the broadening of the
labor movement's basic goals and aims beyond contract negotiations and
electing politicians who once in a while support pro-union policies.
working class itself.
In his speech before the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh, after
detailing his views on the concrete issues of the 2009 agenda climate
change legislation, green jobs, expanding educational opportunities,
passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, and passing health reform that
includes a public insurance program President Obama then proceeded to
rewrite the "master narrative" of American history.
What do I mean by that? A "master narrative" of history, as the recently
deceased historian of America's multi-racial, multi-ethnic,
multi-gendered, multi-national working class, Ronald Takaki, said, is
the story of America written, by, for and basically about America's
"masters." It is a story that erases working-class and minority history.
It ignores the voices of women, immigrant populations, and the LGBT
community. The "master narrative" presents a tale of progress that
denies the realities of exploitation and oppression and the fact of
struggle for power and community by working and democratic-minded people
against exploitation and oppression.
In short, it is a masterpiece of ideological hoodwink. Like contemporary
right-wing ideology, the master narrative's goal is to preserve an
image of the basic goodness of the capitalist class and to forge a
false, but powerful belief in a national unity that transcends classes
In his speech, Obama re-wrote that "master narrative" from a
"The battle for opportunity," he said, "has always been fought in places
like Pittsburgh, places like Pennsylvania. It was here that Pittsburgh
railroad workers rose up in a great strike. It was here that Homestead
steelworkers took on Pinkerton guards at Carnegie mills. It was here
that something happened in a town called Aliquippa.
"It was a tough place for workers in the 1930s "a benevolent
dictatorship,' said the local steel boss. Labor had no rights. The
foreman's whim ruled the day. And the company hired workers from
different lands and different races the better to keep them divided,
it was thought at the time.
"But despite threats and harassment, despite seeing organizers fired and
driven out of town, these steelworkers came together Serb and Croat,
Italian and Pole, and Irish and Greek, the kin of Alabama slaves, and
the sons of Pennsylvania coal miners. And they took their case all the
way to the Supreme Court, securing the right to organize up and down the
Ohio River Valley and all across America."
President Obama has consistently told a version of American history from
the ground up. He has spoken of social progress as the result of
workers and communities in struggle: women fighting for the right to
vote, slaves and abolitionists united against slavery, men and women
workers united against fascism, and so on.