As LU readers know, Joe the Plumber (Samuel, or “Joe,” Wurzelbacher) recently got a job with Chrysler, for which he had to join the UAW. He wrote about his first few days on the job at Joe for America. So, in turn, did a lot of reporters and bloggers. Here are five things I found interesting.
1. The first fellow union member to make a freighted political comment to Joe was someone who called him a “teabagger.”
I had three days of orientation, and now I’m “on the job” over here at Chrysler and on Day 4, I’m outside on a break smoking a cigarette and right on cue – some guy calls me a “teabagger.”
These people just can’t help themselves. (Incidentally, according to Joe’s description, most of his union fellows aren’t like that.)
2. Left-wing sites rushed out with stock ridicule of Joe – your basic, American-Everyman working stiff. (See this HuffPo piece, which does a nice job of linking to everything every writer at HuffPo has ever had against him. Why waste an opportunity, after all?)
Joe is hardly a down-the-line right-winger. He’s more of an ornery, traditional centrist; 30 years ago he would probably have been a “Reagan Democrat.” But he committed the cardinal sin of challenging Barack Obama on “redistributionist” tax policy during the 2008 campaign. Apparently, he’ll never be forgiven: not so much for doing that, perhaps, as for failing to recant under pressure afterward.
3. The hard left has been sarcastic about Joe joining a union, as if it’s ironic: as if joining a union is inconsistent with believing in freedom of choice and keeping what you earn. That’s worth a pause for reflection.
Joe the Plumber has never, as far as I know, invoked philosophers or engaged in long-winded oratory to argue for economic freedom. He makes simple, direct statements, or raises simple questions, like why what he has earned should be “spread” to someone else by a third party.
He also doesn’t oppose unions on principle; he figures private-sector workers have a right to organize, if that’s what they want. He does think public-sector unions present policy problems:
I have never made it a secret that I do not like public unions because taxpayers are never properly represented at the bargaining table. People need to be educated that, in fact, it was President Jimmy Carter who ended collective bargaining rights for Federal workers because of this very fact. President Carter knew it was not in the best interest of America or Americans and he is an icon of the left.
The left thinks it’s ironic for such a person to join a union. That tells us more about the left’s view of unions than it tells us about Joe.
4. The comments section at Joe’s blog post (and others) suggests that the axis of polarization between left and right has shifted on the union issue. Joe comes under fire from both sides in the comments. Many on the right take it for granted, as pundits on the left do, that unions are politically hostile to economic freedom. The left seems to be OK with that.
This might seem like a big “Duh” to readers at a right-wing site. Yeah, the unions are anti-economic freedom. But it used to be that the mainstream left and right in America, represented by Democrats and Republicans, largely agreed on the value of economic freedom. They were divided over the extent to which unions are hostile to it.
Now, it seems both sides agree that unions are hostile to economic freedom. For the left, unionization is, in fact, about things like restricting workers’ economic options and “redistributing” income. The difference now is that much of the mainstream left openly sees that as a good thing. The rank-and-file right takes that view at face value, and perceives that the unions have been living up to their billing.
5. The labor model Joe has joined is going the way of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Joe’s venture with the UAW comes just as the union has lost a big vote at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee. Unionization is at its lowest ebb in the U.S. work force since the 1930s, with only 6.7% of the private-sector workforce unionized. (In 1983, when the Labor Department began reporting statistics in their current form, 16.5% of private-sector workers were formal union members.)
This is largely because, from the workers’ standpoint, unions aren’t value for the money. Preferential state policies are required to enforce the hold of unions on many companies.
But given the political reaction to Joe the Plumber joining a union, I think there’s another reason as well. The essentially Marxist model of the proletarian worker is itself a thing of the past.
The pundit-left certainly doesn’t defend the “worker” anymore. It defends preferential government policies for statistical “strata” of society.
But it ridicules the worker himself, as it has done with Joe the Plumber, because the worker doesn’t matter. He or she was an “old economy” phenomenon, at least in terms of being socio-politically defined by union membership. No one explicitly says so, but the “working man” or woman isn’t really what left-wing politics are about today.
That’s partly because the economy and the world are changing, making mass-scale economic organization less politically meaningful.
But meanwhile, here Joe the Plumber is, along with millions like him in that changing economy, looking to make his way in the world.
To my eyes, Joe the Plumber looks all-American: neither overprivileged nor overeducated, with a checkered but determined work history; crusty, commonsensical, and a bit libertarian in terms of political leanings, but nobody’s litmus-test guy. He could be a union member – or not. What’s all-American about him isn’t that he embodies everything we want to be, or that he makes a perfect test case for our theories. It’s that he is exactly who America was created to respect, and to protect freedom and opportunity for.
The American way is to not get mad at this guy for being who he is, or try to tell him who he has to be. I suspect the union rank-and-file he works alongside understands that better than most pundits and politicians do. Keep us updated, Joe. Let us know how it’s going.