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Conservatives have been flinging a lot of different attacks at liberal Democrats in recent weeks, but one of the most consistent themes has been the idea of "socialism" — that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are trying to transform America into a socialist state. The truth, though, is that there's little or no connection between any of Obama's policies and socialism.
Because a fundamental characteristic of every form of socialism is the promotion of a more egalitarian society, it's tempting for opponents of egalitarianism to paint all their critics as socialists. Unfortunately for them, however, not everything that promotes greater egalitarianism or seeks to undermine unjust power is socialist. There's quite a lot more to socialism than that, which Republicans would admit if they cared about the truth. I'm assuming, of course, that they have sufficient intelligence to recognize what socialism is.
So why are Republicans lying when they accuse Barack Obama and Democrats of advancing a socialist political agenda? The reason is relatively simple: it's deeply integrated in the overall Republican political agenda of advancing the power and privileges of the wealthy. Conservatives have spent decades reinforcing to the American public that "socialism" is something to be scared of, despite the deeply socialist character of so many of America's allies, so now they can trot the label out to attack any critic and any attempt to promote a more egalitarian system.
This is precisely what's behind the fervent Republican opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, and I'm frankly a little surprised that some conservative pundit hasn't tried labeling unions as "agents of socialism." Perhaps they are concerned with how much backlash this would produce, which is ironic because unions are a lot more socialistic than anything proposed by Obama. Unions embody some of the most basic principles behind socialist systems: workers acting collectively to improve their working conditions, workers taking part in decisions about company policies, and most importantly the idea that people working together can change things for the better.
The conservative, Republican position in contrast is that workers should not have any say in any of those matters beyond that which the owners of capital generously allow them. Workers are expected to submit to the authority of managers, owners, corporate boards, and of course the shareholders. Workers are dispensable, exploitable, and of no real concern when it comes to a company's long-term interests.
It's easier to treat them this way if they can made to think of themselves this way as well, just as it's always easier to oppress a group if you can get them to actively participate in their own oppression by convincing them that the oppressors' views of them are neutral and accurate. Unions, however, dare to come in and tell people that they matter and can change things for the better. Unions dare to tell workers that they shouldn't be treated as dispensable, that they shouldn't be exploited, and that their interests or ideas should be taken into account in how a company is run.
Unions don't just empower workers psychologically, but also in far more practical ways as well. It is often noted how far white collar and blue collar wages have fallen in real levels for so many years, but cited less often is the extent to which the richest Americans have had their wealth increase at the same time — in other words, the extent to which the rich have gotten richer at the expense of everyone else.
Even when this is pointed what, one important implication of this fact is left out: money is power, so the decline in real wages is necessarily accompanied by a decline in political and social power. The rich have then not just gotten richer at the expense of everyone else, but they have also grown more powerful. The effect may be subtle and difficult to recognize unless you look for it, but it's an inevitable consequence of the growing gap in income.
Unions dare to counteract this trend by demanding higher wages, better working conditions, and improved benefits for workers. Allowing workers to keep more of the value which they produce means that corporations are prevented from taking it for themselves, which represents not just a shift in finances but also a shift in real power — a shift in power away from bankers, holding companies, investors, and corporate boards in favor of blue collar workers & white collar workers, the middle class & working class. Unions are thus a means for empowering people in both psychological and practical ways.
When corporations fight against allowing unions to even exist, they are therefore fighting very specifically to oppose any shifts in political and social power towards America's workers. The desperation of conservative Republicans can be demonstrated simply by pointing to the tactics they are using to oppose unionization. When workers try to unionize in a company, owners go to great lengths — using both legal and illegal means — to ensure that that doesn't happen, lest the workers get to keep enough of what they produce to live comfortably.
Union supporters are frequently fired, and there is nothing unions can do about it. Union supporters have to go to workers' home to make their arguments while employers can force everyone to sit through anti-union seminars. Even union organizers who haven't been fired yet may be forced to attend, but of course aren't allowed to offer their perspective. Just about every aspect of the process which unions must go through in order to unionize a company is designed to work against unionization and in favor of the corporate status quo. It's not a "level playing field" because it's not designed to be; it is, in fact, designed to thwart worker organization while allowing those in power to present themselves as preserving fairness.
Republicans are, of course, fighting hard against the Employee Free Choice Act by touting the superiority of secret ballots, even though the EFCA doesn't replace secret ballot voting and a small percentage of workers can ensure that a secret ballot vote is held. The mere existence of secret ballot voting isn't enough to ensure that voting is truly fair and democratic, a fact which conservative Republicans definitely know — and obviously don't care about, at least when fair, democratic elections are contrary to their interests. Indeed, isn't that what this entire issue is about: putting more power in the hands of the people or putting into the hands of the autocratic elite?
Clearly there are no substantive, serious objections to the Employee Free Choice Act, otherwise they would surely be raised. Democratic elections puts power in the hands of the people, denying it to aristocrats who presume to know what's in everyone else's best political interests. Union organization puts power in the hands of workers, denying it to corporations who presume to know what's in everyone else's best economic interests. The organization and mobilization of people on an economic level is a necessary counterpart to such organization on a political level, because people cannot take control of their political situation unless they can also control their economic situation as well.
This, if course, is precisely what conservatives fear. Conservatism exists to "conserve" traditional power structures, relationships, and institutions. Most of those in the political sphere have fallen, though they keep finding new ways to reconstitute themselves, forcing progressives to develop new means for bringing them down. In the economic sphere, though, far less has changed. Conservatives have done a much better job at convincing people that they are better off ceding economic power to their betters — somehow, arguments that would never work if they involved turning political sovereignty over to a duke suddenly taken on a halo of virtue when made on behalf of turning economic sovereignty over to a banker.