The above exercise in self-congratulatory optimism was the closing paragraph of an October 4, pills 1954 LIFE editorial on the maturation of the American labor movement from bomb-tossing radicals to sober-minded stakeholders.
Like so many examples of journalistic pontification on Americans’ economic way of life
(both past and present), apoplectic it radiates an optimism rooted in ignorant assumptions about the larger causes and contexts behind the promise of prosperity in perpetuity. The nation’s creed has always assumed a semi-secular Calvinist aspect, visit this in which virtuous souls thrive and economic failings are manifestations of moral weakness. It’s social mobility as predestination, baby, all made possible through a mythic covenant woven into the fabric of the land itself.
“We’re Americans! We can do anything!” Except look at the bigger picture, apparently.
The labor movement signed its own death warrant when it shifted its focus from social agitation to lunchpail conservatism. The (exaggerated) power-sharing and mutual amicability celebrated by LIFE’s editors was predicated on specific historical circumstances which (again) were assumed to be a permanent status quo. Sure, the economic and industrial planners of the era knew that the country was in an exceptionally privileged position, but few questioned its viability over the long haul because, y’know, “this is America.”
After all, who could ever envision a time when rival economic blocs would rebuild enough to pose a threat to American manufacturers? Or compete with us for access to raw materials, thus driving up prices? Or band together to ensure we paid a price for fuel that benefited the sellers, not the buyer? Or that advances in automation, transportation, and international commerce would lead to massive outsourcing and layoffs?
Even when the trends were apparent, the forseen effects were painted in shades of predictive utopian rhetoric — that we’d be all working two hours a day for $100,000 per annum in our luxury estates on the Moon, rather than commuting between three part-time retail jobs in a rusted 1997 Dodge Neon in order to keep a hair’s breadth ahead of total insolvency.
Any sense of power parity between capital and labor was based on transitory conditions, much like FDR and Stalin teaming up to take down Hitler. When push came to inevitable downturn, there was no question who’d get shoved under the bus. GM’s assembly line workers weren’t the ones who made a series of incredibly stupid business decisions, but a look at the current states of both Grosse Pointe and Flint, MI reveals who paid the ultimate price for that idiocy.