Thursday, March 31, 2011

Look to Fritz Lang's Metropolis to understand Scott Walker and the worker movement rising against him & his ilk

(To the right you see the original 1927 theatrical release poster for Metropolis, subject to U.S. fair use copyright law and used here to illustrate points cited in this posting.)

A scene in Fritz Lang's landmark 1927 silent film Metropolis perfectly characterizes the mindset of Republicans like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who are bound and determined to destroy unions. In the scene, Joh Frederson, the industrialist ruler of the hellish futuristic city of Metropolis, has learned that some among the armies of workers who built his city are secretly meeting in its lower depths.

"I should like to know what my workers are doing in the catacombs," Frederson says in a sneering, sinister tone.

Well, "his" workers are meeting with their leader Maria in the hope of their eventual delivery from the misery of their dehumanized lives.

Lang's great testament to workers' humanity and against the autocratic rulers who would deny them their rights provides a good analogy to what is taking place across the land today as Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and elsewhere, backed by well-heeled financiers like the Koch brothers, proceed with their slash-and-burn policies aimed at destroying every gain workers have made since the 1930s.

In a way, they've done organized labor in this country a good deed, because they've awakened a sleeping giant. Thousands of protesters in Wisconsin suddenly made the nation and world aware that workers in this country are not the sheep-like herds depicted at the beginning of Lang's Metropolis.

A movement is unfolding in this country that faces enormous odds--an entrenched anti-union phalanx of political, industrial, media, and religious corporatists--but which may yet again prove the power of the people in what's left of our democracy.

Here in the U.S. South, which the above-mentioned phalanx has always considered its own very special turf, labor soldiers are marching forward. Long-striking steelworkers with Omnova Solutions in Columbus, Mississippi, recently marched all the way to Cleveland, Ohio, to protest a company that could give its CEO a 90 percent pay increase (to $3.5 million a year) at the same time it moved to strip seniority and other worker rights. See Mischa Gaus' story in Labor Notes about the issue.

Teachers unions in Alabama have helped block anti-union legislation in that state, just as the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA) and its allies in recent days were able to kill Arizona-like anti-immigrant legislation in the Mississippi Legislature.

The sex discrimination lawsuit on behalf of Wal-Mart worker Betty Dukes and hundreds of thousands of other women against the Arkansas-based retail giant has finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where their battle now promises to get the national attention it deserves. Other corporate giants like Fed-Ex, Del Monte, Bank of America, Microsoft, and Costco have rallied to Wal-Mart's side, of course. And let's not forget the U.S. Chamber of Commerce--as if all this support were necessary before this pro-corporate Supreme Court. Let's just see if the scales of justice tilt toward workers or the Joh Fredersons of the world.

At least in South Africa Wal-Mart is getting its comeuppance. The nation's Competition Tribunal has delayed a hearing on Wal-Mart's bid to merge with the huge South African retailer Massmart for up to two months.

Meanwhile, the United Auto Workers is moving ahead with a proposed boycott of at least one of the foreign transplant companies that have located in the U.S. South to avoid unions. This will be a global boycott, utilizing ties that the UAW has made with labor and political leaders around the world, to force the company or companies to recognize worker rights and allow for fair elections.

Some have compared the UAW's pending boycott to that of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers back in the 1960s.

Even in the stark world Lang depicted in his movie, the spark of human justice would not die. Frederson's own son sees the evils laid upon the workers who fuel the engines of the monster city and joins Maria on their behalf. Frederson himself, after inflicting so much suffering, even has a change of heart at the end, although Lang later said he hated the ending of his movie. It was too false, he said.

Politicians like Scott Walker are fond of saying, "Oh, unions once had their role, but they're obsolete today."

Tell that to the public employees, teachers, steelworkers and Wal-Mart workers, to the demonstrators, marchers, and strikers, not only in Wisconsin but also in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and other places we'll be reading about tomorrow.

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