Workers Being Turned against Workers

Writing for the Progressive Breakfast feature on the website of the Campaign for America’s Future, Dave Johnson asks, “Are Unions an ‘Us’ or a ‘Them’?” The article is in response to a ballot initiative in California that would require voter approval for any increase in compensation or benefits for the state’s public employees.


Public-employee pension-gutting initiatives and other anti-union efforts typically use divide-and-conquer strategies to accomplish this mission. Here are a few classic divide-and-conquer techniques:

Make people suspicious of each other.

Make people question their leadership and mission.

Divide attention with distraction and diversion – get the other side to “take their eye off the ball.”

Make people fight on different fronts.

Prevent alliances and promote infighting.

Maginalize and dehumanize groups so others look down on and ignore them.

All of these divide people from each other and weaken whatever organizational structures people have or might wish to form. That is exactly what is happening as billionaires and giant corporations work to turn the regular working public against unions and break unions up. As private employers squeeze their employees more and more by reducing pay and benefits, getting rid of pension plans, and so on, people feel they are falling further and further behind. If the can get people to believe that unions are about some separate, distant “them” instead of “we” and “us,” they can turn some working people against other working people, and keep them from realizing this is why everyone’s wages and living standards are under such stress.

In the case of public-employee pensions, they tell people that this “other”–public-employee union members–are getting more money than regular workers, or hogging tax resources that could go to roads and other public needs. They say “lavish” pensions are “eating up government budgets” or “causing massive borrowing.”

How often do you hear that public employees are paid more than the rest of us, and have “lavish” benefits? How about the term “union bosses?”

This is part of that process of dehumanizing and dividing – get people to think there is this “other” who is their enemy and who doesn’t deserve what the rest of us deserve, so people don’t see what’s being done to them behind the screen.

Unions Are An ‘Us’

A labor union is the very definition of “us” and “we.” It is employees banding together to ask for decent pay, benefits and better working conditions for themselves and others. By banding together they are stronger than if each employee went to the manager alone, by themselves, with no one backing them up to ask, please, for a raise or, please, can you stop calling me names and shouting?

Dividing working people is one of the oldest strategies in the book. First, if a high level of unemployment can be maintained people are divided by necessity. If you are hungry you are not likely to say, “no you shouldn’t ask me to take his or her place, they need that job.” Another way to divide is to help keep workers elsewhere poorly paid so your own employees have nowhere to go and you don’t face wage competition when you hire. Or the better wages and conditions that unionized employees get can be used against them by arguing that “they are getting paid so well and you are not; you should resent them.” Yet another is to divide the union leadership from the membership by claiming they are “bosses” who tell you what to do and then keep all the dues for themselves.”


The article then includes two charts showing the parallels between declining union membership and declining middle-class wages and between declining union memberhip and rising income inequality, shown here:

Inequality and Union Membership


Dave Johnson’s complete article is available at:



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