Slavery 2010

Think you’re free? Take a close look at the choices you don’t have.

Getty Images
Getty Images

“I freed a thousand slaves,” Harriet Tubman famously said. “I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

With a black man occupying the White House, and the nation grappling with a wrenching recession, and celebrating the contributions of African Americans to this nation’s history, this seems an opportune moment to reconsider Tubman’s challenge and ask ourselves: Are we slaves?

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery In The New World, the historian David Brion Davis contends that ownership, historically, has not defined the relationship between master and slave. What defines the arrangement, he posits, is the vassal’s “perpetual condition of dishonor,” which provides the “master class with a resource for parasitic and psychological exploitation.” This, Davis argues, imposes on the slave a type of “social death” leaving him “wholly excommunicated from civic life,” not unlike livestock (the etymology for the word “chattel” is derived from the Latin word for both “capital” and “cattle”).

Davis quotes the Greek 6th-century reformer Solon, who explained his decision to abolish slavery: “All the common people,” Solon said, “are in debt to the rich.”

What Solon said in ancient times holds true today: All the common people are in debt to the rich, largely because they don’t have any money. Officially, one in ten Americans is out-of-work, but even that is the result of some accounting sleight-of-hand. If the unemployment rate were calculated with the methodology used in 1980, it would be 22 percent, or, about 3 percentage points less than at the peak of the Great Depression. And Americans lucky enough to have a job are working harder and producing more goods and services than ever, but nongovernmental employees have not had a pay raise, in real terms, since 1973.[i]

The main culprit is the vanishing labor movement. Research consistently shows that trade unions produce fatter paychecks, pensions and benefits packages for their members; most workers would join a labor union if they could. But Congress and the White House have failed to move on the Employee Free Choice Act, which, as originally written, would dramatically bolster private sector employee efforts to organize and bargain collectively. After losing 10 percent of its membership last year—the greatest decline in a quarter century—organized labor represents only one in 10 U.S. workers.

In Sweden, the ratio is eight in 10, and, as in most of Western Europe and the industrialized world, practically no worker—from low-wage clerks to well-off professionals—has to tolerate a decidedly un-democratic, mostly unregulated workplace that is the norm here. Labor laws in the United States do not mandate parental leave, sick time or even so much as a single day of vacation, and, recognizes as “at will” the vast majority of workers. Which means that they can be fired for practically any reason—say, for instance, failing to laugh at the boss’ jokes—save discrimination.

Following the collapse of Sweden’s real estate market in 1992, lawmakers in that country did not merely palm bankers’ bad gambits off on taxpayers. Rather, they extracted a pound of flesh from shareholders before effectively nationalizing the banks, because, quite simply, they understood that there would be consequences otherwise. When the ruling class in this country was faced with a similar choice more than 16 years later, they doled out taxpayer money to their cronies because they knew, conversely, that their constituents, isolated and unorganized, had little recourse.

Consider this: In 1946, the year before Congress overrode Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act sharply curbing labor union’s authority to organize and strike, (Truman called it a “slave-labor” bill) there were 5,000 work stoppages; In 2008, there were 15.