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Bob McCarl

The state of the unions


Bob McCarl is a union man. His father was a member of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians. In 1970, he joined Sheet Metal Workers' Local 544, working on Portland, Ore.'s waterfront (while much of the nation was divided between hardhats and "long hairs," he said he was both). He's also been a member of the Service Employees International Union, the National Association of Government Employees, the American Federation of Teachers and the Idaho Public Employees Association.

He began teaching night courses at Boise State in 1988, officially joining the university's anthropology department in 1992. He currently teaches upper division classes in Boise State's sociology department.

On Saturday, May 21, McCarl will be one of the featured speakers at the day-long Community Progressive, spread across a dozen Boise venues. He'll be talking about the history of unions and their relevancy in 2011 at Boise's main public library beginning at noon.

How strong is the American Federation of Teachers in Idaho?

It's not strong at all. No. 1, this is a very spread out state, with isolated pockets of population. No. 2, there is a strong tradition of capital venture here. You know, the robber baron phenomenon. The J.R. Simplots, the mine barons, the lumber barons. Part of what comes with that is the feeling of being a "company town."

Is it fair to say that Boise, in recent history, has been a bit of a "company town"?

It certainly has that characteristic. If you grow up in an environment where you don't expect collective action to be a part of your experience, when someone tries to organize a union, you're more likely to buy the distortion of that person as an outside troublemaker or even a communist or socialist.

Do you think we're witnessing a demonization of unions in Idaho and across the United States?

Read the business column of the Idaho Statesman. The attitude is "always make your boss happy." It's never about the worker's needs. And we see a dramatic expansion of the retail sector, seeing Walmart and other similar companies that are rabidly anti-union, paying bargain-basement wages.

So are you saying that it was inevitable that the Idaho Education Association, representing K-12 public educators, couldn't win its arguments at the Statehouse earlier this year to preserve collective bargaining?

The public sector unions are going to fall prey to what conservatives and capitalists have always done. They've blamed Native Americans. They've blamed farm workers. They always look for enemies. The capitalists are provided with the rationale to destroy the enemies or at least reduce them to powerless figures. The reason that teachers, policemen and firefighters are the so-called enemy is that they still have some of the protections of the social contracts that were hammered out in the heyday of labor.

Can you look at any of these issues without laying some of the fault with unions?

Unions have been abysmal in terms of educating people about the basics: health care, eight-hour work days, contracts and all that stuff. The current generation doesn't know any of those basic tenets. So when people say unions, the alarms go off.

Do you see unions getting weaker before getting stronger?

Either the people of the United States are going to join the world community in seeing labor rights as human rights, or we are going to move into semi-totalitarianism or laissez-faire capitalism, resulting in a lot of people starving to death.

Are your students engaged with any of these issues?

A week after the massive Wisconsin labor protests, I asked my Sociology of Work class if they had heard about what had happened in Madison. Forty students in the class. Only one hand went up. Not only are they not getting the information but also the information that they do get comes from specious sources. They don't read newspapers. They don't read magazines. They read what they have to read to get by in class.

Is there not a desire for engagement?

Marx said that part of the deceptiveness of capitalism is to keep you so busy--so off-center--that you won't have time to engage with social issues. Many of these kids have families and are holding down two jobs while going to school. You tell them that they need to really be a bit more responsible, and it really pisses them off. They're thinking that they're working for a degree that may not even get them employed.