A few weeks ago, President Obama made a speech in which he remarked:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If youve got a business — you didnt build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
Well, I’ve got a business, and I most definitely did build that. I’ll freely admit that I stand on the shoulders of giants: I did not build the Internet, or the power grid, or the roads or bridges myself. But many other people grew up with those same things. Most of them haven’t built a business. So yes: my business, my little piece of the world, yes, I did build that. (Also, many of the things that Obama cites did not come from the government. That great teacher you knew as a child may have been in the public school, but it was his characteristics as an individual–and not as a member of the school system–that made him great. And the Internet was originally developed by the government as a communication system for the military, and not as an engine of private profit. It was private enterprise that built it out into the Internet we all know and love.)
All of this would be water under the bridge, except that yesterday, I went with my wife to participate in the Labor Day Parade. She’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild, which merged earlier this year with the union representing television and radio performers to become SAG-AFTRA. We had to report on 44th Street, in an area with other theatrical unions: Actors’ Equity, the Musicians, the Stagehands. The Steamfitters’ motorcycle club roared up the street to take their positions in the parade.
Many of the unions in this country were founded about a century ago, in the 1890s and 1900s. And it’s useful to remember how they came to be. It was time of vast productive energy: many of the things that we take for granted were built during that time. And many of the company owners and bosses were, well, rotten.
And so the workers banded together to say, in effect, ‘you didn’t build that.’ And, unlike the bluster from our President, it was actually true: while finance and management are necessary ingredients for a successful enterprise, at the time, things didn’t get built unless you had the manpower to build them.
It was a rainy morning, and shortly after we stepped onto Fifth Avenue, the clouds let loose with a drenching downpour. My wife and I had brought umbrellas, and a sixtyish woman latched onto my arm to get a little dry space.
“This seems like some kind of a punishment,” she remarked.
“No,” I answered. “We’re standing with the union. There was a time in our history when standing with the union was a little bit dangerous. We need to remember that.”
We need to remember that, because it may happen again.