Pledge of Allegiance at a Union Dinner

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Years ago, out of curiosity and for the food, I went to a couple union dinners. SUNY (the university system) is unionized. This accomplished nothing in the way of pay that I could see since raises in non-union states were at least as high, but it benefited those who were getting higher pay because everyone got the same base percentage raise. The union leaders always spoke of everyone present as “labor” and the university administration was “management.” The union leaders made themselves out to be Great Bargainers who would extract benefits. Labor and management were always made out to be antagonistic, with management always the bad guy. Labor was always trying to get management to see the Light, i.e., pay us more. Albany and the governor were people to be constantly peppered with pressure for MORE, ever MORE. This was the union goal: MORE.

In those days, the dinner began when the drinks ended. Was there a blessing? Maybe. The food arrived and people made for the dinner line, or else someone announced that the food was there. The dinner was in the Student Union. The atmosphere was noisy and friendly.

Last night was different. The dinner was at a local restaurant, nearby, and so I decided to check out the food, and it was not bad. The atmosphere was more subdued. The room was much larger. It was a partial sit down dinner, except for the main course.

Before dinner began, someone at the microphone called everyone to attention and requested that everyone say the Pledge of Allegiance. “Not me,” I said as everyone popped up like robots, moving their arms to their hearts. I walked out of the room for that minute, leaving behind 150 or so people mumbling the Pledge.

After I came back, I asked the people at my table whether they really supported all the wars and all the killing and the empire. No response at all. They sat in stunned silence. How socially gauche of me actually to break the mirage of hypocrisy. But it wasn’t I who introduced the Pledge and what it says, was it? I asked again, and one fellow volunteered “Yes, we do.” At that point, the announcer at the mic took over again. End of our conversation.

I changed tables and enjoyed a chat with a retiree 8 years my senior. This man had been a numbers runner and dope pusher before being saved. He turned his life around in a split second and even quit a 14 year smoking habit just like that.

After dinner, another brother took the podium. He told his audience that they were too quiet and docile. He was going to give them brimstone and sulfur. He launched into a very fiery and loud speech extolling all the accomplishments of the union movement. Where would “working” people be without it? They wouldn’t have unemployment insurance or health care benefits! There would be no minimum wage! They’d be at starvation wages! Were it nor for trade unionism, labor would be in the toilet! I wondered to myself about the fate of the auto companies and the auto unions. I wondered about the people thrown out of work by the minimum wage. I wondered about the union movement’s role in Jim Crow laws. Was the speaker aware of that? I wondered if the man wasn’t wrongly attributing the benefits of improved technology and higher productivity to unionism.

The distribution of wealth has never been worse, he told us. The poor are worse off than ever. I looked around at all the well-fed middle-class people eating their ice cream and augmenting their pot bellies. Did they really care a whit about the poor, or were they there like me for the food and drink? The speaker himself was dandily attired. I wondered how much he was pulling down a year. He tore into Governor Cuomo (a Democrat) for his hard bargaining with all the unions the state deals with.

The sound volume was way too loud. The hypocrisy was thicker than the sauce for the salad. The man was giving me a headache. Anyway he wasn’t saying anything I hadn’t heard before. I didn’t need a union pep talk. I left.

But why the Pledge of Allegiance? Is this some sort of pox that Americans have caught? Is it that as their country goes downhill, they believe that this is some sort of ritual incantation that will resurrect its past life? Or, more likely, is this a way of “unifying” the people in the room, of sweeping them under one social umbrella so that they’ll be more receptive to the union messages? A blessing would do that. Is there something wrong with saying a blessing? Is blessing the United States of America supposed to be better? No, but it’s more politically effective.

The words “under God” were added to the Pledge in 1954. Whatever the reasons of its proponents were, they amalgamate the religious and the political. The Pledge amalgamates and blurs all the lines: flag, United States of America (a government), republic, nation, God, liberty, justice, all. Mostly it unifies. Unity.

How real is the unity behind the automatic responses of everyone in that room? How far does it go? About as far as their next pay check.

8:08 am on March 23, 2012