Cousin Eddy and the Union Blues


Clark Griswald’s Rant–Christmas Vacation (Click to view)

Around the beginning of December each year, my family and I nestle on the couch and celebrate the coming holiday season by watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Chevy Chase’s slapstick-driven look at family holiday gatherings always seems to strike just the right chord between cynical and sweet. Chase plays Clark Griswald, a man whose expectations and desires to celebrate the holidays with kith and kin collide with the realities of family squabbles, ageing relatives, annoying in-laws, yuppie neighbors, and squirrels running amok in the house. Easy to dismiss as an anti-Christmas movie, Christmas Vacation lampoons cultural representations of families with a smile on their face and a song in their heart during the holidays. The movie offers, instead, a comedic look at the tensions holidays create while still valuing the core need to gather with our families around the hearth at certain times of the year.

But the movie is about more than cousin Eddy holding out for a management position or Clark enduring Uncle Lewis’ smelly cigar.

Chase’s movie is also a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) attack on the soulless corporate world that puts the bottom line before the worker. Mr. Shirley, Griswald’s boss, is a man who values efficient production and investor profits over employees. Enrollment in the Jelly of the Month Club (see the video) might be the gift that keeps on giving, but such a gift is a scant reward for company loyalty and dedication.

At least Christmas Vacation ends happy. The American middle class, folks like Clark Griswald, might not be so lucky as they witness their power–both politically and economically–shrink each year.

Or, to put it more accurately perhaps, the wealthiest American’s are increasing their wealth, the poorest American’s are falling farther and farther behind, and the unlucky saps in the middle are hanging on for dear life. Most of us know this intuitively when we pay bills each month, but if you want evidence check out Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman’s slide show, look at the charts from the World Income database, consider that those of you earning $68,000 make more than 75% of the population, and realize those of you making $160,000 are richer than 95% of your friends and neighbors. Anyone earning $300,000 feel super-rich? You should because you are in the top 1% of all wager earners.

In the meantime, Clark Griswald’s boss, the man who changed cash bonuses into a Jelly of the Month Club membership, earns 350 times more than the average worker and his salary increases while Clark’s remains flat.

Criticism and distrust of American corporations is nothing new, of course. Herman Melville’s 1853 short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” ends with the narrator lamenting his own inhumanity when the bottom line conflicts with his ability to serve as his brother’s keeper. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street takes a scathing look at greed and American culture, and Mike Judge’s 1999 Office Space satirizes the de-humanizing impact of cubicles and management drones.

This tension and interplay between worker and owner (or the bourgeois and proletariat) created labor unions, workers who banded together for fair labor practices, safe working conditions, and a living wage. Profits were shared among the workers and management. If pay and work conditions became untenable, unions joined together to strike, demonstrating the power of the working class.Unions and their corporate counterparts worked throughout the years to create a vibrant and powerful American economy. In our golden age, wages were more important than stock value for anonymous shareholders.

Until now.

At the risk of confusing correlation and causation again (see my post from last week), I can’t help but notice that American workers have lost wages and power in equal proportion to the collapse of labor unions.  Edward McClelland, over at, offers some basic facts. In 1965, McClelland tells us, $2.35 (starting salary for shoveling taconite) was enough to pay rent and buy a car. That $2.35 would equal $17.17 in today’s wages, almost $10 higher than minimum wage.

I don’t think anyone would argue someone could pay rent and buy a car on $7.25 an hour.

Labor unions, at their heart, offer workers collective bargaining, recognizing that the value of any company is determined not by the person in the corner office sitting in a leather chair, but by the worker shoveling coal, writing reports, and interacting with customers. When profits are shared fairly, America’s economic boat rises in equal proportion.

Somehow, though, American voters and politicians turned union into a dirty word. President Reagan, friend to almost no one who didn’t live in a gated community, convinced too many workers to turn their backs on their own best interests. In a show of solidarity with the corporate owners, he broke the air traffic controllers union, proving that government really was part of the problem not the solution. Ironically, we named an airport after him but that’s a different blog.

As importantly, President Reagan obfuscated the conversation by emphasizing social issues over sound economic policy. We became obsessed with the welfare queen who might be getting an extra $40 more food stamps while the corporate executive was finagling another 30% more in tax cuts.

Meanwhile, union membership dropped dramatically and Republican politicians, buoyed by redistricting and corporate donations in the 1990s, trumpeted the free market, off shoring, and corporate welfare.

Wages froze. The middle class shrunk. And Walmart took over the world.

Even now, as the economy recovers and unemployment drops, wages are stagnant. Fast food workers are demanding a living wage and prices for gas, utilities, and other essential goods and services are rising faster than our paychecks.

Yet, we are all single voices raised in competition with each other, fighting over limited resources regulated by owners who control both the mode of production and the product.

In Clark Griswald’s world, cousin Eddy, a big, bulging man in a blue polyester suit, has to kidnap Mr. Shirley to remind him that “Sometimes things look good on paper, but lose their luster when you see how it affects real folks. I guess a healthy bottom line doesn’t mean much if to get it, you have to hurt the ones you depend on. It’s people that make the difference. Little people like you.”

The rest of us don’t really have to rely on kidnapping (or blue leisure suits). We just have to remember that divided we fall. United we stand.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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