Brooklyn, NY – This year, Labor Day celebrations coincide with well-earned accolades for late comic book legend Jack Kirby on his 100th birthday. Largely responsible for creating some of the mightiest superheroes the world has ever seen — Jack Kirby sure could have used a good union behind him back in the day, because like so many working today, he never truly got the credit or compensation he so richly deserved.
Fact is, the man behind The Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Mighty Thor, and so many other super-powered characters, had a chance to unionize early in his comic book career, but was too afraid of what might happen to his livelihood if he did.
In a 1990 Gary Groth interview, Jack “King” Kirby expressed the trepidation he and other comic book artists of the day felt in the midst of McCarthyism and the “Red Scare” era.
“Everybody was wary,” Kirby said. “Remember, this was a time when communists marched through the streets, waving flags and shouting. The unions did the same thing so you began to associate them. I’m speaking now as a human being, not as a businessman — the unions are great. The unions are great for the working people because they protect you, but I didn’t see them that way as a young man.”
The fear of marginalization Jack Kirby felt in the 1950s is not that much different from the timidity many lunchpail workers and even union leaders themselves experience today.
Last year, fear of a presidential candidate identifying as a Democratic-Socialist precluded many labor leaders from throwing their support behind the presidential candidacy of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders — hands down the most pro-worker politician, outside of consumer rights advocate Ralph Nader, that this country has produced in decades.
But it isn’t merely the imagined taint of socialism that has working men and women reticent about joining a union. “Socialism” is no longer the dirty word it once was — certainly not with terms like “corporatism” and “crony capitalism” solidly sticking in the craw of hard-pressed workers from coast to coast. And anyone still trying to conflate unionism with communism might as well also take to wearing their trousers up around their chests and sporting un-ironic fedoras year-round.
No, with red baiting waning, the big bosses have turned to unchecked scare tactics designed to intimidate factory workers, retail clerks and scores of other paycheck-dependent citizens from successfully organizing in the workplace. Tactics include relentless corporate propaganda campaigns disguised as compulsory department meetings; convening non-too subtle closed door meetings to “gauge support for unionization,” and elevating ambivalent workers to positions of greater power and authority.
This summer’s failure to unionize Nissan’s automotive plant in Canton, Mississippi is a prime example of corporate scare tactics in action. When it was all over, workers hoping to organize with the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, where left wondering why they couldn’t enjoy the same benefits and protections Nissan workers worldwide enjoy.
Sometimes, however, when working conditions are so bad and the economic outlook is so bleak, courageous workers throw caution to the wind, and corporate scare tactics suddenly cease to work.
Low-paid and severely exploited car wash workers have done it throughout New York City. So, too, have workers at the Sims Municipal Recycling plant in Sunset, Park Brooklyn, as well as an increasing number of frustrated non-union construction workers in all five boroughs.
Broadway casting directors already organized with Teamsters Local 817 are currently being told that, unlike of the other craftspeople and artists who help make the Great White Way a $1.5 billion industry — they’re just hired hands. Something more akin to accountants or lawyers, and, therefore, ineligible for the same healthcare and pension benefits that the rest of Broadway’s unionized trades enjoy.
Local 817 casting directors are not having it, however, and continue to press the Broadway League to start bargaining in good faith.
If Jack Kirby and his comic book colleagues had acted similarly all those years ago, things might have turned out differently — and more people would know who to thank for all those fantastically fanciful superheroes dominating movie screens around the globe.