Given the example offered by the major league ballplayers and the screenwriters, I figure that sooner or later the nation can expect a strike by the vice president in charge of public affairs for companies with assets in excess of $500 million. Or perhaps we will be rewarded with the spectacle of a walkout by swimming pool consultants and badminton instructors.
Once upon a time, in the days before the advent of the post-industrial society, the strike was a form of expression reserved for the working classes. Ruffians in ragged clothes committed unspeakable acts of sedition and defiance. The press portrayed the proletariat as a mob, and in polite circles it was thought proper to send immediately for the Army.
But now the strike has become an upper-class occupation. Who can recommend the use of fire hoses against a screenwriter who gets paid $50,000 for a script or a third baseman who earns $350,000 for a season in the sun? Clearly the fellows suffer terrible deprivation, but what is it that they want?
If it isn't a question of wages and conditions, then perhaps their grievance has to do with a fear that they might become superfluous. The strikers ask to be appreciated, and the strike becomes a demand not for something so vulgar as money but for recognition of their inestimable value to the republic.
In the student strikes of the 1960s, the children of fathers almost as rich as baseball players made up lists of non-negotiable demands, tugging at the sleeve of indifferent authority, insisting on their status as lovable people. Several years later President Carter retired to Camp David or the White House Rose Garden, hoping that somebody would notice his absence.
To the extent that large numbers of people now perform services for which the society has no essential use, they feel a need for reassurance. They borrow the language of the labor dispute to ask the question: Who is useful and who is not? Which people, or groups of people, does the society deem indispensable to its health, safety and welfare?
The screenwriters were gone for three months, the baseball players are still out after five weeks, but as yet there has been no panic in the streets.
What would happen if the State Department went on strike? Or the regulatory commissions? Or the core of television anchormen and the painters at work in Soho?
Nation-states still would manage to communicate with one another, and somebody else could be found to read news bulletins into a camera. If the artists stayed on strike for as long as a month, five new schools of painting might disappear from the canon of aesthetic criticism, but Mayor Ed Koch would make up the loss to the voters of New York by staging a flower festival in Battery Park.
Those people and professions on whom the society utterly and uncomprehendingly depends, the newspapers seldom deign to notice. If the water engenieers went on strike, the cities would become uninhabitable within a matter of hours. Equally extreme consequences would attend a strike by the police or fire department, by a cadre of computer technicians, by the few doctors not engaged in psychoanalysis or cosmetic surgery. But beyond a relatively small number of people, most of them unknown, who would be missed? a
By a curious paradox, the newspapers talk obsessively about the comings and goings of those people for whom the society has the least use. The columnists chatter about Cronkite's successor, about Carson's contract, about Reggie Jackson's unhappiness in right field. Probably it is fair to say that the more visable the personality, the less likely that he performs an essential task. No wonder the ballplayers and the screenwriters proclaim patrie de metier. They pledge allegiance not to the United States but to themselves.
The use of the strike by affluent or priviledged elements of the society suggests that as people feel less of a loyalty to the general collective (the city, the community, the republic) than they do toward the private collective (the profession, the specialty, the corporation) so also they find it expedient to protect not only their interests but also their vanity.