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Where's the outrage?

Opinion: Weighing in on the logic of collective action

In one of the few protests in the U.S. against government bailouts of big financial firms, demonstrators from the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America hold up posters inside the Bear Stearns headquarters lobby in New York in March, 2008. About 60 protesters opposed to the U.S. Federal Reserve's help in bailing out Bear Stearns entered the lobby of the investment bank's Manhattan headquarters in March 26, 2008. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Not one city in America has experienced the wave of recessionary populism that swept through Europe in the past month. Instead of shouting in the streets, Americans seem to be white-knuckling their way through foreclosures, job losses, rip-offs and a plunging stock market.

Have Americans lost their collective voice?

In February alone, as many as 100,000 people affiliated with the Congress of Trade Unions marched through Dublin to protest proposed wage cuts. Tens of thousands of workers poured into Rome to denounce layoffs. David Hartshorn, a British police superintendent, told The Guardian newspaper that his officers were preparing to cope with angry workers and activists bent on marching toward a “summer of rage.”

American workers have vented their anger across blogs and websites at the individuals and financial companies that caused the crisis. Many have even dialed their representatives in Congress to weigh in on the bailouts and stimulus package. But most haven’t left their houses, if they still have one.

The obvious explanation for the lack of collective action is that only 12 percent of Americans are unionized, compared to nearly 32 percent of Irish workers, 40 percent of Italians and 28 percent of the British.

One reason the unions don’t have the clout they used to is that financial services replaced manufacturing as an engine of the economy. Kevin Phillips, in his recent book, "Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism," points out that in the past 30 years, financial services expanded from 11 percent of America's gross domestic product to a record 21 percent, while manufacturing declined from 25 percent to 13 percent. Manufacturing and financial services have experienced a stunning reversal of fortune.

Instead of taking to the streets, the United Auto Workers — one the nation’s largest unions — has been intensely negotiating with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler to determine the concessions it could make to save jobs and keep the industry alive. The UAW will not be protesting a government bailout; it has already benefited from it.