This Labor Day, i have been thinking about the sad decline of the phrase, “rat fink.” Every Mad Magazine reader (is Mad still around?) over age 50 knows the phrase well, and many of us used it, or its little brother, “fink,” quite frequently throughout the 1950s and ’60s. And then, like the crumbling U.S. labor movement, it fell into disuse until, today, almost no one under 50 knows what it means.
Just like no one knows what “union” means.
A fink is a traitor; an informer. He’s the guy who, when you come back 5 minutes late from your break, yells so the bosses can hear him, “Hey! You’re late!” He’s the dude who tells on you when you send around a sarcastic e-mail about a manager’s decision. (Everybody else is laughing; he’s in the manager’s office, squealing.) More to the point, he’s the guy who gladly uses all the holidays, sick leave, personal leave, overtime, bereavement days, vacation and health insurance the union has negotiated, but grouses about paying dues (or the equivalent) and then, when a strike has to be called, crosses the picket-line so he can keep on cashing paychecks while everyone else is sacrificing theirs for the good of all.
In the 1950s, more than a third of the workers in the U.S. were organized and represented by unions. Sure, the hourly pay was low compared with today’s, but in 1958, we had to work a lot fewer hours to buy a car than we do today. We also had to work a lot fewer hours to buy the gas to make that car go. And when unions were strong, a company’s chief executive typically didn’t earn hundreds or thousands times more than the firm’s average worker.
In the 1970s, driven by greed, companies started moving their operations south, and overseas. Now they could rake in big profits and not share them with their employees. Without unions, they didn’t have to provide either decent pay or health insurance. They could violate workers’ human rights, punish those who spoke out, and reward the rat finks.
And that’s exactly what they did.
Say what you will about this quaintly out-of-date expression, but we’ll know things are better in the U.S. when workers once again unite to fight for justice and dignity, and the term “rat fink” is a well-known epithet of shame.