Although Tom Joad starts out merely trying to help his family survive after they are dispossessed, through Casy's influence he begins to realize that it is not enough to merely help his own family survive. Indeed, his family will not survive unless they join forces with the other families victimized by the economic system. While Ma taught him that a man needs family and will be destroyed if he strikes out on his own, Casy taught him that the only way for the migrant families to survive was to unionize and to stand up to the banks and agribusinesses that exploit them. For Casy, an ex-minister, working together starts as a Christian value:
I got thinkin' how we was holy when we was one thing, an mankin' was holy when it was one thing. An' it only got unholy when one mis'able little fella got the bit in his teeth an' run off his own way, kickin' an' draggin' an' fightin'. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they're all workin' together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang"that's right, that's holy.
Though I personally remain unconvinced that Jesus ever said much about the economic aspects of life, other than "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's", those who work to improve the lives of the impoverished still seem to me to have a better claim to traditional Christian values than those who are primarily concerned with their own welfare. Early in the novel Tom realizes that the workers should unite to gain higher wages:
Tom said angrily, "Them peaches got to be picked right now, don't they? Jus' when they're ripe?" "Course they do." "Well, s'pose them people got together an' says, "let "em rot.' Wouldn't be long "fore the price went up, by God!" The young man looked up from the valves, looked sardonically at Tom. "Well, you figgered out somepin, didn' you. Come right out of your own head."
What Tom didn't realize, and what too many today have forgotten, is that the right to unionize came at a heavy price, at the cost of the lives of many who first tried to organize workers:
Folks figured that out. An' the folks with the peach orchard figured her out too. Look, if the folks get together, they's a leader"got to be"fella that does the talkin'. Well, first time this fella opens his mouth they grab "im an' stick "im in jail. An' if they's another leader pops up, why, they stick "im in jail.
As usual, the authorities are, at best, on the side of the status quo, and, at the worst, on the side of those who have the money to buy their loyalty.
The cheap-labor conservatives in the "30's convinced people that anyone who objected to the way business ran the country must be "reds:"
Well, sir, Hines says, "A red is any son-of-a-bitch that wants thirty cents an hour when we're payin' twenty-five! Well, this young fella he thinks about her, an' he scratches his head, an' he says, "Well, Jesus, Mr. Hines. I ain't a son-of-a-bitch, but if that's what a red is"why, I want thirty cents an hour. Ever'body does. Hell, Mr. Hines, we're all reds.'
If you used this definition of a "red," wouldn't Presidend Bush and his cronies be considered the greatest reds of all? In an ideal society, one that's never existed, of course, people would be free to organize and express their ideas, no matter how controversial those ideas would be. Unfortunately, in the real world you often have to resort to at least a show of force in order to get your ideas heard:
An' these here mountain people up an' joined the union. Well, sir, hell jes' popped. All them storekeepers and legioneers an' people like that, they get drillin' an' yellin', "Red!' An' they gonna run the union right outa Akron. Preachers git a-preachin' about it, an' papers a-yowling, an' they's pick handles put out by the rubber companies, an they're a-buying gas. Jesus, you'd think them mountain boys was reg'lar devils!" He stopped and found some more rocks to shoot. "Well, sir"it was las' March, an' one Sunday five thousan' of them mountain men had a turkey shoot outside a town. Five thousan' of "em jes' marched through town with their rifles. An' they had their turkey shoot, an' then they marched back. An' that's all they done. Well, sir, they ain't been no trouble sense then.
The one thing those in power understand is power itself, even when they don't control it. And if you can get your ideas heard, the greatest power of all is the power of the people to vote, which is still what makes America one of the greatest countries in the world.
In the end, Tom Joad is convinced that he must leave the family and help to unionize his people. He realizes that his life is in danger, but he doesn't feel he has a choice:
Tom laughed uneasily, "Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain't got a soul of his own, but on'y a piece of a big one"an' then"""" "Then what, Tom" "Then it don' matter. Then I'll be aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where"wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'"I'll be in the way kids laught when they're hungry an' they know suppers ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build"why I'll be there. See? God, I'm talkin' like Casy. Comes of thinkin' about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes." "I don' understan'," Ma said. "I don' really know."
By the end of the novel, the man who got thrown into prison for killing a man in a bar fight has been transformed into a man who is willing to risk his life for the welfare of others. Because of Casy he has even transcended Ma and is able to think beyond his own immediate family.
Though I'll admit that The Grapes of Wrath is not my favorite novel for a number of reasons, it is a powerful, thought-provoking reminder of the history of the labor movement in America, a history that has been nearly buried by union scandals and a steady stream of anti-union propaganda from pro-business political forces. But no amount of propaganda can refute the simple truth that even the most anti-union worker has probably benefited directly or indirectly from unions.