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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Before There Was A Labor Day

union blue
Norma Rae Was Actually Crystal Lee Sutton

Economic Disparity Today
Whatever you thought about the crazy kids camping out during the height of The Occupy movement, it is generally accepted that the aftermath of those sleep-ins changed the international conversation about the haves and the have-nots. Suddenly the term," the 1%," became part of the American lexicon. When Mitt "Mittens" Romney threw out an offhand remark about 47% of the population not relating to him, it raised the level in the watershed possibilities of the moment. If the years since the crash of 2008 have told us anything, it is that there is a widening gap between what has become the have it all and the have nothing.

We are surging toward a greater inequality with no more room left to squeeze out the poor. 1928 has nothing on us. We thought The Great Depression could never happen again. But a giggly little Texan named George W. Bush left us at its peak. Peak years for income concentration overall, but not peak years for shared income generation. And no real adjustment in workers' wages to adjust for inflation.

No Hope In Sight
Now, we have to take all of this in context. This is not the end of the world. In general, at the same time as a spate of deregulation allowed for the siphoning of wealth from those at the bottom to those at the top, other positive measures of earth metrics have flourished. "The number of people who have died as a result of war, civil war, and, yes, terrorism, is down 50% this decade from the 1990s." ~ CNN's Zakaria in his piece "Reasons For Optimism In Today's World." I don't know if that's saying much, but it sure sounds like it is. "Death by war or terrorism is down 75% from the preceding five decades, the decades of the Cold War, and it is, of course, down 99% from the decade before that, which is World War II." ~~ reports Zakaria. Harvard professor Steven Pinker says that "we are living in the most peaceful times in human history."

Not that there is any comfort there for the world's refugees, or the world's hungry, or those cringing at gunpoint. But stats are stats.

Nonetheless, there are sure plenty of gun collecting, shelter building folks that think this is the end of times. In reality, there have been doomsayers as long as we've had sayers. So, it's hard to count us out just yet. "When we look at the problems we face — economic crises, terrorism, climate change, resource scarcity — keep in mind that these problems are real, but also that the human reaction and response to them will also be real." That's our forever cheerleader Zakaria.

Why A Labor Day Holiday?
Let's take a good look on this Labor Day, 2014, at what problems a working person currently faces, and see if we can't focus on that for a bit, in honor of the holiday, right? So, um, why is there a Labor Day? We hear a lot about it being some sort of celebration of union ideals: work weeks, and weekends, child labor laws, and some safety stuff, but a national holiday? That sort of seems excessive, no?

Today, Salon muses that "Union membership used to be a matter of economic self-interest, divorced from political or cultural concerns. In the 1960s, union members supported the New Deal welfare state, while also backing the Vietnam War, racially restrictive housing covenants, bans on abortion and birth control. Perfect for the GOP. Richard Nixon — who used to call his ideal voter “a 47-year-old machinist’s wife outside Dayton” — won his 1972 landslide with a “blue-collar strategy” that attracted the support of white male unionists." Unions were helpful to the interests of the GOP, and helpful to the interests of the worker. So it was a win win. What went so horribly wrong?

blue Wisconsin union protests
Wisconsin Union Protests Overtake Their Capitol

Past Is Prologue, My Friend
In the good ol' days, things where not all that good, and a work "day" meant a totally different thing. In the 19th Century, industrial accidents were common place, with no possible redress for grievances. Companies owned whole towns. The stores, the housing, the electric company, the water, everything.

In exchange for steady employment, workers began to compromise their rights in the workplace. Longer work hours and pay cuts were imposed. Try to complain, and you'd be out on the street looking for a job where none existed. You'd take what you could get, if you were on your own, and you'd do everything to keep what ya got when you had to support a family. Once you complained, or asked for better working conditions, you lost your home, right off, and of course your job, and your kid's schooling, 'cause the company owned the school too.

Sure a few Americans had a lot. But for hundreds of years, this stranglehold on your civil rights in the workplace was your lot, your kid's lot, and so on and so on. Just the price of working for business. 

Throughout the latter part of the 19th century, labor started to realize they had had enough. In 1892, at the Carnegie's Homestead plant near Pittsburgh, there was a pay slash for the steel workers. Extremely upset about this pay cut, the workers held a strike. The company officials called in Pinkerton detectives to stop these riots. The detectives were unable to stop the defiant strikers; the strikers, armed with rifles and dynamite, were eventually broken by the Pennsylvania state militia. At least ten persons were killed and sixty were injured.


Along the way to the right to unionize, workers were shot at, hit with fire bombs, cowards shooting at the mothers' of children and unarmed men. A labor movement in Chicago in 1894 left 30 Pullman workers dead. Pullman had cut wages about one-third. The workers angered at the wage cuts, led a strike on the Company. Strikers interfered with railway traffic from Chicago to the Pacific Coast, sometimes overturning railroad cars.

Women's voices were instrumental in event after event in the history of the worker's rights movement. In 1902, Mother Jones was called "the most dangerous woman in America" for her success in organizing mine workers and their families against the mine owners, and was known as the "miners' angel." Jones worked as a teacher and dressmaker, but after her husband and four children all died of yellow fever and her workshop was destroyed in a fire in 1871, she began working as an organizer for the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers union. Starting in 1897, at around 60 years of age, she then helped coordinate major strikes and co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World. In 1903, upset about the lax enforcement of the child labor laws in the Pennsylvania mines and silk mills, she organized a Children's March from Philadelphia to the home of then president Theodore Roosevelt in New York.

The reality is there were revolutions that led up to the existence of eight hour work days, putting an end to child labor along with it. There was the Ludlow incident. Tents that housed evicted striking workers were torched, with children in them. "The tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado, on April 20, 1914 resulted in some two dozen people dead. The National Guard, the actual American National Guard, was called in and ordered to butcher unarmed people from a distance. History calls it The Ludlow Massacre. Reported death tolls vary but include two women and eleven children, asphyxiated and burned to death under a single tent.

Ruins of the Ludlow Colony in the aftermath of the massacre.
Ruins of the Ludlow Colony in the aftermath of the massacre

Ludlow was the deadliest single incident in the southern Colorado Coal Strike, lasting from September 1913 through December 1914. The strike was organized by the United Mine Workers of America(UMWA) against coal mining companies in Colorado. The three largest companies involved were the Rockefeller family-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company (CF&I), the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company (RMF), and the Victor-American Fuel Company (VAF). In retaliation for Ludlow, the miners armed themselves and attacked dozens of mines over the next ten days, destroying property and engaging in several skirmishes with the Colorado National Guard along a 40-mile front from  Trinidad toWalsenburgThe entire strike would cost between 69 and 199 lives. Thomas G. Andrews described it as the "deadliest strike in the history of the United States".

Historian Howard Zinn described the Ludlow Massacre as "the culminating act of perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history". Congress responded to public outcry by directing the House Committee on Mines and Mining to investigate the incident. Its report, published in 1915, was influential in promoting child labor laws and an eight-hour work day. But nothing like progress happens without taking its own sweet time.

By 1930, with the great stock market crash of 1928, things had gone from worse to worse. "They used to say once you pass the gates of General Motors, forget about The United States Constitution. Workers had no rights when you entered that plant. When workers started organizing, bosses actually hired lip readers to watch the men talk to each other to find out if the workers were talking union. If you were caught, you'd get beaten up." Marissa Tomei speaking the words of a female 1930s labor strike leader on the History Channel.

Who Are These Union Members?
These days, the sectors with the largest percentage of unionized employees are education, training and library occupations, with 35.4% of them paying dues to a union. It used to be that belonging to a labor union-made you a Democrat. Now, being a Democrat is more likely to make you a union member. Fun fact: Teachers and librarians vote overwhelmingly Democratic, not because they’re union members, but because the combination of low pay and intellectual inquiry in those professions attracts liberals. Those fields are dominated by women, many with master’s degrees, women who vote for Democrats. In fact, the Center for Economic and Policy Research predicts that by 2020, a majority of union members will be women.

More Fun Facts: In 1983, over half of union members were white men. Now, a little over a third are. In New York City, less than a quarter of union members are white men. Blacks are more likely to be unionized than whites. College-educated whites are more likely to be unionized than non-college whites. Public sector employees are more likely to belong to unions than private sector employees. And since most union members now work in the public sector, the war on unions has become yet another front in the larger conservative war on government.

Meanwhile, in manufacturing, the unionization rate has plummeted from 30% in 1983, to 9.4% today. During those three decades, the United Auto Workers’ membership dropped from 1.2 million to 390,000. That’s mainly due to the loss of market share to foreign manufacturers. Because when those foreign manufacturers build plants in the United States, they build in the South, a region hostile to unionism.

To be clear, overall, union members made up 20% of the workforce in 1983, and they made up 11% of the workforce in 2012. In New York, 23.2% of workers belong to a union. In Tennessee, 4.8% do. (Only Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina are less unionized.) ~~Salon

There are some taking on the local union busters and winning. People like Karen, the outspoken president of the Chicago Teachers Union, are the face 21st century unionism, which has been transformed from a movement devoted to protecting the safety and livelihoods of blue-collar workers to a stronghold of white-collar liberalism. Liberal. Another crest of honor the GOP has turned into a curse word.

What Does Organizing Look Like Now
A piece by Edward McClelland of Salon tells the tale. "Earlier this year, the UAW tried to organize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Despite the tacit support of the company, which needed an independent union to form a European-style works council, the UAW lost the election, 712-626. Before the vote, the anti-union faction, which called itself Southern Momentum, invoked cultural, regional, racial and political resentments to persuade the conservative white men working in the plant that a union was a threat not only to their livelihoods, but to their way of life. Billboards labeled the Democratic-leaning union the 'United Obama Workers,' and presented 'ruin porn' images of the derelict Packard Motors plant alongside the slogan, “Detroit: Brought to you by the UAW.”

Most interestingly, McClelland adds, "Before the vote (in Chattanooga), a pamphlet distributed to workers compared the unionizing campaign to a campaign by the Union Army in the Civil War (the civil war, for christ's sake): “One hundred and fifty years ago … the people of Tennessee routed such a force in the Battle of Chickamauga." McClelland further confesses, "When I heard a Sheet Metal Workers business agent from Syracuse theorize that Southerners dislike unions because “the name reminds them of the Union Army,” I thought he was nuts. Since Chattanooga, I think he may have been on to something. Bottom line: If you buy a BMW built-in Alabama, or a Toyota built-in Mississippi, you’re not helping the American labor movement."

union 1893

A War On The Poor Is Underway Today
The GOP is running a corporation-only campaign against the rest of the country. Has to be said. Once the Citizens United case was ruled on by the current Supreme Court of the United States, corporations became people and their myopic view of profits-over-employees'-quality-of-life began to dominate the national conversation. Wealth will trickle down, you can't tax business, you can't impose healthcare benefits, and you can't extend healthcare benefits. If you are alive today, and not a child, you know that we are headed right back to that time when you suffered in silence with nothing, because you were treated like nothing. All of that, sits in direct defiance of the history of what is now the annual 3 day holiday, Labor Day. What do we mean, "war on the poor?" Robert Reich explains it perfectly in 2 minutes and 15 seconds.  

Robert Reich made a full-length documentary that came out last year about this. One you can access. One you should access. As a policy geek, as a wonk, as a citizen. Some have called it an 'Inconvenient Truth' of the economy sector. Reich makes "a passionate argument on behalf of the middle class in INEQUALITY FOR ALL.

As any history loving wonk knows, Reich is a former US Secretary of Labor. He's also a professor, best-selling author, and he succinctly demonstrates how the widening income gap has a devastating impact on the American economy.

You can buy a copy of the film, and learn more about what Robert Reich is doing to take on the obstacles to economic equality one by one. Reich explains how the massive consolidation of wealth by a precious few threatens the viability of the American workforce and the foundation of democracy itself. We've been here before. We began regulating big business and the rights of the workforce, and things got better. What happened?

Here's the cliff notes. The GOP platform in recent history, and the view espoused by Republican candidates going into 2014 and 2016, has been that the poor deserve to be where they are. They are lazy, and no one can or should help them. They can help themselves; let them eat cake.

The GOP Stands Against

1. Extending unemployment benefits. Stats tell us there is 1 job opening for every 3 people unemployed and looking. That tells us 2 out of 3 can't work. They need to eat; they need to feed their families; they need to live somewhere; they need hope. But no, we are too busy a country to have to hand out hand-outs to those out of work losers. This way, "those people" will take what they can get when we do have a job for them. A minimum wage job. They'll work longer hours, and work harder for us, with the constant overwhelming fear of abject poverty on their minds.

Republicans Don't

2. Want to raise the minimum wage. Even though today's federal minimum wage setting is 25% below what it was in 1968, when you adjust for inflation, they absolutely do not want to raise the minimum wage. GOP candidates and those running for re-election are very clear this would be bad for business. They aren't just tepid on the idea of raising the minimum wage, they aren't just adamantly opposed to raising the minimum wage, recently Congressman have advocated for repealing any minimum wage at all. And they run on that platform.

The Fiscal Conservative Tea Party Caucus Will Not 

3. Extend Medicaid benefits to millions of low wage workers, even though the federal funding is there for the taking.

Congressmen Happily Announce

4. They want to cut food stamps. The GOP has already passed legislation that cut food stamps. And they are going to do it again.


5. Refuses to invest in education or job training. No jobs bills have been presented by the GOP since the crash of 2008.

The GOP 

6. Doesn't want to rebuild America's crumbling infrastructure, or generate any jobs programs. Bridges have failed, people have died. Other countries have high speed trains. But not us.

Republicans Don't Believe In

7. Any type of regulation on business. After all, we "are being regulated to death as it is." Heard that one before? How could we be, when business is running wild with our quality of life, from wages to weather?

Republican Governors Are

8. Out to bust unions. "Collective bargaining is inimical to the conservative ideal of individualism," explains Reich. Power does not want to be fought with power. Neocons yell, 'Unions are “socialist.”' to try and disparage the ideal behind worker's rights. Why? Because unions members tend to vote for, and financially support, Democratic Candidates. Unions, also, tend to be made up of us. Us the workers.

Obama said in his formal holiday proclamation yesterday, “From assembly lines to classrooms, across highways and steel mills, American workers strengthen the foundation of our country and demonstrate that our economy grows best from the middle out.” Well if we are the backbone, why must business consistently, throughout history, try to break our backs?

Are You Mad Yet? Can't Take It Anymore?
Each of these measures, is designed to take away the power of the helpless. It's despicable, and it's a shame. For profits to be up, you need low wages, and unregulated business, no pollution restrictions, no environmental restrictions, no changes in industry standards, no safety protocols, no nothing between the sellers and the buyers. In order to keep your workers from trying to change that paradigm, you need to make sure that most of the work force stays unemployed, desperate to feed their families. That part seems key. Then the workforce, a line item affecting your bottom line, will take what they can get, and won't complain about toxic chemicals or the like. They'll do it in exchange for regular work. Because they don't have a lot of other options.

"This war against the poor and working class is designed to make sure that Americans who have been losing ground for 30 years, don't dare do anything about it." Robert Reich.

On this Labor Day let's actually talk about Labor, shall we? Without extended unemployment benefits, without unions, without education, with no job training, a declining human wage, no Medicaid, no food stamps, and no comprehensive jobs program, what do Americans have left to pull themselves up with? 

Again, when you are desperate you won't make a fuss, you won't run the risk of losing your job, you won't run for office, you won't unionize. And a whole bunch of folk are feeling desperate around now.

Want To Do Something About It?
We've done it before. Hopefully, this time we don't need pitchforks and bullet proof vests.

The way to fix these problems is to identify the problems. We only have a little bit of homework. We need to raise the minimum wage and strengthen worker's voices. We need to find a plurality of ways to invest in education. We have to put the reforms back on Wall Street that saved us after the 30s, fix the tax system, and get money out of politics by reinstating publicly funded election rules. And for goodness sake, whatever you do, push back on the over abundance of union bashing, will ya?

"Human action and human achievement have managed to tackle terrible problems. Trust yourself; you know what you should do. You know the kind of life you should live. You don’t need an ethics course to know what you shouldn’t do. Just trust in your instincts, be true to them, and you will make for yourself a great and a good life. And, in doing so, you will change the world." ~~ Fareed Zakaria.

You'll need to be armed with some facts. As a start, you could actually download an app that keeps you engaged in Robert Reich's campaign. And maybe watch the film. The rest is up to you. Our future is up to you. Don't be quiet about it.

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