Labor Fights Back
The war against the middle class is nearly won. With the attack and destruction of the unions begun in earnest during the Reagan years, working people have fewer and fewer protections from predatory capitalism. I define working people as those who shower at the end of the day, not the beginning, since they’ve actually performed labor. Strong unions lifted everyone’s wages, because employers had to either compete with those wages or lose good workers. Fifty years ago, a third of the American work force was unionized; now it’s less than 10%. So employers can get away with forcing people to work off the clock, come in on weekends, or work overtime but not be paid overtime wages. What are you going to do? If you don’t like it, there are a dozen people waiting to take your job. It’s no wonder that a recent poll showed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs.
We can trace the genesis of the labor movement back to the late 19th Century, the era of sweat shops and robber barons, when people began to organize for fair pay and safety standards. This movement was galvanized by one of the worst work place disasters in our history, the Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire in 1911. On March 25th a fire broke out on the 8th floor, many of the exits had been locked and there was only a single freight elevator. The fire ladders only reached the 6th floor. 146 women and girls died, 57 of them from jumping to the pavement below, to the horror of the gathered crowd. Many were holding hands as they jumped. In the crowd that day was a young social worker named Frances Perkins. She would go on to be FDR’s Secretary of Labor, the first women appointed to a cabinet position. She was the driving force behind most of the New Deal programs that got America working again.
The struggle for workers’ rights led to many violent confrontations. People were bashed, punched, clubbed, stabbed and shot, mostly by police or paid thugs. The Triangle fire, the Haymarket Riots, Matewan, and the Ludlow Massacre are known by few today. These key events and others have been scrubbed from the history books taught in the schools. Where is the labor channel on cable news? Have you ever seen a labor section in any newspaper? The American Dream has been reduced to either being born into wealth, or winning the lottery. All the ground gained by all that blood tears has been lost, and must be regained.
Throughout most of my lifetime, Democrats have always sided with labor, and Republicans with business. In recent years the Democrats have abandoned the unions to the wolves, those same unions who have always gotten out the Democratic vote. It wasn’t always this way. The first President who spoke about a “living wage” was a Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Republicans during that period were pretty progressive. The first President to defend labor was also a Republican, Abraham Lincoln. Sometime you should look up the 1956 official Republican Party platform, when President Eisenhower, another progressive Republican, was seeking reelection. He boasted about 10 million new workers added to the unions, and the expansion of Social Security. It’s far to the left of Obama today.
In Germany, if your company has more than 1000 employees, half of the Board of Directors must be from labor. European-style social democracies are based upon a more egalitarian ideal, where everyone benefits from economic prosperity. A CEO makes 30-40 times the salary of their lowest paid workers (in the U.S. it’s many hundreds of times). They’d be ashamed to make more. One executive put it this way: “I don’t want to be a rich man in a poor country.” The present financial crisis among EU countries has nothing to do with this approach; those countries are in trouble because they no longer control their own currencies.
American workers have been beaten to their knees, but they’re getting up again. In the last few years, we’ve seen people pushing back, in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and elsewhere. When workers are doing all the heavy lifting, yet they can’t earn enough to even feed their families, what have they got to lose? Last year there was a walkout among Wal-Mart workers and supporters nationwide. Wal-Mart is the country’s biggest private employer, but their workers are so poorly paid that most have to supplement their income with food stamps and Medicaid. The first week of August saw one-day walkouts by fast-food workers in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and others, in protest of sub-standard wages. As I write this, a one-day national strike among fast-food workers is being organized. A steady effort by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) has been active in improving conditions for restaurant workers nationwide. We may be David to the corporate Goliath, but consider how that turned out. There’s one big advantage we workers have, and that’s numbers. We outnumber the oligarchs and plutocrats by 1000 to one, and they damn well know it, and fear us. If that’s the only leverage we have, then we must use it.
Another trend of recent years is showing lots of promise — worker owned co-ops. Co-ops have been around a long time, but ideas like this not only save jobs, but create new ones if they prosper. The Green Bay Packers of the NFL come to mind. They’re not a co-op, but the team is owned by thousands of shareholders, not some millionaire (that’s why they’re America’s team, not the Dallas Cowboys). You know that team is never going to move to another city, just so the owners can get richer.
Co-ops can and do work on vast scales. Take the Mondragon Corporation, in the Basque country of Spain. It was started in 1956 by six people, one of them a parish priest. Today there are over 250 organizations affiliated, and Mondragon is the seventh biggest company in Spain. They manufacture appliances, automobile and machine parts, racing bikes, solar panels, you name it, with annual sales of about 24 billion Euros. They employ 83,000 people and 9000 students, all shareholders. The pay for executives is capped at six times the average worker. Everyone seems to be happy with the arrangement.
Some will say this all smacks of Marxism; let them. If being my brother’s keeper makes me a Marxist, that’s okay with me. These are bugaboos the Right always trots out to demonize the workers’ rights movement. Note to the corporate state: American workers are not going to settle for feudalism. They will stand and fight when they have no alternative. Why would anyone who says they believe in democracy want to deny democracy in the work place? You know, there’s a damned good reason there are no Right-wing protest songs.
Labor is prior to, and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. — Abraham Lincoln.