Labor’s Memorial Day
Each Memorial Day we pay tribute to those who fought and died to defend what used to be our democracy. On this Labor Day we should do the same for those who fought and died for the rights of workers to be treated as human beings.
Dangerous, overcrowded conditions in mines, shipyards, and factories led to the rise of the labor movement in the 19th Century. Workers began to organize for better wages and safer work environments. The reaction by management was swift and brutal. Hired thugs, police, or private armies beat people with baseball bats, chains, or iron pipes. Many workers were killed, either beaten to death or shot. For the reader unfamiliar with labor history, a few examples are in order.
This last March 25th was the 100th anniversary of the horrendous fire at Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City’s garment district. Hundreds of young women,many of them immigrants, worked on the 8th and 9th floors of the ironically named Asch building. A fire started and quickly spread throughout the 8th floor. Valves on fire hoses were rusted shut from lack of use or inspection. Stairways had been locked to prevent theft. The only working freight elevator, which only held a dozen or so, failed after a few uses. The only other way out was the outside fire escape, which collapsed under a load it had never been designed to carry. The only choice that remained was to burn alive, or jump from the windows and plummet to the pavement below. Many held hands as they jumped. Fire trucks had arrived, but the ladders only reached to the 6th floor. When it was over, 146 women had died. The youngest victim was a 14-year old girl.
The two owners were tried for manslaughter. It took an all-male jury less than two hours to acquit them on all charges. The shock of this tragedy resulted in dozens of new safety laws. One of the witnesses in the crowd that day was a young social worker named Frances Perkins. She would go on to become FDR’s Secretary of Labor, the first woman ever to head a Cabinet post. She would be instrumental in pushing the New Deal programs.
The previous month the International Workers of the World – – the Wobblies – – were protesting in Spokane. In the early 1900s, much organizing was in the streets, as people mounted soapboxes to rally supporters. Industrialists lobbied municipal governments to ban such speaking, including Spokane. The Wobblies poured in, got themselves arrested, and filled up the jails, then gymnasiums. The city relented and repealed the law. Then the IWW boarded a train at Portland, OR, bound for Fresno, to support protests against a similar law. They were forced off the train at Ashland, OR, but they decided to walk the 400 miles in the dead of winter. By the time they reached Fresno, that law had also been repealed, but the march gained the movement fame and momentum.
Two years later, on September 23rd, 1913, 11,000 miners at Colorado Fuel & Iron went on strike. Evicted from company housing, they moved their families into tent camps set up by the union, the largest just outside of Ludlow. After violence broke out in numerous incidents, the National Guard was called to stand watch. But by the following April government funding had dried up, and the Guard left. The company had hired private soldiers – – think of Blackwater – – to surround the Ludlow camp. On April 20th, 1914, they began firing machine guns into the camp, and that night they set it on fire. 66 men, women, and children were murdered, in what became known as the Ludlow Massacre. No one was ever indicted.
There were a host of other bloody incidents; Matewan, the West Coast Longshore Strike, and the Haymarket riot, to name a few of many. This was the price paid by people who were only asking for a safe place to work, and enough money to feed their families. The Wagner Act of 1935 legalized the right to collectively bargain and to form unions. By the 1950s and 60s, about 30% of the country’s workforce was unionized, and America saw its greatest period of prosperity. I was growing up in those years, and I remember how good things were. A single wage earner was able to do what is impossible for two today; make a good living, take the family on an annual vacation, buy a new car every few years, own their own home.
What happened? Well, employers were never keen on the unions. They didn’t like having to pay a decent wage. Hell, they wouldn’t have paid anything at all if that wasn’t against the law. They also didn’t care for spending even more money upgrading safety standards set by what they viewed as intrusive government. They could no longer get away with busting heads, so the craft of union-busting became refined. The anti-union movement got a turbo boost during the Reagan years. The black arts of deception, intimidation, and “creative” legislation flourished, the very word ‘union’ was demonized, and here we are today, with about 6.7% of the workers in unions, and they are under attack as never before.
After the November 2010 mid-term election, Republicans not only gained control of the U.S. House, but some 700 seats in state legislatures, and several governors as well. Suddenly, there were some twenty states with Republican governors and the control of both state houses – – the trifecta. Just as suddenly, anti-union laws erupted like pustules on a plague victim. But this plague ravages the spirit rather than the flesh.
Many of you reading this will disagree with my heavily pro-labor stance. Rather than telling you all to go to Hell, let me ask you a question. What do you have against democracy in the workplace? It’s the sweat and productivity of workers that makes a business successful; why shouldn’t they have a say? You might also consider the things that today we all enjoy, that couldn’t have happened without the presence and influence of unions: the minimum wage, cost-of-living raises, the 8 hour day and 40 hour week, paid vacation and sick leave, child labor laws, weekends off, unemployment and health insurance, overtime and holiday pay, safety laws and protective equipment, laws protecting workers from harassment or abuse, sexual or otherwise, pensions and other retirement benefits.
If unions are finally done away with, everyone’s wages will plummet. Workers deserve the right to collectively bargain, and they deserve to be well paid. It is we who are the real job creators, not CEOs. It is we who create wealth. It is we who, if we have discretionary income, spend the money which creates more demand for goods, which creates more jobs. So on this Labor Day, let us remember all those brave ones who got their heads busted, all the people shot, all the burned and mangled bodies from unsafe workplaces. All that ground gained has been lost, and we have to start all over again. We’d better get busy; we have a lot of work to do.
This week’s post is dedicated to the men & women of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), currently on strike from Verizon. Stay strong!