Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor in America: Those were the Days

Every year for the past two dozen or so, I've felt less and less like celebrating Labor Day and more and more like forgetting the whole damned thing.  It used to be that we actually set aside that day to acknowledge and pay tribute to our vast labor force.  We had parades and speeches and presentations all across the country, with union leaders sticking verbal pins in the Big Guys, and the Big Guys pretending not to notice as they got ready to hold their noses and gush over the workers who made their products and sold their products and fixed their products (and--it should be noted--bought their products).

Labor and management have always had a love-hate relationship but there was a window--a brief window in time--when nearly everybody was making money and spending money and for most Americans life was good.  Cheap goods were coming in from the slave-labor countries but we still  made enough to be self-sustaining and proud.

A chicken in every pot. 

"Made in America".

"Look for the Union Label".

Then came government-approved off-shoring and outsourcing, along with cheap labor and non-regulation, and suddenly the Big Guys saw gold in them thar hills and weren't even our pretend friends anymore. We stopped making things and became the poor step-satellite of industrialized nations like China, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Korea, Macau (I'm reading labels here in my house).

And now here we are, looking at another Labor Day and wondering how the hell we got ourselves into this fix, considering the rich history of the labor movement and what those people put themselves through in order to make life fair for all of us.  I'm glad they're not here to see this.  On the other hand, we could use their fierce commitment to us right about now:

Cesar Chavez - Si Se Pueda

There has never been a law at the state or national levels that has ever been enforced for farm workers and against growers: child labor, minimum wage and hour, occupational health and safety, agricultural labor relations.
Now will agribusiness protect farm workers from pesticides?
The agrichemical industry won't do it.
It's out to maximize profits. Using smaller amounts of safer chemicals more wisely is not in the interest of chemical companies and agribusiness groups like the Farm Bureau that have heavy financial stakes in maintaining pesticide use.
There is nothing is wrong with pesticides, they claim; the blame rests with abuse and misuse of pesticides.
It's like the N.R.A. saying, 'guns don't kill people, people kill people.'
Universities won't do it.
America's colleges and universities are the best research facilities in the world. But farm workers are of the wrong color; they don't speak the right language; and they're poor.
The University of California, and other land grant colleges spend millions of dollars developing agricultural mechanization and farm chemicals. Although we're all affected in the end, researchers won't deal with the inherent toxicity or chronic effects of their creations.
Protecting farm workers and consumers is not their concern.
Doctors won't do it.
Most physicians farm workers see won't even admit their patients' problems are caused by pesticides. They usually blame symptoms on skin rashes and heat stroke.
Doctors don't know much about pesticides; the signs and symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning are similar to other illnesses.
Doctors who work for growers or physicians with close ties to rural communities won't take a stand.
Two years ago in Tulare County, California 120 orange grove workers at LaBue ranch suffered the largest skin poisoning every reported. The grower had changed the formulation of a pesticide, Omite CR, to make it stick to the leaves better. It did.
It also stuck better to the workers. Later they discovered the reentry delay had to be extended from seven to 42 days.
After the poisoning, the company doctor said workers should just change clothes and return to work. When we demanded the workers be removed from exposure, the doctor replied, "Do you know how much that would cost?"
Workers endure skin irritations and rashes that none of us would tolerate. They continue to work because they desperately need the money. They don't complain out of fear of losing their jobs.
Farm workers aren't told when pesticides are used. They have no health insurance. They are cheated out of workers compensation benefits by disappearing labor contractors or foremen who intimidate people into not filing claims.
In the old days, miners would carry birds with them to warn against poison gas. Hopefully, the birds would die before the miners.
Farm workers are society's canaries.
Pacific Lutheran University
March 1989-Tacoma, Washington

As a nation, we need to work out a list of national priorities.  We need to sharpen our vision and we need to rededicate ourselves to the basic human and democratic values that we believe in, and we need to put first things first.  We need to overcome the serious deficit in education, which is denying millions of our children their rightful opportunity to maximum growth.  The American labor movement can be proud that it was among those who pioneered for free public education.  American labor shares the belief that every child made in the image of God is entitled to an educational opportunity that will facilitate the maximum intellectual, cultural and spiritual growth.  We need to wipe out our slums and build decent, wholesome neighborhoods.  We need to provide more adequate medical care available to all groups.  We need to improve social security so that our aged citizens can live out their lives with a fuller measure of security and dignity.  We need to provide all of our citizens, without regard to race, creed, or color, equal opportunity in every phase of our national life.  We need to develop more fully our natural resources so that continued neglect will not put in jeopardy the welfare of future generations.

Walter Reuther, Labor Day speech, September 1, 1958

No tin-hat brigade of goose-stepping vigilantes or bibble-babbling mob of blackguarding and corporation paid scoundrels will prevent the onward march of labor, or divert its purpose to play its natural and rational part in the development of the economic, political and social life of our nation.
Unionization, as opposed to communism, presupposes the relation of employment; it is based upon the wage system and it recognizes fully and unreservedly the institution of private property and the right to investment profit. It is upon the fuller development of collective bargaining, the wider expansion of the labor movement, the increased influence of labor in our national councils, that the perpetuity of our democratic institutions must largely depend.
The organized workers of America, free in their industrial life, conscious partners in production, secure in their homes and enjoying a decent standard of living, will prove the finest bulwark against the intrusion of alien doctrines of government

John L. Lewis
, United Mine Workers of America, Labor Day speech, 1937

Now, my boys, you are mine; we have fought together, we have hungered together, we have marched together, but I can see victory in the Heavens for you. I can see the hand above you guiding and inspiring you to move onward and upward. No white flag — we can not raise it; we must not raise it. We must redeem the world!
Go into our factories, see how the conditions are there, see how women are ground up for the merciless money pirates, see how many of the poor wretches go to work with crippled bodies.
I talked with a mother who had her small children working. She said to me, "Mother, they are not of age, but I had to say they were; I had to tell them they were of age so they could get a chance to help me to get something to eat." She said after they were there for a little while, "I have saved $40, the first I ever saw. I put that into a cow and we had some milk for the little ones." In all the years her husband had put in the earth digging out wealth, he never got a glimpse of $40 until he had to take his infant boys, that ought to go to school, and sacrifice them.
If there was no other reason that should stimulate every man and woman to fight this damnable system of commercial pirates. That alone should do it, my friends.

Mother Jones to striking W. Virginia coal miners, 8/15/1912


We want eight hours and nothing less. We have been accused of being selfish, and it has been said that we will want more; that last year we got an advance of ten cents and now we want more. We do want more. You will find that a man generally wants more. Go and ask a tramp what he wants, and if he doesn’t want a drink he will want a good, square meal. You ask a workingman, who is getting two dollars a day, and he will say that he wants ten cents more. Ask a man who gets five dollars a day and he will want fifty cents more. The man who receives five thousand dollars a year wants six thousand a year, and the man who owns eight or nine hundred thousand dollars will want a hundred thousand dollars more to make it a million, while the man who has his millions will want everything he can lay his hands on and then raise his voice against the poor devil who wants ten cents more a day. We live in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In the age of electricity and steam that has produced wealth a hundred fold, we insist that it has been brought about by the intelligence and energy of the workingmen, and while we find that it is now easier to produce it is harder to live. We do want more, and when it becomes more, we shall still want more. And we shall never cease to demand more until we have received the results of our labor.

Samuel Gompers, Address to workers, Louisville, KY 1890

President Obama talked about the needs of workers and the declining middle class in his Weekly Address.  If he lets us down this time, I'm going to go out and find me my own bibble-babbling mob and take action.

And maybe I missed it, but whatever happened to the Employee Free Choice Act?

(Oh, and did you catch "Sunday Morning" on CBS yesterday?  Did you see their tribute to Labor?  It was about German workers in a BMW factory.  Management came up with the idea to put older, more experienced workers in one section on one shift and let them come up with ways to improve productivity.  At their suggestion the company put in wooden floors, gave them more comfortable shoes, gave them hairdressers chairs to sit in, increased the size of the computer fonts, and fixed up places for them to stretch.  Over time productivity went up 7%, absenteeism went down, and the assembly line defect rate was non-existent.  Damned Socialists. . .)

Enjoy our day. Keep the light shining.  Solidarity.



  1. A number of posts ago, I gave you a link to an economist's article on why things were better overall (and especially for working people) when the exceedingly wealthy paid significantly higher taxes. The nut of it was that they then availed themselves of the deductions they could get by reinvesting and paying workers.

    Sadly, I think our society has become too corrupted now, too many at the top are far too seduced by large donors for the expensive media campaigns. I don't think we're going to be able to reclaim the era of a non-stratified, non-polarized society.

    For the most part, we don't make things here any longer. And it's not that we can't make things and make money doing it, it's that the investment circles can make more money by offshoring things.

    That's the dirty little secret. Companies aren't being killed off because they're not profitable. They're being killed off because they're not profitable enough.

    And the right has found ways to persuade even many working people that their interests are best served by voting against their interests. (Of course, as we know, the left was largely complicit in this when it chose to dismiss labor as a bunch of retrograde racists back in the 1970's, and we're still paying that price.)

    So...what to do?

    I have no answers, none that are simple or straightforward anyway. It's all I can do to come up with the questions I raise.

    I did have the joy of engineering an AFL-CIO Building Trades event recently, and Richard Trumka was the keynote speaker. Several more of him at the forefront might be a good start...

  2. Well said. I feel your frustration. Some day maybe people won't go into a tizzy when the word "socialism" is brought up.

  3. I so agree with Alan. It is not enough just to be profitable anymore. Companies have to have soaring profits or it's no good. We see it everywhere, in every corporate sector. And the additional profits come from bilking the laborers, or getting cheap labor by outsourcing, or reducing healthcare, or not paying their fair share of taxes. Greed is our dirty little secret. But it's not even dirty, and it sure as hell isn't a secret anymore.
    The president says he doesn't know what else to do to get people working. He's tried everything and nothing works. That's because the Captains of Industry, corporate leaders favor the Repubs and want President Obama to fail. So they are taking their profits and sitting on them. They are not investing in jobs, increasing business, starter companies, real estate market, anything. They are just holding onto the money and waiting for him to fail so they can get another Repub in to give them the keys to the treasury again.
    And once that happens, I hope these bible-thumping, anti-spending-unless spent on corporate profits, teabaggers better start yelling at their Conservative spenders. Repubs have always way overspent. They just blame the Liberals on it. We spend too much on our "agenda". Just so happens our agenda is to help our nation be great, not just to help our wealthiest 2% get even wealthier.
    Ugh. It makes me sick.
    Happy Labor Day, Ramona. For what it's worth, I hear you. and you, too Allan. I hear you loud and clear.

  4. Alan, I thought I answered you but it's not appearing, so. . .

    I agree that the dirty little secret is outsourcing--or so it seems given the little attention it gets from the media. Good paying American jobs have left these shores by the millions and once the Big Guys got a taste of the really obscenely obscene profits, there's no going back. They're not sharing, even with other Americans.

    We don't make anything anymore and it would take an effort the size of gearing up for WWII to rebuild and retool in order to get factories up and running again. I wish I could say the powers-that-be will react with that same kind of urgency but I don't see it happening.

    But how those guys can hornswoggle nearly half the voting population into believing that the rich and powerful will do the right thing--after all the evidence before them--well, it's just baffling.

    I don't have any answers either. But that never stopped me from looking for them. It's not just a game of hide-and-seek. This is serious now. We have to do something, and do it fast. I heard Obama today, and he actually sounded like he finally gets it. We'll see.

  5. Thanks, AT, and welcome. Nice to see you here. Frustration doesn't even begin to describe it. If I could just understand what's happening, then maybe I could settle down and get a little rockin' in.

    (Nah. . .)

  6. Hey Stan, greed is just so obviously the problem but lucky for them we can't make laws against it. Nothing stopping them from taking our jobs elsewhere but I don't have to call them Americans. They're not, but they're still reaping the benefits.

    They feel no moral obligation toward the people of this country, and they know we can't legislate that, either.

    What we can do is yell and scream--just like those union rabble-rousers above--and if enough of us do it somebody will have to listen.

    You can't shame them, you just have to force them to give up their booty and share. That's what Obama and the cowardly Dems are afraid to do, and that's why we're still in this mess.

  7. Love your post. I know nothing on the labor movement. So I feel at lost in all of this.

    I am not even considered american, by some standards, but I love your voice.

  8. Lelo, I have read your comments and you're every bit an American. You're interested and concerned about what happens in this country, and, like the rest of us, you're wanting to do what you can to make it a better place. We can't ask for any more than that.

    I'm honored that you take the time to read what I write. Thank you so much.

  9. This is one of the best commentaries on Labor I have ever read and the issues stay and continue. What we need is that edge to the curve that can move this center stage and either by Legislation or Rules of Order, but something needs to be done. The Voices are out there and those in power need to listen. Even the Kings had their Day in Court...Well done Ramona, well done. Nedra

  10. That's the dirty little secret. Companies aren't being killed off because they're not profitable. They're being killed off because they're not profitable enough.

    That is precisely it. When the new owners got RCA and GE and Westinghouse and all the rest they were interested in one thing. Bigger and bigger profits and when the company or part of it did not give them this, off it went to the trash heap.

  11. I just happened to stumble upon your blog while doing research for a class assignment. Bravo. Sometimes it seems as though everyone has lost their mind. Where were all these angry, rabble-rousing teabaggers eight years ago?!
    An unpaid for war?
    No problem!
    Tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy in the midst of a war?
    Sure thing!
    They don't care if their country fails, as long as Obama goes down with it. They have a point to prove after all...

  12. Hi Rebecca, and welcome. Your last two sentences are chillingly accurate. It's all about taking down this administration. If you ask those angry people what the plan is to reconstruct the country and get us back on our feet, they draw a blank. That's because there IS no plan. They stupidly follow the "status-quo, take our country back" message, not realizing they're playing right into the hands of the corporate-bloated Chamber of Commerce.

    We have to stop them and there isn't much time. I'm getting nervous.


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