Saturday, August 31, 2019

How Unions Gave Us Labor Day

In praise of a movement battered and bruised but not down

JFK at Detroit Labor Day Parade, 1960 — Photo: Walter Reuther Library

I come from a union family and I married into one. My father-in-law sat in the 44-day sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, when General Motors refused to recognize union rights for workers.

When I was a little girl I remember standing in a long line with my dad so he could vote for a union contract after a strike. I remember the Labor Day parades along Woodward Avenue in Detroit — union members marching, thousands strong, the parades lasting for hours and hours. (Like the one above with JFK.)

Strikes were hard on our families. They knew, going in, there would be hardships — no end in sight, no money coming in — but the goal was for better wages, better conditions,and for a sense of dignity that every working person deserved.

I remember being scared because I saw my parents were scared. I remember feeling relief when the ordeal was over and even small concessions were considered wins.

America was strong when unions were strong. Over the years their clout has diminished and there is no doubt workers are the worse for it. Wages are down and so are protections. Dignity and a sense of purpose is long gone. We were building a country and we were proud of our efforts. Now we aren’t.

I’m a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO (NWU). I pay my union dues gladly, knowing as a freelancer they’ll have my back if I ever have a dispute I can’t handle. (Because that’s what unions do. They advocate for workers.)

The NWU works with publications on contracts for freelance writers, negotiating for reasonable rates and conditions. (This is their agreement with The Nation.) They issue press passes and provide legitimacy to writers who find themselves trying to navigate a system set up to take, and only rarely give.

In 2018 my union took on Ebony Magazine and won an $80,000 settlement for 45 freelancers who hadn’t been paid for their work. There’s little chance those writers would ever have seen money due them without the clout of a strong union behind them.

But just yesterday, news came that The Arizona Republic is getting tough on staffers who are looking into union representation. They’ve gone from assuring them they don’t need a union to threatening lawsuits over what they call “surveilling” other staff members in an effort to coerce them into joining. The workers say it isn’t true.

Gannett, their parent company, is notorious for working against unions, which nobody but me seems to consider odd: Newspapers, those bastions of free speech, keep working to muffle voices pushing for representation. But there it is. That’s where we are now.

Every year around Labor Day I grow nostalgic for those days when labor was strong and management had respect for them — if even reluctantly. I think about those early labor advocates and marvel at their efforts, when the prospect of good wages or protections or even dignity seemed foolish and misguided, considering the good will of the businesses who were kind enough to hire them. (I’m kidding.)

So in case you missed them, I give you some quotes I’ve shared over the years on Labor Day:
Labor is the great producer of wealth: it moves all other causes.
Congressman Daniel Webster, 4/2/1824
“The first thing is to raise hell,” says I. “That’s always the first thing to do when you’re faced with an injustice and you feel powerless. That’s what I do in my fight for the working class.”
 Mother Jones
With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in man, than the other association of men.
 Clarence Darrow, The Railroad Trainman, 1909
The history of America has been largely created by the deeds of its working people and their organizations. Nor has this contribution been confined to raising wages and bettering work conditions; it has been fundamental to almost every effort to extend and strengthen our democracy.
William Cahn, labor authority and historian
We insist that labor is entitled to as much respect as property. But our workers with hand and brain deserve more than respect for their labor. They deserve practical protection in the opportunity to use their labor at a return adequate to support them at a decent and constantly rising standard of living, and to accumulate a margin of security against the inevitable vicissitudes of life.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fireside chat, 1936
If I were a worker in a factory, the first thing I would do would be to join a union.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
The first thing a dictator does is abolish the free press. Next he abolishes the right of labor to go on strike. Strikes have been labor’s weapon of progress in the century of our industrial civilization. Where the strike has been abolished … labor is reduced to a state of medieval peonage, the standard of living lowered, the nation falls to subsistence level.
George Seldes, Freedom of the Press, 1935
The right to join a union of one’s choice is unquestioned today and is sanctioned and protected by law.
President Harry S. Truman
Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.
President Dwight Eisenhower
There’s s a direct relationship between the ballot box and the bread box, and what the union fights for and wins at the bargaining table can be taken away in the legislative halls.
Walter Reuther
In light of this fundamental structure of all work… in light of the fact that, labor and capital are indispensable in any social system … it is clear that even if it is because of production in any social system … it is clear that even if it is because of their work needs that people unite to secure their rights, their union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it.
Pope John Paul II
The history of the labor movements needs to be taught in every school in this land. America is a living testimonial to what free men and women, organized in free democratic trade unions can do to make a better life. … We ought to be proud of it!
Vice President Hubert Humphrey
Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours, and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor.
President John F. Kennedy, 1962
The AFL-CIO has done more good for more people than any (other) group in America in its legislative efforts. It doesn’t just try to do something about wages and hours for its own people. No group in the country works harder in the interests of everyone.
President Lyndon Johnson, 1965
Without a union, the people are always cheated, and they are so innocent. Cesar Chavez, United Farm Workers Union

Labor Day is an American holiday created by labor unions.  It became a national holiday in 1894, and since then it has been celebrated on the first Monday in September, without fail.   We celebrate the labor movement on Labor Day each year because working hard and playing by the rules (whose rules?) was not and never has been a ticket to success in America.  It took the labor movement to gather enough strength to make sure hard working, rules-playing workers got a fair shake in the workplace.

Click here for the history of Labor Day.

And I leave you with the song that says it all:

Happy Labor Day weekend.  Remember who we were when we were at our best.

(Cross-posted at Indelible Ink)

Friday, August 30, 2019

I didn’t Leave Bernie, He Left Me

How I can agree with Bernie Sanders’ ideas and still not want to vote for him.

Jim Young — Reuters

I’m a liberal and Bernie Sanders is a Democratic Socialist. Both of us have our roots in good old FDR blue collar pragmatism. I thought, way back in 2011, when I wrote glowingly about him, that if he ever decided to run for president I would be first in line to cheer him on.

I wrote:
Sen. Bernie Sanders, Independent from Vermont, held the senate floor for 90 minutes yesterday, talking directly to President Obama, pleading, cajoling, scolding — begging the president to take the lead on obvious things like lifting the poor and the downtrodden out of the depths, protecting them from any more grief, and demanding that the rich pay their fair share of U.S. taxes.

He was voicing everything I believed and he was one of the very few. I wanted to go on liking him. I wanted it so much I went on pretending I did long after I had grown squeamish about what I was seeing from him.

I wanted to believe his shouting and his finger-wagging was simply because he was that immersed in wanting to do the right thing, but his haughty smirk when his audience reacted to his many accusations seemed out of place for someone calling for solidarity. In time it became clear that his idea of doing the right thing was to build himself up by attacking any Democrat who wasn’t willing to go along.

He latched onto “corporate Democrats” and kept it up long after the 2016 primaries, when he should have joined the Dems in supporting not only Hillary Clinton but every Democrat working to get elected in every city, county, state, or federal battleground. He didn’t do that. He balked at everything, including handing the primary vote over to Hillary when it was clearly long past time. He talked up “revolution”, pushing his followers to stick with him long after the space between the primaries and the general election had closed behind him. He tolerated chaos from his own ranks when what we needed desperately was unity.

It comes down to this: Bernie is my first choice as revolutionary leader. As revolutionary leaders go, Bernie ranks right up there at the top. But if Bernie should win the presidency, his days as a radical revolutionary leader are over. He wouldn’t in a million years be able to accomplish as much as he might if he stays on the outside pressing for the goals he has outlined during his campaign…

 …A president has to be all things to all people. The leader of a revolution has to stay focused on the cause. Bernie, if he wins, won’t be able to do that and he’ll disappoint the people who are counting on him to make radical change. They’ll start a revolution without him, or in spite of him, or against him.
I haven’t changed my mind. Donald Trump may have shown us what the true Dark Side looks like when it gains ultimate power, but the Democratic presidential candidate can’t be a frothing revolutionary. Some would like to think we’ve moved that far to the left, but we haven’t. And we shouldn’t.

I’ve never been convinced that Democrats shine as a party when they move away from wanting to be allies to all Americans, and not just some Americans. We’re not the party of dividers. We’re at our best when we’re lifting each other up, not dragging each other down.
I submit that Barack Obama’s popularity stayed constant mainly because he refused to get down in the mud. He refused to attack his allies or to get vicious when he was going after his enemies. He understood the honor and the obligations of his office, and he’ll be remembered for that, long after Donald Trump disappears into the twilight.

I am a Democrat. I’ve been a Democrat for more than 60 years and I’ll never be anything else, no matter how frustrated or disappointed I am in my political family. There are ways of doing battle without digging in the dirt. I’ll always believe the Democrats must take the high road. It doesn’t make us weak, it makes us right.

We take the high road by showing what we’ve learned over the years — that we can and must help others while helping ourselves. We don’t see kindness as weakness. We can be revolutionaries without losing our way. Our eyes are on the prize and our prize is a country working toward the common good.

Bernie Sanders never became that Democrat. He relished the chaos in 2016 and did nothing to calm the waters. His talking points never became action. His talk of being a champion of women or people of color, for example, is still more fluff than substance.

His followers have built a long-lasting cult around him, and he’s using them again to rise to the top. I sincerely hoped he wouldn’t do that, but since he has, I’m out. I haven’t decided on a candidate yet — it’s much too early — but I do know Bernie Sanders won’t be my choice for the primaries. (If he wins the primaries, I’ll deal with it and support him. Because that’s what Democrats have to do.)

The defeat of Donald Trump is essential if we’re ever going to get those programs that both the left and the moderates agree need fixing. We can only defeat him if we work together. When Bernie shows signs of wanting to work together, I’ll come back and write a different story. But until then, this one will have to stand.

. . . 

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Why I Need to Be Here. And There. And Everywhere

The last time I wrote here was in April, when I announced I was leaving and probably wouldn't be back. Well, here I am. The truth is, I missed this place. I spent more than 10 years here, so it's hard not to come back to see how it's doing.  I come back often to read the stories in my "Necessary Voices" sidebar, and I sometimes grab an old story from my archives to revise for my Medium pages (See below). I love coming back here. It's like home, even though it's no longer my office.

I'm writing almost exclusively on Medium now, and it's pretty satisfying. I'm building a readership there, which is what every writer wants, and it's almost like having my own blog. Almost.

I've started my own Medium publication, Indelible Ink, and I'm editing and publishing stories by other writers, as well as my own.

I publish a periodic newsletter promoting those great writers who honor me by writing in my pub. It's here if you want to take a look.

The increased attention at Medium has given me the confidence to push further and start sending things out to paying venues again. I hadn't done that in years. (I'm working with an editor at Huffington Post this week on a non-political piece that requires some editing but will be published soon. I can't tell you how excited that little triumph makes me. It's really kind of pathetic. )

I don't write as much about politics, and that's by design. I  needed that break after so many years of trying to save us from ourselves without making even a tiny dent. When the realization hit, it hit hard--I was wasting my time, and nobody even noticed.

So, yes, I'm whining a bit, but I'll get over it. I can't see myself ever going back to a 24-hour-a-day concentration on Trump and the failings of America. But I have to say something. Terrible things are happening, and I can't avoid them. I know me. I just can't.

It feels good writing here again. I missed the old place. But I haven't left the neighborhood. I'm just up the street, so how about coming to visit me there?  I'll be back here now and then, just for old time's sake.