Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Omnia Vincit, Some of the Time

In the United States we are celebrating something called Labor Day. It is a holiday set aside to recognize the contributions that working people have made to the fabric of American society. It is also widely seen by the public here as being the official end of summer and another fantastic excuse to grab a case of beer and drink it as fast as possible.

The history of the holiday, as with most things American, is steeped in social conflict and outright violence. According to Wikipedia the most probable originator of the idea was a guy named, Matthew Maguire, who in 1882 was a machinist and secretary of the Central Labor Union. He proposed that the first Monday of every September be set aside to honor labor's accomplishments, both economic and social in the United States. Once again, according to Wikipedia, Oregon was the first state to institute the holiday in 1887. By 1894 twenty nine other states had followed suit.

Then things got dicey. In Illinois there was a man named George Pullman. He owned an outfit with the grandiose name, The Pullman Palace Car Co. The company manufactured luxury passenger train cars with a revolutionary sleeping berth arrangement. Pullman also owned the "town" of Pullman where most of the company's workers lived. You didn't own a home in Pullman, you rented one from the company and you bought food, clothing, and other goods from stores which were also owned by Pullman. In 1894 Pullman began a series of layoffs and wage reductions, but refused to lower the rent being charged to his laborers. A wildcat strike was called and the situation quickly became deadly.

Before it was over army troops and the U.S. marshal service were called in and at least thirty strikers were gunned down by the authorities. The shit hit the fan immediately. What began as a local strike suddenly went national, fouling up train service to practically everywhere west of Lake Michigan. The transportation disruption and the deaths of the strikers caused a national uproar. A queasy Grover Cleveland, then president of these United States, desperately wanted to make peace with the growing and increasingly angry labor movement. A mere six days after the Pullman strike ended congress unanimously passed an act calling for a national holiday to be designated as Labor Day.

The boys on the hill and the president, however, wanted to make sure the American version of Labor Day would not be associated with International Labor Day, May first. May Day was being co-opted by a new and growing political movement known as communism. It commemorated a worker's demonstration in Chicago calling for an eight hour work day which had degenerated into a riot with not just a few casualties. So they went with the original idea by Matthew Maguire, the one that was all ready in place in thirty states, the first Monday in September.

Oh what a happy ending. Actually not really. Organized labor, which provided tens of millions of Americans with not only a decent living, but a step up the ladder into the actual middle class has in the last half century plus become so vilified by the republican propaganda machine that it seems on its last legs. It has become the favorite whipping boy and girl of every non union hack who is jealous of their wages and benefits and blamed for practically everything gone wrong in the country.

Despite providing Americans with a five day work week, overtime pay, a minimum wage and company subsidized medical benefits, plus vacation time, this holiday, and that eight hour day, people are clamoring for its demise. In fact the quickest way to get your car window smashed in, other than having an Obama bumper sticker in Oklahoma, is to try to organize a union at any work place in the nation.

Not that it really matters anymore. If you do unionize a place, by some miracle, the owners will simply ship the jobs overseas in order to maximize their profits and not face the possibility of a worker's compensation law suit when someone gets their arm torn off by a piece of machinery. Yes, the management at Nike find child labor and sweat shops far more to their liking than having to pay some U.S. citizen enough to rent a decent apartment and buy more than raman noodles for dinner.

Right now there are plenty of people inside and out of the U.S. who claim that labor routinely wages class warfare against those who own and run the corporations. They are careful not to mention they've been doing exactly that ever since the organized labor movement began. Just ask the survivors of the Pullman strike, although it will have to be through a medium since there aren't any left alive. You can also ask any former Bridgestone-Firestone plant worker in OKC who watched his or her job shipped south of the Rio Grande. That move wasn't made because Bridgestone-Firestone was losing money, it was made so the corporation could make more profits by using cheaper labor who wouldn't squawk when they got screwed over.

The reality is, that thanks to the poo bahs who run the corporations, a vibrant and important segment of the middle class, the blue collar work force, has gone the way of the Dodo. The rest of the middle class is soon to follow. Because of people like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and the rest of their crowd the country is very quickly becoming either very wealthy, or very poor with no in between. When that dour scenario sets in for good the guys who run things will see a real case of class warfare, one with guns.

People like myself and others are routinely accused of being jealous of the rich. That is not the case. I have no problem with the rich per se. I do have problems with them trying to pay less in taxes than me, accepting government subsidies to expand their businesses, and continually fucking me and the rest of us poor schmucks either through labor practices, or price gouging. The rank and file worker didn't run the Enron scam, didn't drop untold billions in the stock market with bad investments and we certainly didn't ship any jobs to Bangladesh.

So enjoy the beer and kick back with some football. Just keep in mind that it isn't the arrogant assholes who run the factories, or own the corporations who make this country great. It is the people who work for them.

Labor omnia vincit. Well, some of the time anyway.


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