As we celebrate Labor Day, we honor the men and women who fought tirelessly for workers' rights, which are so critical to our strong and successful labor force.
-- Elizabeth Esty
Happy Labor Day.
Our Country is doing better than ever before with unemployment setting record lows.
The U.S. has tremendous upside potential as we go about fixing some of the worst Trade Deals ever made by any country in the world.
Big progress being made.
That’s what the President of the United States said. “Happy Labor Day! Our country is doing better than ever before with unemployment setting record lows. The U.S. has tremendous upside potential as we go about fixing some of the worst Trade Deals ever made by any country in the world. Big progress being made!”
I guess that would depend on how you define progress, wouldn’t it?
I guess that would depend on how you define “better.”
Donald Trump has absolutely no idea what Labor Day actually is or what it’s supposed to celebrate.
He literally has no idea at all.
The worker in America is doing better than ever before.
Define “big progress being made.”
It matters, those definitions.
But we’ll come back to that.
This isn’t Business Day.
This isn’t CEO Day.
This isn’t Stockholder Day.
This isn’t Trade Deal Day or Gross Domestic Product Day or Wall Street Day.
It’s Labor Day.
And it’s Labor Day for a reason. It’s Labor Day, it’s about labor, it’s about the American worker, it’s about history, because a century ago, those who labored in this country lived radically different, and far worse, lives.
In 1918, the United States was in the middle of the Second Industrial Revolution.
It was a time of war, and wonder, and ever advancing technology.
It began with steel, the Bessemer process to be specific, a cheap and easy way to mass produce strong and reasonably lightweight metals. Strong lightweight steel was the skeleton of the modern age, the core of everything from the new cars to steamships and oil rigs to utensils and lunchboxes, to the machines that manufactured the future. A few years before, in 1911, a tall skinny fellow by the name of Eugene Ely landed a Curtiss #2 Pusher on the deck of USS Pennsylvania and took off again – and thus was born naval aviation, a profound moment that would change the very way wars were fought and thus change almost everything else too and the effects of which are still being felt to this very day. Steel built those ships, the industrial revolution built those airplanes, labor built that mighty military.
If you were moderately wealthy, you could buy a Cadillac with an electric starter.
If you weren’t, you could still maybe afford a Model T. Despite the fact that there were still plenty of horses out there on the roads, the car had become so ubiquitous and affordable that Michigan created the first modern roads when the state started painting white lines down the middle of the more heavily traveled avenues.
Though many factories were still powered by steam, electricity was no longer a novelty. The first modern public elevator began operation in London, England, and soon became common everywhere – leading directly to the modern city skyline. America was booming. Her factories were churning out new products at a record pace. The western frontier had all but disappeared – oh, there were still a few bandits and cattle rustlers out there, but the wild woolly west was long gone. The gold rushes, the boom towns and gun fights were long over. Hell, by 1915 Wyatt Earp was living in Hollywood and working as a consultant for the new movie industry.
It was certainly a marvelous time.
If you could afford it.
If you lived through it.
See, those churning factories were horrible places.
In 1918, most were still powered by a massive central steam engine which drove an enormous flywheel, which in turn powered shafts and belts and pulleys, which finally powered the machines. And though, as noted above, electricity was becoming increasingly common, most of those factories were dark and poorly lit – typically illumination was sunlight through skylights and banks of single pane glazed windows. Often boiling hellholes in the summer and freezing dungeons in the winter – both air conditioning and central heating were still decades away and all those single pane windows didn’t do much to keep out either the cold or the heat. Those factories were filled with smoke and poisonous fumes from the various manufacturing processes, lead vapor, heavy metals, acids, chlorine, bleaches, all were common. Normal working hours were from dawn to dusk, typically anywhere from twelve to fourteen hours a day, sixty and seventy hours per week for wages that would barely pay the rent and put food on a factory worker’s table.
Child labor was common, especially in the textile industry, though in some states there were supposed to be laws regulating it. The kids toiled right alongside their parents. The children typically worked the same hours as adults, but for a quarter, or less, of the pay. Pictures of the time show children working barefoot among the machines, ragged sleeves flapping near the flying belts and spinning pulleys. Whole families hired out to the factories, the men doing the heavy labor, the women and children doing the more delicate tasks.
Towns sprang up around the mills, often controlled by the factory owners. Company towns, where workers very often became little more than indentured servants. Though life in a company town was often better than the alternative on the streets of places like Hell’s Kitchen or out in the hellishly hot cotton and peanut fields of the South. Company towns gave workers a higher standard of living than they would otherwise be able to afford. But the running joke was that while your soul might belong to God, your ass belonged to the company. Mill towns and mining towns and factory towns and logging towns were common across America, places where the company owned everything from your house to your job to the church you prayed in to the store you bought your food from. And prices were whatever made the company the most profit and in many places there were laws that prevented you from renting or buying outside the company town. The company might pay you a decent wage for the time, but they got a lot of it back too. Get crosswise of the company and you lost it all. Get injured on the job and could no longer work, and you lost it all. Get sick, and you could lose it all. Get killed, and your family was out on the street. There was no workman’s comp. No insurance. No retirement but what you managed to save – and since you probably owed a significant debt to the company store, your savings were unlikely to go very far.
Of course, you could always take a pass on factory work and return to the land.
In 1918, millions of Americans were farmers. Farming was hard backbreaking work (it still is, just in a different way) – so hard that seventy hours a week in a smoke filled factory with a high probability of getting maimed or killed looked pretty good in comparison. Most of those farmers, especially in the South, didn’t own their fields. They were sharecroppers, living in conditions little better than slavery or the serfdom of the Dark Ages. Of the small farmers who did own their own land or rather owed the bank for their own land, more than half lived in abject poverty. In the coming decade, the decade of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, most would lose everything.
Most of America was powered by coal in those days and if there was anything that would make life in a factory town or in the sweltering fields look good, it was working in a West Virginia coal mining town. It was a race to see what would kill you first, explosion, cave-in, or the black lung. And just like in the fields and factories, children worked alongside their parents – if they had parents, orphanages were also common. And orphan labor was even cheaper than the average child laborer, both in life and in pay. Renting out orphan labor was a good gig, if you could get it.
In September of 1918, Americans were fighting in the trenches of France and Belgium. Europe was engulfed in the first world war and America had finally joined them. Things were winding down, but it would go on for another two months. You could join up, be a soldier, there was still time to go fight and die in a foreign land.
You could always become a merchant seaman, though life at sea was damned rough.
You could move west and become a logger, though you’d probably live longer in the mines of West Virginia or on the battlefields of Europe.
You could still be a cowboy, or a cop, or carpenter, none which paid worth a good Goddamn, or offered any benefits, or much in the way of a future.
Since people got sick and injured a lot, and most couldn’t afford even rudimentary medical care, many turned to patent medicines. The pharmaceutical industry was only loosely regulated, but by 1918 there were some few laws in a handful of states regulating the more outrageous claims for the various elixirs. The big medicine shows were gone, but there were still plenty of drug store shelves stocked with hundreds of varieties of patent medicines. Some were mostly benign, like Coca-Cola. And some were downright toxic, like Radithor, made from water and radioactive radium. As late as 1917, The Rattlesnake King, Clark Stanley, was still making Stanley’s Snake Oil, a worthless mixture of mineral oil, turpentine, and red pepper, and fleecing sick people out of their money and making them yet sicker (hell, as late as the 1960’s TV’s commercials touted the benefits of smoking for sore throats. And, as late as 1970 there were still X-ray foot measuring devices that would give you cancer, in use in a handful of shoe stores across America).
In 1918, only a few states mandated that your kids attend school, and then only through elementary.
In the South segregation and Jim Crow Laws were in full force and civil rights were decades away. Lynching was as common as sharecropping.
Women could actually vote in six states.
In 1918, maybe three out of ten Americans could ever expect to own a home, most would pay a landlord their whole lives. Middleclass suburbia was a generation and another War World away. Few had any rights in those relationships either, you paid the owner and you lived with what you got or you got thrown out.
In 1918, a lot of Americans were hungry. More than fifty percent of seniors lived in poverty, but then the average lifespan was only about fifty-five, maybe sixty if you hadn’t been breathing coal dust or lead vapor all your life. Few of those seniors had pensions, most lived on the charity of their families – if they were lucky enough to have families. Sanatoriums were a common place for the aged and infirm to spend their brief final years, stacked like cordwood, forgotten, warehoused.
In 1918, if you had ten kids, you might expect six of them to survive to adulthood. If you were lucky. Polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, pneumonia, whooping cough, hard labor in the mines and factories and fields, lack of social safety nets, lack of proper nutrition, lead paint, food poisoning, poverty, orphaned by parents killed by the same, would probably claim at least four of those kids. Likely more.
Ironically, people from that generation always wax nostalgic for The Good Old Days.
And then they immediately proceed to tell you why life was so much harder and more miserable back then.
The simple truth of the matter is nowadays we Americans live a pretty damned good life. And we live that good life because since 1918 we’ve put systems and laws and regulations in place to improve life for all of us. Programs like Social Security and Medicare have a direct and measurable effect on how long we live, and how well. Regulations governing working conditions and workplace safety have a direct and measurable effect on the probability that we’ll survive to retirement. Laws that prevent the rich from owning a whole town, or abusing workers, or turning them into indentured servants, or hiring children at pauper’s wages to maintain the machines in their bare feet, have directly benefitted all but the most greedy few.
And those systems were put in place because labor fought for them, sometimes, often, at the cost of their very lives.
It is a measure of just how far we’ve come, and just how big an impact that those laws, regulations, and social safety programs have had, that those who directly benefit the most can complain with full bellies just how terrible they have it.
It is a measure of how far we’ve come, and the danger of complacency, that those who don’t remember that history, who again work for less than a living wage, without benefit, without safety nets, without recourse, have been convinced by the wealthy, by business, by politicians, that they don’t need them.
Things like a 40 hour work week, Social Security, Medicare, Workman’s Compensation Insurance, The Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance, child labor laws, federal minimum wage, occupational health and safety standards, the Environmental Protection Agency, The Centers for Disease Control, The departments of Education and Health, Labor Unions and workers’ rights, and yes, even Welfare, all of these things were created for a reason. For a good reason. For compelling reasons.
But if you don’t remember history, then you’ll never know those reasons.
And you will be ever at the mercy of the powerful and greedy.
That’s what this day is supposed to be about.
Because, you see, these protections, those systems, those safety nets, they were created because when you leave it up to the church and charity to feed the hungry and clothe the poor and heal the sick, a hell of a lot of people go hungry and cold and ill.
It is really just that brutally simple.
These things were created because when you leave it up to charity and family to take care of old people, a hell of a lot of old people end up stacked like cordwood in institutions.
The moldering remnants of such places are all around us.
These things were put in place because when you leave it up to devoutly righteous people who go to church every Sunday to decide what is right and proper and moral, you end up with lynchings and segregation and Jim Crow. And that is a Goddamned fact.
These things were created because when you leave it up to people to save for their retirement or a rainy day or for accident and infirmity, a hell of a lot of them don’t, or can’t, or won’t.
These things were put in place because when you leave it solely up to the market to weed out poor products and fake medicine and unsafe machines, the market doesn’t, or can’t, or won't, and it’s perfectly happy to go right on killing people for profit.
These things were put in place because when you leave it up to industrialists and share holders to treat their workers with dignity and respect and to pay them a living wage for their hard work, you get indentured servitude. Every. Time. Every single time.
These things were put in place because when you leave it up to the factory owners to decide wages and safety and working hours, you get this:
When you leave it solely up to bankers and the factory owners and the industrialists and the politicians, well, Sir, then what happens is they end up owning it all and you get the privilege of paying them to eat out of their garbage can.
And for most of history, right up until very recently, that’s exactly how it was.
Lately there are a lot of folks who think they want to live in 1918, rather than in 2018.
And that is because they have forgotten, or never knew, the history of labor in this country.
And nowhere is this foolishness more evident than the White House. In the mindset that put this buffoon in the White House.
Happy Labor Day! Our country is doing better than ever before with unemployment setting record lows. The U.S. has tremendous upside potential as we go about fixing some of the worst Trade Deals ever made by any country in the world. Big progress being made!
On this Labor Day, Trump attacks labor and crows about profits.
This day isn’t about profit.
And there is far more to labor than employment.
The worker in America is doing better than ever before, that’s what Trump said this morning.
As I said above, it matters, those definitions.
It matters a great deal. It matters because there is an enormous difference in how the wealthy, in how a guy who was born rich and who has never labored a single day in his privileged life, defines “better” and “big progress” and how somebody who works 60 hours a week on the line without a living wage, without healthcare, without benefits, with a paycheck that has stayed flat for the last three decades while CEO salaries have increased more than 900% defines “better” and “big progress.”
Better, progress, those words are defined very, very differently by those who live in the manor house and to those who labor in the fields.
Trump has no idea what this day is about and he is utterly ignorant the history which led to it.
Why would he?
Why would Donald J. Trump know that history?
For him, for those like him, it’s right there in his own words, money, profit, business. That’s all that matters.
But this day was created to remind America of its history, to remember the security and safeties put in place – often at very, very high cost – specifically to protect labor from business, from unfettered greed, from the wealthy.
From those exactly like Donald Trump.
My grandfather once told me there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to be in the first group; there was much less competition.
-- Indira Gandhi
Excellent! Thank you.ReplyDelete
"And, as late as 1970 there were still X-ray foot measuring devices that would give you cancer, in use in a handful of shoe stores across America)."ReplyDelete
Up to the early 60s (spring 61 was the last time I saw it) the Field Museum in Chicago had a foot X-Ray machine so you could compare your feet to those of a mummy.
Dead on target. The old days a century ago were hell for the working classes, great for the well-off. Peasantry vs the new middle class and the filthy rich and the robber barons. Since Trump fits every definition of a robber baron, he's determined that whatever enriches him is the best for the nation. He's the first total ignoramus president, and hopefully he'll be the last.ReplyDelete
Thank you for posting this, Jim.ReplyDelete
I remember Grandma and Grandpa Bacon telling me of the struggles they faced to organize the Steelworkers Union in Ambridge and Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. They were beaten and shed their blood during the organizing drives as the private Coal and Iron Police threw every obstacle in the way of their organizing. They didn't give up because they had nothing left to lose.
They won. And it breaks my heart to see what they fought to establish withering away.
I in my last job finally had a union. I joined and paid my dues. It was like night and day compared to the unionless shops I wasted my time with. Only problem was co-workers who did not want to pay union dues and were vocal about how stupid we were to waste good money. One day two non-union workers messed up and got fired. They asked for and got union assistance, and were reinstated. I lit into the union rep. for assisting them. He said they needed the work, and he just couldn't desert them. I replied they were scab laborers always badmouthing the union. I asked why I should dues if the union worked for members and non members. Maybe I'm wrong in my thinking, but unions are in a war with management, and I am a warrior.Delete
Spot on and expressed far more eloquently than I ever could, as usual. I hope that even a few of the people that really _need_ to read this, do. For the rest of us, more ammo in the seemingly unending argument with the people in our lives who won't read this, even though they need to.ReplyDelete
I think that not only is this government ignorant of what Labor Day means, it's actively working to return today's workers to the world the workers of previous generations fought so hard to escape. Too many of 45's supporters are so hypnotized by the rhetoric of the the government's Front Man that they don't notice his lackeys are stealing from them, their children, those who fought for them, and their elderly.ReplyDelete
Yes to Donald J.Trump things are better. To the rest of those that worked hard to pay into their Social Security and for medicare, not so great.Trump and the GOP have already made it clear they want these programs destroyed.ReplyDelete
Thus the GOP plan will be to roll back all that labor has gained and pay yet more to the CEO's. Stacked up elderly bodies bury them, these bodies can be used by industry just toss them into processing plant for waver production for food for the masses of poor for food. Now this is the real GOP dream for taking care of all those bodies. A real win/Win bodies gone food for the masses of poor and profits from it to boot!
Science Fiction buffs will catch the "Soylent Green" bodies reference, but see how well it would fit with the GOP plan.
Beware all the ones wanting to push things back to 1918 are controlling Congress right now and the White House as well.
I think, or at least HOPE, that this time, if they try to throw us back 100 years, THEY will be the ones stacked up like cordwood...Delete
Thank you, Jim. This is an elegant exposition of what the Labor Movement is for, it reminds us why we need to reestablish strong unions in the US. Thank you, again.ReplyDelete
Jim, I recently visited a friend in rural Michigan and we drove past "Poor Farm Road." Yes, there really had been a poor farm someplace along that road, and yes, people — many elderly and infirm without family near by (or at all) — preferred to die than to go to the poor farm. Why? Because that Michigan county, as with pretty much every other county in the country before Social Security, would "sell" the rights to operate a poor farm to the lowest bidder. That nearly always meant shitty food, forced labor, neglect, loneliness, cruelty, and abuse. There are lots of churches in this same county, most of which were established even before the poor farm was. But their congregants could barely keep their own bodies and souls together, let alone take care of other poor people. It was a terrible system and this was not — I repeat, not — something I was taught in U.S. History back in the 1970s. But it should have been, and certainly should be now. Thanks for the good reminder.ReplyDelete
Fools don't realize this is what MAGA is all about .ReplyDelete
As always, Jim, you bring thought provoking, well written prose for me to absorb, ponder, and share. To quote Bernie Taupin (Elton John's lyricist for those who are much younger than I), "I thank the Lord there are people out there like you."ReplyDelete
Too many, including veterans, don't realize the danger our democracy faces now. How they can be so willfully blind is beyond my understanding. I am related to many (to my sorrow) and have found this to be true of many of my neighbors, fellow veterans, and life long friends. Their fear of "the other" overrides their concern for the well being of themselves, the planet, and others who have been helped by unions and progressive activists.
“To the privileged, equality feels like oppression.” - Unknown
"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. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." Lincoln's First Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1861Delete
Interesting quote as Robert Todd Lincoln became a lawyer for, then a board member of the Pullman Palace Car Company and fought against labor. And this, ironically, became the eventual cause for the first labor union (which I'm sure Robert hated).Delete
Very well written.It is very sad that the far right laborers think that the unregulated work era is the "good ol days". I am actually going to labor today, because money of course. Plus a storm is coming and I don't know how it may affect my work schedule. They will have to close up the ships in the water still under construction, the outside cranes will not be operated in the high wind, and then there is the water and I work on Pinto Island. So I must be resigned to possibly losing a day of pay. So we must labor on even on a day meant to recognize labor.ReplyDelete
I grew up in a union household (UAW) and am currently a member of a union (UFCW Local 700) and am glad for it. Our household was better because of the wages my dad earned, the vacation he was afforded and healthcare we received. All because of the union.ReplyDelete
I wish everyone saw unions the same way I do. Our nation would be much better for it.
Happy Labor Day everyone!
In the shadow of PNC Park in Pittsburgh stands a historical marker for the women textile workers who went on strike in the 1840s, almost 20 years before the Civil War, over 12-hour days and child labor. And let’s not forget who picked the cotton they processed, and their pay and working conditions. Of all the labor history sites in industrial Pittsburgh, and there are dozens, I think that one stands out: Women workers, no unions for two generations to come, wildcat striking more than once, to force the state to implement regulations.ReplyDelete
Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. 146 dead; locked doors, no fire escapes, no sprinklers, flammable cotton cloth: a tragedy in the making. 25 March 1911. It changed everything.Delete
“They didn't give up because they had nothing left to lose.“ A most telling statement. I fear we are approaching this point again today.ReplyDelete
This is so dead on target. The Robber Barons - like Mr. Bumble - don't give a flying rip about those who LABOR, except as the commodity OF their labor.ReplyDelete
Amazing how soon history is forgotten. Or rewritten.ReplyDelete
Outstanding essay. Too many people think Labor Day is just the last Summer weekend.ReplyDelete
Thank you Jim for passion and hard work you put in to this essay.ReplyDelete
This is the history and these are the facts we can't forget.
There is much talk on the right of the "dignity of work" and those without jobs are portrayed as lazy, as parasitic. What is ignored is how much of labor is soul killing. Just exercises in toil and precious time spent in tasks of no inherent reward or value. There will never be a time when all work is rewarding but making people voiceless cogs in the machine is abhorrent. Compensation that makes life outside of work as enjoyable as possible is the least society can do.
I've recently learned that my grandfathers participation in unions left him blacklisted by the railroads. That the railroads would hire him when they were short handed but drop him at the first opportunity. The hardships created by his on again, off again employment meant that for most of his life he and his family struggled to make ends meet. A condition with repercussions that have rippled for generations.
Because the railroad barons were vindictive. Because there was not one thing that incentivized them to share any portion of their wealth unless made to do so.
And I for one don't for a minute think this is a fiscal calculation. It may masquerade as one. They may call their profits capital that is necessary to grow the business, to make more jobs.
But I think it is simpler than that. Human nature is to an ordering of society. We create hierarchies, social strata of some sort. In its simplest form it is the strong man or big man, the “natural leader”. When this man convinces others that his progeny are inheritors of his position you have an aristocracy. And mythologies grow to support claims for the power and position of the aristocracy. They are the “rightful heirs”. They have something about them, something special, abilities, confidence something, something.
And their lessers owe the duty of their station. Their inheritance is deference. And work.
Deference is expected by the moneyed aristocrats of our capitalist utopia. In their minds they have demonstrated a superior ability which should be recognized, revered and deferred to. And this view is shared by many who do not share their fortune.
Because that is human nature. A genetic inheritance.
We are still looking for the big man.
It is past time to accept the old paradigm. To be guided by an ancient instinct.
The powerful will not willingly share power.
It is exactly the same for wealth.
In this society there is no line between.
It is class warfare. It is
The wealthy never cease in the battle.
Neither can the rest of us. And there are a hell of a lot more of us
My grandfather told me that at times he carried his union card as a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in secret, because if they found out he was a union electrician he would get fired and he had a family to feed. But he was a strong proponent of "Buy Union" and "A day's pay for a day's work!"ReplyDelete
Thank you for this, and for everything you write. I've shared this and I wish I could make everyone I know read it.ReplyDelete
My maternal grandfather died during a strike in Wichita, Kansas. He was crushed by falling debris. I don’t know the details, but because of his death, I read what I could find about the workers’ strikes and the formation of unions in the 1930’s. At that time, the local and federal governments were 100% on the employers’ side. It was a bloody affair with workers being clubbed and shot by law enforcement. I’ve lived through many government changes and long ago became a champion of unions. How many people know that unions gave us the 8 hour day,paid holidays and for many, early paid retirement? Don’t like unions? Then, you are a fool if you work for a living.ReplyDelete
With the addition of Trump's latest choice, the SC will definelty be on the side of the employer. Yes there is class warfare and the leisure class is determined to win.Delete
People who dislike unions - even union members who don't want to pay the dues - fail to appreciate that their pay, their benefits, their 40-hour work week all exist because of unions...ReplyDelete
Excellent essay as always. Now I need to find what Trump was on about regarding Richard Trumka's statements this weekend. I have to admit that I don't even know what the union leader said, and I feel ashamed for that.ReplyDelete
Nothing. Trumka failed to polish Trump's ego and disagree with his lies.Delete
Well stated chief! Drumph has no clue about the labor movement all he cares about is$$$$$s, and grinding people into the dirt.ReplyDelete
Don't go tearing down fences, until you know why they were put up. The rich WANT us to forget...ReplyDelete
As usual, Jim, nailed it 100%. Love your writing. Thanks for helping me stay sane in these times.
On point, as always. Thank you. One small correction, I think. You have written: "...another War World away." but I wonder if you meant: "... another World War away."ReplyDelete
I recently read North and South (1854, fiction, Elizabeth Gaskell), and Democracy in Chains (2017, nonfiction, Nancy MacLean). The first is a meatier love story than Jane Austen, however it's also one of the first novels to describe laborers of the time, and the first labor unions (in the UK), the social structure of a manufacturing town, and phonetic spelling of the patois. It's actually really great, describes a strike, describes the clear social demarcations, describes children working in the factories getting "fluff in me lungs."ReplyDelete
It also describes the mill owner's own proclivity for authoritarianism. For the business owner to rule in a town that didn't have a local m'lord.
The second book I finished more recently, and describes the ideas pushing legislation behind the scenes - and how little they've changed since slavery days. The idea of the property owner being the only one worthy of authority, dating back to when people were property. We see the results in private prisons - and the push to privatize everything meant to provide a service for public good. Education. Welfare. Social Security. They know they cannot win by popular consent, so they act in stealth.
This book, heavily researched and annotated, is far more frightening. And the ideas have not changed. Democracy for some, and fuck everyone else. Democracy for some, at the expense of everyone else. It really IS "Fuck you, I got mine."
A trumpinista relative claims that while conditions were indeed awful, the workers were glad for the jobs because they were still better thn what they had in their native countries. She completely ignores the various movement that brought us safe working condition, decent wages, reasonable work weeks, and employment benefits.ReplyDelete
A century ago, electricians had a 50% mortality rate on the job.ReplyDelete
Most commonly, it was by electrocution (as you'd expect), but falls and fire and explosions were also common results of electrical accidents. In the decades prior, a lot of this had to do with the fact that most power grids were using Edison's direct current generators, which couldn't adjust their power output to (more or less) match power draw. It was up to power plant managers to try to predict the grid's energy requirements, and if they guessed too high, you got fires, explosions, and electrocutions.
Furthermore, none of the safety systems we enjoy today were in use a century ago. You didn't have fuses and circuit breakers to cut power in the event of an overload. You didn't have system grounds to channel electricity to the earth in case of a short (that's the third prong on the bottom, and because I cannot emphasize this enough, DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES CLIP OR PULL OUT THAT PRONG. You do that, and the ground wire connection is permanently broken, even if you push it back in).
A lot of electrician's tools were sorely inadequate to the task of building and servicing electrical systems. Most of them were made of steel and had grips that did little to hinder the flow of electricity through to the user. Electricians worked in the clothes they had, which weren't at all flame retardant. They had only the most rudimentary diagnostic tools. Wires were commonly bare or sheathed in paper, and they all looked the same (it wasn't until the 1980s that wires had color-coded plastic sheathing). This made working with wires extremely hazardous - one of these two wires is connected directly to the power source, but I don't know which one is which...
Most importantly, though, they didn't have the procedures in place to make safer to do the job. The safest way to do electrical work is to cut the power first - something that power plant managers weren't keen on doing in 1918 since it meant shutting down the nearest generator and cutting power to everyone down the line, leaving a lot of customers without power and costing the electric company the money they would otherwise be making from them. Electricians often had to service live wires, and without ground wires, Faraday suits, flame retardant clothes, high-resistance gloves, hard hats and boots with hard toes (even then, they would remain steel-toed until recently, with the development of carbon-resin toes), color-coded wires, full-face masks, diagnostic tools, circuit breakers, and all the other things electricians use to keep themselves safe on the job, and it's no wonder that every day an electrician went to work it was even money whether he'd come back home that night. Even if an accident didn't kill him outright, it could easily leave him permanently disabled, and electricians didn't make nearly enough money to keep a nest egg in case this happened.
Electricians got these things because they got organized and fought for them - the likes of Edison weren't nearly benevolent enough to grant them without a fight. So, here we are a century later, electricians make good money, they get great health care and retirement plans, and they die a lot less frequently in accidents than they used to.
I'm in the process of joining the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 110, because I believe that unions have, overall, done us far more good than harm. If that makes me a union thug (wannabe), then I'll proudly claim that epithet.
My great uncle hand built his home in Colorado. I always loved visiting because the walls were papered with color photos cut from outdoor magazine and newspapers; very unique. The wiring for the house was the old tube and post style and ran on the inside of the room; where it was visible! I think that since electricity was so new it wasn't trusted and by being able to see the wires if there was trouble you could see it before it caused a fire.Delete
Thank you for this. Trump, and that other piece of garbage behind the curtain whispering in Trump's ear, Stephen Miller, are hellbent on reversing every damn thing in service to corporate profits. I live in a decidedly conservative city in Texas. The slavering over Trump and his policies is unbelievable. And, I recently felt the need to delete every single post in my FB timeline critical of him because I feared losing my job over them. It was that or unfriend my immediate supervisor. The current environment is straight up frightening.ReplyDelete
Never, ever add management to your Facebook friends, no matter how nice they seem.Delete
Excellent essay! Thank you.ReplyDelete
Thank you for your words! We all tend to forget what we owe those that came before. Thank you to those that put their lives on the line for my comfort and security! APWU local 555ReplyDelete
I remember in the early to late 50's my father, a factory worker in Detroit was on strike. Strike pay for a week was about $25.00. I was supposed to be sleeping, but I overheard my parents talking. They were used to "making do", but my mom put her forehead on the kitchen table and softly cried. (I was peeking.). How would they buy Christmas presents or even ingredients for fruitcakes and cookies or a Christmas tree. I told my brothers if all we got was underwear, we would jump up and down and pretend to be excited. Even then we had some idea how important the union was for our father's working conditions and pay. His father had been one of those sharecroppers you spoke of. They all worked so hard and so long. I later wrote a few speeches for some union people. It was hard for some of them to write, but I knew what was in their hearts, so I was honored to do it. I think of all of them and more on Labor Day, thankful for them always and for you, Jim telling the stories.ReplyDelete
"Another good read, Jim." says one Jim to another. I was reminded of the words of Eugene Debs, another angry man who, 101 years ago, used words well to give voice to his ire.ReplyDelete
"I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men."
Para after "Women could actually vote in six states." "War World" s/b "World War"ReplyDelete
This is now Labor Day reading for the kids. Thanks not only for gathering the history but comparing it to what passes as our Presidency.
In the 70's and 80's, shareholders became the most important stakeholders in a company. A perversion of management philosophy up to that point. However, I remember reading an article about how Steve Jobs created more wealth for his shareholders than any company in history, by--putting them last and elevating workers needs. Would that all CEOs and other company executives return to that management technique. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/09/09/how-the-cult-of-shareholder-value-wrecked-american-business/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.87fae661a1caReplyDelete
I remember learning about the progressive movement and organized labor in the aftermath of tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. I was 16 or 17, in high school still, but I made a decision at that point that any political affiliation I had would protect the lives of children and those who labored under horrible conditions. Later, I joined a Union, served as an officer, and worked to protect the rights of my colleagues. We educated each other about the fight to unionize, the sacrifices made by those who came before us so that we could have more than just the right to bargain, but also the enduring rights of safety, and security in old age or disability. These progressive principles informed my understanding of the basic right to make a living and have some dignity when I could no longer work. Then Janus came along this year.ReplyDelete
Your writing reminds us that Unions exist to protect us from greed and corruption. Yes, they’ve had their own troubles, but I owe my protections to those who fought for them before me. Thank you for articulate and well documented account. In the meantime, I remain Union Strong.
And meanwhile, Tammany Hall stands in place of the White House and Trump is become Boss Tweed, rubbing his fat, greedy hands in glee as the Dead Rabbits fight the Native Sons for scraps and politics. This political throwback has turned the nation into his own Five Points. Ah yes, the good old days.ReplyDelete
Excellent article. As usual, your writing is accurate and food for thought. I read often workers have no loyalty to the companies they work for but I think it's the other way around. The companies only care about the bottom line and whatever bodies it takes to make them a larger profit. Most don't care for the workers at all. If they can get rid of good workers and hire someone who will work for less, they'll go that route every time. Tribal knowledge is important to an organization and yet, I'm always amazed at how few see the value in this.ReplyDelete
Where my wife worked; privatized government agency dealing with abused children, due to her decade of seniority she was earning more than her boss. Upper man agreement wanted/tried to fire her on bogus grounds. Why?: they could hire 3 workers for what she was getting paid. It didn't matter that she did the work of 4, by putting in 60 and 70 hour weeks with NO overtime or comp time (or that a lot of meals couldn't be served hot because I NEVER knew what time she'd get home): or that she knew how to do jobs even the boss couldn't do. All they saw was the salary she was drawing, and we were still month to month our bills. Too much salary my skinny azz.Delete
As usual, succinct & eloquent. I always appreciate your take on things, Jim.ReplyDelete
My maternal grandfather LABORED in the Chrysler factory in Detroit, Michigan. He had to cut stacks of upholstery material via a saw blade on some sort of machine. They worked him like a pack of dogs. One day he was overly tired and should not have been at work but when you have a wife and children every penny counts. The blade took off the flesh on his inner left hand. The foreman came over, picked up the raw meat on the table, slapped it back on his hand and wrapped a not very clean handkerchief around it. No trip to the company clinic. No nurse, No doctor. And then he was told to get back to work. There were plenty of other people who wanted his job. All that in a factory with rotten ventilation and light and filth. That was definitely before unions. Happy Labor Day, gramps, wherever you ended up.ReplyDelete
Once again, Jim, thanks for the reminder!ReplyDelete
Thank you. Jim. People like me appreciate your words.ReplyDelete
This should be required reading for everyone in this country over 18. Jim is a great story teller. But, in this instance, this is NO story. It's the gospel truth, and everyone should heed its warning. If you don't then you are nothing but a big dumbbell like trump. No one would be more delighted than trump if conditions were again like they were in 1918. After reading this.........would YOU??? Wake the heck up, people.ReplyDelete
I’m in a union now. For the first time in my life. What I cannot understand is my fellow union members bitching about paying their fair share. They know none of the history of uions in this country and what they fought and died for. I’m printing this to pass out at work (if that’s ok with you). Thank you.ReplyDelete
"You load sixteen tons,ReplyDelete
and what do you get?
Another day older,
And deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don't you call me,
I can't go.
I owe my soul to the company store."
My mother (first generation eldest child of ethnic German immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire) was an RN and after graduation from nursing school in Akron, Ohio got a job as an industrial nurse at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. during WWII. Her first patient was a man who'd gotten his arm caught in a tire shredder. No terrible OSHA back then. Without thinking he tried to save it by grabbing it with his other arm. They brought him to her with both arms gone. And with no Workmen's Comp or medical insurance I suspect he spent the rest of his life relying on family, if he had any, or "charity". Maybe Goodyear was "good" and paid for some kind of artificial arms. Mom didn't say when she told me the story.ReplyDelete
I also remember the big strikes in the 1960s when the steelworkers or autoworkers could shut things down. The result was most likely the best pay and working conditions working men have ever had in this country.
What was the first thing ex union president (SAG) Ronald Reagan did? He fired the striking PATCO workers: and thus began the true decline of unions in this country; the Supremes haven't helped either. Jim look up 45's 2 choices for the high court: both have ruled for corporations over the worker. Both cases are truly egregious.Delete
Remember the song "Sixteen Tons"? "I owe my soul to the company store!" I am MUCH in favor of unions and labor over big business!ReplyDelete
Changing the subject just slightly -ReplyDelete
In all of those Union struggles just remember that the "Armed Citizens" that the Second Amendment people talk about were 99% on the side of the BOSSES
On the side of the Tyrants and not of the oppressed
Very well written and so true. I was a union member as a teacher and proud of it. I could give numerous examples of how unions improved my working conditions and my life. I am raising my 3 boys to work hard, respect others who work hard and speak truth to power. Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. Those are words it would do many to the right of me politically (which is just about everyone-I am a child of the '60s) well to remember and learn by.ReplyDelete
Thank you. Again. Were I a teacher, this would be the first assignment of the school year: Read this essay.ReplyDelete
A couple of typos:
- Second sentence, "Our Country is doing better ... " - lower case "c" for country.
- Paragraph beginning "You could still be a cowboy, or a cop, or carpenter" - "a" carpenter?
- Paragraph beginning "In 1918, maybe three out of ten Americans ... another War World away." - World War.
- Paragraph beginning "It is a measure of how far we've come, and the danger of complacency ... without benefit ... " - benefits?
- Paragraph beginning "Trump has no idea what this day is about and he is utterly ignorant the history ... " - "of" the history.
A much-needed and powerful reminder of what it's really all about. And correct that Donald Trump hasn't a clue about it. But unfortunately that is also true of virtually all American politicians, Democrats as well as Republicans. They are 99% against labor and against everything that the New Deal stood for and accomplished. What's needed is to turn ALL of those buggers out and re-set America; focusing upon the Donald alone (or the Republicans alone) is a fatal mistake. Whatever anyone may think of Bernie Sanders -- and he has plenty of flaws (one of which is believing that the neo-conservative, anti-labor Democratic Party can really be reformed) -- he is one of the very, very few who doesn't need Labor Day explained to him.ReplyDelete
Excellent essay, Jim. I am astounded that so many can ignore the history of labor. They reap the benefits while they cheer for ignoramuses like Trump and demean unions. I've worked in union jobs where fellow employees, who were not union members, derided the union daily saying how they were treated well by the employer and didn't need to waste $50 a month of their $5K salary on dues. I tried, without effect, to tell them the employer was not their best friend and would as soon feed them only scraps were it not for the unions. Very few came around, and then only after seeing some of their non-union co-workers fired without cause and unable to access union representation. My retirement is pretty sweet now. I'm still in what's considered lower middle class but it would look pretty bleak had I not had a union job. I despise cheapskate bosses. I've worked for them too. Sixty hours per week, no paid vacation or sick time, no overtime pay and unpaid vacations could only be taken during the school year. I'd probably be a Wobbly today if I was working still.ReplyDelete
People love aristocracies, as long as they get to be aristocrats.ReplyDelete
It is fascinating to me, that in the midst of a class war, the ruling (or, shall we say, the owning) class has managed to convince a large percentage of their natural adversaries that the real enemies are within their own class -- those of different race, gender, language, religion. The most successful con in US history, IMO.
I believe the word order in the following sentence got a little garbled:ReplyDelete
"Middleclass suburbia was a generation and another War World away."
Other than that, I have found your essay to be as incisive as ever. Excellent work.
A fascinating, perspective about horrible conditions in 1918, when Labor Day was established… that leaves out what the Greatest Generation – and their favorite living person, FDR – did about all the things that Jim describes. They reformed America and created the wealthiest, fairest, flattest, most productive, safest, healthiest and fastest-rising middle class nation the world ever saw – scientific and proud of it. And that “great” time for America truly was great – above all – because it was determined to be greater still, by (too-gradually/painfully, but steadily) spreading the fairness to those who were excluded before. To Irish and Jews. To women and minorities. To those born into poverty. To stop… wasting… talent.ReplyDelete
All of these things were achieved with “rooseveltean” interventions that weren’t anti-enterprise, they saved market enterprise, engendering huge rates of entrepreneurship. They were slightly-socialist… and saved the world from communism. They broke up monopolies… and saved competition. And shredding the Greatest Generation’s social contract has been the top goal of the rising oligarchy since 1980…
…leading to a stifling of competition, a rise in conniving among silver-spoon rentiers, skyrocketing wealth disparities and plummeting money velocity, where every Supply Side “reform” achieved exactly opposite results to every promise. In order to maintain this putsch, against such incredibly strong disproof, the oligarchy’s had to finance all-out war against every single fact-using profession. (Name one counter-example.)
Stealing insatiably and antagonizing all the folks who know stuff… this is supposed to end well for you lords who – despite your flatterers – don’t even know the meaning of the word “tumbrels”?
Oh, BTW I am at http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/
Excellent essay as we've come to expect. Companion piece would be John Gray's essay, "A Day in the Life of Joe Republican" where all the benefits we enjoy today are the result of those 'damn liberals' fighting for better conditions everywhere. I would argue the The Federal Reserve should NOT be included in your list, Jim. It is a private central bank that was created by, among others, J.P. Morgan in 1913 and not created with the best interests of the working class in mind. Best book on the subject is the rather lengthy and scholarly "The Creature from Jekyll Island" by Edward Griffin.ReplyDelete
I must disagree with some of what you say about the Federal Reserve. It was not created by J.P. Morgan, who died before Federal Reserve was established. To some extent, the Federal Reserve was created to replace J.P. Morgan, who acted as the lender of last resort during the panic of 1907. The Federal Reserve is a part of the Federal Government and is not a private central bank.Delete
That said, I agree that the Federal Reserve is not necessarily a friend of the working class.
"Trump has no idea what this day is about and he is utterly ignorant *of* the history which led to it."ReplyDelete
beyond that - yes, all of this. Obviously.
Children like to make money, too.ReplyDelete
Competition in the marketplace is a good thing. Nobody knows how much better conditions would be or would have been under a free market.
Just wonderin' what y'all do for a living.Delete
Taxes are what we pay because we like clean water, emergency services that come when we need them, and education for our children. I have come to the conclusion that union dues, if you are in a unionized profession, are what you pay so that you are not put involuntarily in danger by your job. They make sure your working conditions are humane. They ensure you are not required to put in 70 hours a week or get fired, that children have a chance to go to school rather than be forced to work as soon as they are able, that provisions are made should you get hurt, sick, or need time off. Taxes are the dues of society; union dues are contributions to decent employment.ReplyDelete
Excellent commentary, lucid thinking, as per usual...I would like to offer further ironic food for thought: the "How 'bout that game?' Go-to avoider-distractor chorus regarding the US economy is a total gross fabrication, as well. The glowing stats dutifully churned out by the sycophants manning cubicles has long been transformed into a propaganda device, and light years from anything remotely approaching accurate. The BLS is generating PURE tripe, and should in fact be known as simply the BS Dept. The roseate picture they churn out, month after month, is tailored to the Administration's demands. Let me put this another way: the real complete unemployment figure is over 20%, not the utter illusionary 3.9% LIE they broadcast, like clockwork; rely upon shadowstats for ACCURATE economy indices, not the Federal Govt. lackeys of the BLS, each with their marching orders and all in lockstep. Of course they are going to Big Brotherize these figures, first and foremost I say. And EVERYONE simply takes them for granted. All MSM sources dutifully regurgitate this mindmush every month, and it is insured that all small town local tv News chime in and repeat the Big Lie, as well. In fact, look no further for the textbook exemplar of 'fake news': it's this innocuous monthly report. And THIS is Trump's go-to ,---'how bout that economy?' Yes, indeed, pass your bowls ladies and gents, there's plenty of mindmush for everyone...ReplyDelete
Hello, Jim, I am new to this and if this particular point has been made, I am sorry for the redundancy. I want to thank you for this posting, I worked in the field of historical interpretation at living history sites and tried so hard to communicate these ideas to folks who viewed our history as some "romantic and simplistic" life. I told them "it was colder, darker, dirtier, riskier, completely unregulated and gave rise to every single comfort you have today." (A lot didn't want to hear it.) Case in point: The Triangle shirtwaist factory fire as a corollary to the Bangladesh fires in 2011. I watched this videoReplyDelete
(it's so well done; horrible but would give the average person perhaps a better awareness of the conditions in which their clothes are made and perhaps look at the relentless Pac-Man like consumerism that is so pervasive in this country). I am a scientist now (age 47) and was commenting to a colleague (age 22, grew up in a wealthy Republican household and knows it ALL)about this situation when she was discussing wages. "Would you work for $3.18/hour?" I asked. "Of course not," she replied. "anyone who would do that, or who will not better themselves, I have no respect for." And I told her about the wages of Bangladesh workers ($0.28/hour). Currently. Her reply, "They like making that. They are glad we employ them," My response, "they tried to get raises and were shot at." Anyway, you get the picture. Infuriating and I commend you and applaud you and think you are wonderful for taking this on...…….