As America gets ready to celebrate Labor Day, it is worth pausing a moment to remember what the holiday celebrates. We are commemorating the hard won rights of Labor – won at the cost of hardship, strife and, often enough, blood – from Capital and Government. We are remembering the hundreds of workers who died in order to secure what we take for granted: a 40-hour week, paid vacation, sick days, maternity leave, a minimum wage, health care and pensions. We are remembering the men, women, and children who midwifed the vast middle class of the 1940’s and ’50’s that made America the most powerful nation in history.
Today, organized labor is a dirty word. It is blamed for all of America’s ills: from bloated fiscal deficits and fluorinated water, to the demise of the passenger pigeon. Even as lower- and middle class wages have fallen as a share of total national wealth, labor has been blamed for the decline in competitiveness in American industries, including those that have no significant union presence. No effort is ever made to explain to Americans how countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden – with some of the most powerful labor unions in the world – have managed to maintain and increase their competitiveness and productivity. No effort is made to explain the correlation between weak or non-existent labor unions and the increase in poverty, income inequality, radicalization and authoritarianism.
A previous generation of Americans understood this link intimately. They saw the paternalistic alliance between authoritarian governments, conservative capitalists and semi-feudal landowners turn to the Fascist party in Italy and the National Socialist party in Germany as guarantors against the demands of organized labor, communists, socialists, Freemasons, Gypsies, Jews and any other undesirable element in society. This alliance unleashed the horrors of a merciless civil war in Spain rather than permit labor to share a roll in the government of their country. America, in the midst of the Great Depression, watched and learned the lesson.
Roosevelt’s Administration offered the New Deal: basic rights of labor to organize as part of a modern economy; a package of government reforms to guarantee a minimum safety net against the capriciousness of the market; and most importantly, the recognition that laborers were human beings – a much disputed proposition in Gilded Age America – equal before the law with capital, and with as significant a role to play in peace and in war as any industrialist.
Many workers today believe that the battle has been won; organized labor has outlived its usefulness. They have what they need, the comforts of a middle class lifestyle: unions are for slackers and strikers, malcontents who only contribute to the failure of industry. And there is undoubtedly a narrative of union power gone to far from the 1970’s and 1980’s, though it would be hard to prove that labor was exclusively the cause of the failure of any whole industry without the incompetence or connivance of management and shifts in the international terms of trade. It is even more difficult to argue that labor unions have ever provoked the widespread economic damage that the shenanigans of management in Enron, Countrywide or Lehman Brothers have caused. The vast LIBOR fraud and the crimes that have led to federal indictments of J.P. Morgan executives were not caused by labor organizations. It seems self-evident that unrestrained management is a far greater danger to markets and American capitalism as a whole than unrestrained labor ever has been.
Workers today should be scared, however, not complacent. They would do well to remember what labor conditions were like not so long ago – its been barely 80 years since the first elements of the New Deal were enacted into law. They should read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road”, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”.
Middle class Americans should read Lorena Hickok’s reports to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration from 1933, when she toured the South and Mid-West and described the hopeless living conditions of America’s “Siberia”, where livestock froze to death for lack of shelter and mothers fed their children soup made from tumbleweeds for lack of money to buy anything else. One can argue that this was a byproduct of the Great Depression, not characteristic of America then or since; but this would be false. Historian James Patterson reveals the endemic conditions of “old poverty” in America before the first hint of the Depression was felt:
“By his estimate, even in the midst of the storied prosperity of the 1920’s some forty million Americans (out of approximately 120 millions), including virtually all non-whites, most of the elderly, and much of the rural population, were eking out unrelievedly precarious lives that were scarcely visible and practically unimaginable to their more financially secure countrymen.
“‘The researches we have made into standards of living of the American family,” wrote Harry Hopkins, “have uncovered for the public gaze a volume of chronic poverty, unsuspected except by a few students and by those who have always experienced it.'”
The annualized rate of unemployment in American heavy industry during the “Coolidge prosperity” exceeded 10 percent. It has been suggested that the main differentiation at that time between “middle” and “working” classes was the recurrent interruption in employment. A working class laborer might earn as much as his middle class colleague during the good times, but the complete absence of job security and social safety net, combined with the yearly fluctuations of markets, ensured that this group of workers could expect to be laid off multiple times a year (which, even with the frequency of rehire, made family and financial planning an impossibility).
Americans are not so very far from those same conditions today. While I am by no means suggesting that the Great Recession has brought us back to 1930’s levels of precariousness, the statistics point to a strong correlation between the decline in labor force participation in unions and the steady but remorseless erosion of lower- and middle class incomes and social mobility. We are not yet back to the Age of the Robber Barons, but its faint outlines can be traced.
In the midst of economic uncertainty and the competition of scarce jobs, it is easy to forget the hard won lessons of history. Easier to look at another worker as a competitor for your job rather than as someone’s son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother: out to make a decent living just like you. Easier to listen to the endless repetition through every type of media that unions are bad and the death of capitalism: but who owns the media? And do they share your interests? That is unlikely to be the case, unless you are reading this from Beverly Hills.
But aren’t unions the harbingers of communism and the whelps of Satan? No less an authority than America’s greatest Republican said:
“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.”
– Abraham Lincoln
As you fire up the grill today, pause for a moment and remember: you have this holiday to spend with your family only because organized labor bled for it. So enjoy your Labor Day, a well-deserved rest before returning to work; and think more kindly on those, like you, who struggle to earn a decent wage and make a decent future for themselves and their children.
God bless you all!