Monday, September 7, 2009

The Dignity of Labor

Dignity of labor: a phrase of little meaning in this country today. Labor Day means the end of summer, the beginning of school, good day for baseball, excuse for a picnic or day at the beach. A holiday disconnected from its roots. Sorta like the Geneva Accords on Treatment of POWs became "quaint" in the age of Bush, so has the phrase "the dignity of labor." Indeed, I put it to you, what is dignified about the treatment or condition of labor in this country? It's sobering to think about how much blood was spilled so workers could even earn the right to organize. Not until the New Deal was this right guaranteed by law. The preceding 70 years had been marked by horrific violence on both sides, worse than any other place on the globe. But the fact remains that rivers of blood were the price workers paid for the right to form unions. The violence done against them far outweighed the violence the unions did trying to enforce their strikes.

The United States has had the bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world. Labor violence was not confined to certain industries, geographic areas, or specific groups in the labor force, although it has been more frequent in some industries than in others. There have been few sections and scarcely any industries in which violence has not erupted at some time, and even more serious confrontations have on occasion followed. Native and foreign workers, whites and blacks have at times sought to prevent strike replacements from taking their jobs, and at other times have themselves been the object of attack. With few exceptions, labor violence in the United States arose in specific situations, usually during a labor dispute. The precipitating causes have been attempts by pickets and sympathizers to prevent a plant on strike from being reopened with strikebreakers,1 or attempts of company guards, police, or even by National Guardsmen to prevent such interference. . . . [But t]he most virulent form of industrial violence occurred in situations in which efforts were made to destroy a functioning union or to deny to a union recognition.

There's little doubt that over the long haul, management has triumphed anyway. From a high of about 36 percent of the workforce right after WWII, corporate capitalism has succeeded in squelching membership in unions to a little over 12 percent of the workforce. (Actually, in a strange twist, last year actually witnessed a slight bump in union membership as a percentage of the workforce.) For anybody paying attention, it will certainly come as no surprise to learn that in the South and Southwest union membership is below the national average. Nor that labor has paid a far disproportionate share of the cost of bailing out profligate corporate management over the past few years. It's on the back of workers that the richest sit to drink their champagne.

None of this is new, at least not to me. When I was growing up, in the heart of a Republican, business-oriented family, I heard nothing, nada, good about unions. Same as now here in the heart of darkest Oklahoma. Indeed, from this you would conclude that belonging to a union is about like contracting the plague and defending the rights of labor akin to advocacy of mass murder. Happy Labor Day, everybody.
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